What Are Those Solid-Looking Wheels Track Cyclists Use?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Aug. 7 2012 6:00 PM

It’s the Wheel Thing

What are those solid-looking wheels track cyclists use? Why don’t all cyclists use them?

Laura Trott of Great Britain celebrates winning the Gold medal in the Women's Omnium Track Cycling 500m.
Laura Trott of Great Britain celebrates winning the gold medal on her "disc wheel" track bicycle.

Phil Walter/Getty Images.

Great Britain sprinted its way to a fifth gold medal in track cycling last night, a success that led French team director Isabelle Gautheron to wonder aloud whether the team was using “magic wheels.” Track cyclists do use unusual wheels, often riding a spoke wheel in the front and the more unusual disc wheel in the back. Why do track cyclists use disc wheels while other kinds of cyclists don’t?

Forrest Wickman Forrest Wickman

Forrest Wickman is a Slate staff writer. 

Because they’re more aerodynamic, though they have lots of disadvantages. Different cycling events call for different kinds of wheels. Disc wheels don’t encounter the air resistance that spokes do, but they’re also heavier, less maneuverable, and can be blown around—or even right out from under you—in a strong crosswind. An indoor track, where races tend to be short and flat and require less turning, is a great place for disc wheels. Spoke wheels, because they are lighter, more maneuverable, better at climbing, and aren’t so easily caught by crosswinds, are ideal for outdoor races that are curvy, hilly, or long. That’s why you don’t see disc wheels in the mountains of the Tour de France.

Some cyclists seek the best of both wheels by using a spoke wheel on the front, because it does the turning, and a disc wheel on the back—especially if there is only moderate wind or slow curves. Other cyclists may use styles of wheels that fall somewhere in between: carbon wheels that have only three or four spokes. These wheels offer some of the advantages of each type, being more aerodynamic than spoke wheels and lighter than disc wheels, with handling somewhere in between. Using disc wheels in front and back is fairly rare.


The International Cycling Union (or UCI, after its French name Union Cycliste Internationale), which governs worldwide cycling events including the Olympics (alongside the International Olympics Committee), does not allow cyclists to add any device to their bicycles whose sole purpose is reducing wind resistance. Wheel covers, which can be added to spoke wheels to make them perform like disc wheels, are prohibited for this reason. This rule does not apply to actual disc wheels, however, since they also serve to propel the bike. This distinction frustrates some cyclists who prefer wheel covers because they are cheaper than buying a new set of wheels. Additionally, some prefer wheel covers because they are compatible with power meters, which some cyclists use to pace themselves. Power meters don’t work with disc wheels.

UCI rules require spoke wheels for any mass start event on the road (a race in which a bunch of cyclists all start in the same place) because they’re safer. This is because spoke wheels allow for easier recovery if cyclists bump into each other; with disc wheels, even small jostling motions tend to get magnified and may cause a cyclist to fall over. At the Tour de France, for example, disc wheels are allowed for time trials, and some cyclists use them when conditions are favorable, but they are not allowed for the mass start.

Olympic cycling teams take technological advances very seriously—one cycling medalist reportedly rode without clothes in a wind tunnel to help design more-aerodynamic uniforms—and some teams can be highly secretive about their equipment. After taking home eight gold medals in Beijing, the performance director of the British team said they shredded their uniforms rather than risking the chance that their competitors might get hold of their secrets.

Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Shawn Farrell of USA Cycling.

Read the rest of Slate’s coverage of the London Olympics.



Talking White

Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.

Hong Kong’s Protesters Are Ridiculously Polite. That’s What Scares Beijing So Much.

The One Fact About Ebola That Should Calm You: It Spreads Slowly

Operation Backbone

How White Boy Rick, a legendary Detroit cocaine dealer, helped the FBI uncover brazen police corruption.

A Jaw-Dropping Political Ad Aimed at Young Women, Apparently

The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 4:05 PM Today in GOP Outreach to Women: You Broads Like Wedding Dresses, Right?

How Even an Old Hipster Can Age Gracefully

On their new albums, Leonard Cohen, Robert Plant, and Loudon Wainwright III show three ways.

How Tattoo Parlors Became the Barber Shops of Hipster Neighborhoods

This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century

Oct. 1 2014 8:34 AM This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century To undertake a massively ambitious energy project, you don’t need the government anymore.
  News & Politics
Oct. 1 2014 7:26 PM Talking White Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.
Buy a Small Business
Oct. 1 2014 11:48 PM Inking the Deal Why tattoo parlors are a great small-business bet.
Oct. 1 2014 6:02 PM Facebook Relaxes Its “Real Name” Policy; Drag Queens Celebrate
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 5:11 PM Celebrity Feminist Identification Has Reached Peak Meaninglessness
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 1 2014 3:24 PM Revelry (and Business) at Mohonk Photos and highlights from Slate’s annual retreat.
Brow Beat
Oct. 1 2014 9:39 PM Tom Cruise Dies Over and Over Again in This Edge of Tomorrow Supercut
Future Tense
Oct. 1 2014 6:59 PM EU’s Next Digital Commissioner Thinks Keeping Nude Celeb Photos in the Cloud Is “Stupid”
  Health & Science
Oct. 1 2014 4:03 PM Does the Earth Really Have a “Hum”? Yes, but probably not the one you’re thinking.
Sports Nut
Oct. 1 2014 5:19 PM Bunt-a-Palooza! How bad was the Kansas City Royals’ bunt-all-the-time strategy in the American League wild-card game?