A newbies guide to cycling disciplines

Getting into cycling can be like trying to get to Mars: exhilarating, exciting and very confusing. The sport can feel pretty alien to new riders, with multiple different planets (disciplines) filled with their own nuances, specialities and jargon. I remember myself being thoroughly confused when I started out. However, in the many years I’ve been riding, I have in one way or another sampled almost all cycling disciplines. Here is a newbies guide to cycling disciplines, from my experience.

The Olympic Formats:

Cycling is featured in the Olympics and Paralympics in multiple disciplines: Road, Track, Cross-Country Olympic and BMX. We will start with these disciplines and move to other cycling disciplines. This article could be a thesis, but I’ll try and keep it to the point!

Road Cycling

What it looks like: people in lycra on skinny-tyres bikes with curly (drop) handlebars.

Examples: This is the OG of cycling and the one people most easily conjured up when thinking ‘cycling’. An example is the Tour De France, which is a multi-day stage race, but road cycling racing also features one-day races, criterium races (races on a short circuit usually <1hr in duration) and Time Trials (think the guys on the spooky-looking speedy bikes with crazy helmets racing solo ‘against the clock’).

What you need: To get into road cycling you need a road bike and helmet, some clipless pedals and shoes can’t go too wrong either!

Cross Country Olympic

What it looks like: People in lycra on lightweight mountain bikes with knobby tyres, riding in a mass-start event completing multiple 4-5km laps with steep climbs and descents for a total race time of around 80 minutes.

Examples: The World Cup XCO is the best place to catch up with the speediest of XC riders and is available to stream online for free! You will also see it happening as grassroots to national level racing at a trail near you!

What you need: To get started in XCO, you need a mountain bike. It’s adequate to start off with a reliable hardtail (after all, many of the pros still use hardtails!) and a helmet. It’s worthwhile riding with full-fingered gloves, however most XCO riders wear lycra without additional knee/elbow pads. But you do you!

Track Cycling

What it looks like: People exclusively in skinsuits and special Daft-Punk style helmets riding at warp speed in circles inside a velodrome, but only turning left.

Examples: Track is great to watch, but exists solely as a competitive sport. You might have seen it before at the Olympics and World Champs! Track has multiple disciplines, which can be divided into track sprint and track endurance. Sprint events include the Sprint, Team Sprint, and Kieren, and endurance events include the Individual Pursuit, Points Race, Elimination and Scratch races. That’s a lot of events and this list is NOT exhaustive!

What you need: To get involved in track cycling you will need a track bike (like a road bike with one fixed gear and no brakes!), helmet, shoes and access to a velodrome.


What it looks like: BMX or ‘bicycle motocross’, think tiny-wheeled bikes aka 1983’s ‘BMX Bandits’ (ft. Our very own Nicole Kidman).

Examples: The kids riding around your suburb to the milk bar probably ride BMX’s, but BMX racing has more in common with motocross than most other cycling disciplines! Riders wear baggy full length attire and full-face helmets, and start in a line behind a gate. They race into the course which will feature jumps and turns, with the hope they can be the fastest/not crash. Freestyle BMX uses similar bikes to do cool stunts in skate bowls.

What you need: A BMX is a single-geared bike. So unlike a track bike which has a fixed gear, you can freewheel. They are not overly versatile beyond the BMX track and pump track and maybe going to 7/11 for slurpees.

A brief introduction to (Some of) The Other Disciplines

Not quite a road bike, not quite a mountain bike, the cyclocross bike looks like a road bike with knobby tyres on it. This confused machine is raced for around an hour duration, on an off-road course that should be around 3m wide the whole way. It’s a mass start event started in Europe by people who wanted to continue racing in winter. The sloppier and muddier the better. Oh, and this sport also includes hopping off your bike and running over barriers or up stairs. Could be a road discipline, could be a mountain bike discipline, could be a running discipline. Who knows? Cyclocross certainly doesn’t.


A gravel bike looks a lot like a cyclocross bike, but with more durable rubber and slightly more relaxed geometry. Gravel bikes are all about epic, multi-terrain adventures to go to more places than the bitumen. Gravel events are typically ultra-endurance 4+ hour affairs and can be multi-day events.

Bike Packing

Bike packing can be a competitive or non-competitive discipline. It involves taking the bike of your choice (usually cross-country mountain bike or gravel bike) for a very long ride, over multiple days while carrying everything you need with you.

Cross Country Marathon

Similar to XCO, this discipline is 4+ hour and features much more variety of terrain. Think single track, long stretches of fireroad and long climbs.

Cross Country Short Track

If criterium racing and XCO had a baby it would be XCC. AKA: Short track, it’s a mass start event on XC bikes for around 20-30minutes on a largely open course with a few technical features.


Downhill is another race against the clock on a mountain bike with huge amounts of travel. The sole purpose is to ride big gnarly bikes fast. Think full-face helmets, super gnarly terrain and big jumps.

Gravity Enduro

Gravity Enduro has become increasingly popular in recent years, and the discipline sees riders riding to the top of a downhill section, before racing the clock on the descent, then doing it again. Riders will race multiple stages in a race, and while the climbs aren’t timed, they have a time limit meaning that bikes have to be capable of climbing (sorry Downhill bikes, you can sit this one out!).

Whatever you choose, its all good! Cycling comes in many shapes and sizes and sometimes it may even take a few different goes of different disciplines to find our happy spot on two wheels.

Written by Anna Beck, Head Coach at Grit Coaching.

Follow Anna on Instagram @ab_needs_coffee

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