The more established bike discipline of BMX has tracks with rhythm sections, rollers and jumps. And so does the newer discipline of Pumptrack. Yet, the tracks, as well as the bikes, are different for each.
So, what’s the difference between BMX tracks and pump tracks?
Pump tracks are basically smaller, tighter, looped BMX tracks. The obstacles on pump tracks are smaller but placed closer to each other, so the circuits can be ridden with pumping only. The wider BMX tracks require pedaling and feature seperated start and finish lines.
In other words, BMX is like a long rhythm section with start and finish apart from each other. Pedaling is a big part of BMX, where tracks are wider. Ironically, BMX bikes are smaller than Pumptrack bikes but are ridden on larger courses. Still, you can ride a BMX bike on a pump track and, vice versa, ride a Pumptrack bike on a BMX course. Read more on why special pumptrack bikes exist here.
Yet, the actual tracks differ quite a bit. This is why BMX and Pumptrack are distinct types of riding. Let’s go into the individual differences between them.
It all starts here – literally. BMX tracks usually have a big start ramp located much higher than the actual track to gain speed quickly before the first obstacles. The higher the ramp, the faster the speeds throughout the whole track.
In Pumptrack, starting positions are also elevated, but usually not much more than the highest track feature. Speed is generated by pumping the obstacles right at the start line. There is seldom time to get pedal strokes in. The initial speed after the start is relatively slow.
This difference out of the gate is necessary because of the vastly different track design. Bigger features require more speed to clear. Jumps in BMX can be downright massive, especially for bikes with no suspension. The timing of jumping is similar to Supercross, the stadium version of motocross.
In pumptrack, there is less jumping going on. For one because it’s not necessary due to smaller obstacles, and it’s mostly slower to go through the air over than to pump a feature.
The riding style is completely different in this regard, defined by the track.
This leads us to one of the major differences, the proximity of the obstacles to each other. In pumptrack, there is little room between rollers, jumps and berms. It’s not uncommon for the front wheel to transition out of a roller and into the next while the rear wheel is still on top of the last one.
This is a big reason why pumping the bicycle works to generate speed and momentum.
BMX tracks are more spaced out and there is often room to get pedal strokes in before and after big bowl turns or between obstacles. The whole track layout looks downright oversized compared to pump tracks.
Also due to the overall track width. It’s much wider in BMX so that multiple riders could ride side by side at the same time. Which is impossible to do on a pumptrack, which is only designed to be wide enough for one rider.
Everything we listed up until this point is dictating how to ride for recriation and how racing is done.
In BMX racing, there is a mass start of several riders next to each other. So fights for positions are possible. Whoever crosses the finish line first wins. It’s very much rider vs rider.
Not so in pumptrack, where it’s a race against the clock. There is only room for one rider in a lane at any one time. Some tracks with mirrored split lanes allow for knock-out racing at the same time, but riders are riding their own lane with no chance of contact.
With track size also come very different turn radii. It’s just not possible to have tight corners on a BMX track with multiple riders on at once. They need to be large, sweeping banked turns, usually, 180-degree ones connecting the rhythm lanes.
Not so in pumptrack, where tight corners are key to being able to pump through them. This can be done on 180-degree turns. But also sharp 90-degree berms and everything in between can be found. Sometimes slight bends can be jumped by transfer jumps in very creative lines.
Loop vs sprint track
Now, let’s get the most obvious out of the way: BMX tracks are sprint tracks while pump tracks are looped circuits.
Doing consecutive laps is one of the more unique characteristics of pumptrack.
And it’s only possible with specific pump tracks. All the track features mentioned here combine into a track design that allows continuous riding without even pedaling. The beginning part of the track can be ridden as fast, if not faster on the second lap than on the first.
Speed is built throughout in pumptrack while it’s maintained in BMX.
With all those characteristics in track design and layout comes an eventual difference in overall track length. Pump tracks tend to have a smaller overall footprint because length comes from connecting laps together. One single lap is not that long mostly.
While in BMX the total track is only ridden through once per start. It has to be long so you can ride for a decent amount of time. Both sports are sprint efforts though.
Another obvious but sometimes overlooked difference is the actual materials the tracks are made of. There are many options for each type of track, but there is only one common track surface for each:
Most BMX tracks are hard-packed dirt. Sometimes with fine gravel on top to help preserve it. Those kinds of tracks are difficult to maintain and protect against the elements and abuse from riding. Asphalt BMX tracks exist, but are rarer.
While asphalt tracks are the norm for pump tracks. This style is harder to build, especially DIY, but is particularly maintenance-free and a reason why municipalities are building these facilities so frequently. There’re also dirt pump tracks made out of hard clay, usually without gravel on top. Especially for one-off races, special race courses are built.
Mandatory vs optional jumps
Some BMX tracks, especially race courses, feature mandatory double jumps with unrideable gaps in between take-off and landing. Public tracks are not that demanding, but are certainly designed for some sections to be faster when jumped.
While pump tracks feature rollers that can be pumped or jumped as doubles, jumps are entirely optional. And often the fastest way is to pump through them and generate speed than to spend time in the air. Specifically designed as jumps are usually tabletop jumps, where rolling or accidental halfway jumping (casing) is still possible.
With the start ramp on one side of the track and the finish line on another, BMX tracks rarely are designed to be ridden in both directions. Rather, they’re usually one-way. This means obstacles can only be ridden with speed and flow in one direction but not the other.
Pump tracks on the other hand are designed fairly symetrically. So, while they normally have a preferred direction to go in (mainly to avoid collisions), they generally can be ridden in both directions. Jumps and combinations will vary, but this way variability is definitely built-in.