Track cycling is unlike any other discipline in bike racing. Taking place along a closed circuit within the confines of a velodrome, and with several unique events each tailored to different types of cycling skills and strengths, track cycling offers one of the most unique spectator experiences for bike racing fans. There are several marquee events in a typical season of track racing, including World Cups and the prestigious World Championships. But the crown jewel of any top track cyclist’s palmares is a top result at the biggest sporting competition on the planet that comes around once every four years (or, five years, in the case of 2021, due to a delay caused by the COVID-19 pandemic). This summer, the best track racers on the planet will descend upon Tokyo, Japan, to compete in a wide variety of events, and we wanted to bring fans up to speed on what to expect, what makes each event unique, and how the top athletes will strive for victory. Note that while many track competitions include other events (such as the individual pursuit and the time trial), this guide will focus on the track cycling disciplines that will specifically be featured during this summer’s biggest sporting competition in Tokyo.
The Team Pursuit is the ultimate test of teamwork, focus, and grit. Two teams of four riders compete head-to-head over a distance of four kilometers (16 laps of a velodrome). Each team starts on opposite sides of the track, utilizing a standing start method—which means each rider will need to use all of their strength to quickly get up to speed. Each team will then quickly merge into a paceline formation, with the riders settling into a single-file line. The teams will then chase, or “pursue,” one another, with each team rotating riders off the front to spread out the workload and maximize the complete team’s effort (just like in a paceline on a road ride). If one team successfully catches up to the other team in a race for a medal, then they are victorious and the race is over. If this happens during a classification round when all teams must post their fastest time to qualify or be seeded into subsequent rounds, then the rules dictate that the “caught” team must ensure that they do not impede the faster team in the safest manner possible.
More commonly, one team will not catch another, and the winning team is the one that posted the fastest time. It’s also important to know that a team’s official time is counted when the third rider of the team crosses the finish line. Because of this rule, it’s common to see teams employ a tactic of having one rider take a longer pull on the front to expend all of their energy and then safely and slowly move out of the way, so that their teammates can more efficiently complete the remaining laps. Because of the high speeds and aerodynamic efficiency required to post the fastest time possible, team pursuit squads will utilize aerodynamically-optimized bikes with aerobars and aggressive riding positions—such as the TA FRD ridden by the members of the USA Cycling track program.
The Sprint may very well be the purest form of bike racing. Two riders compete in a series of head-to-head races over three laps of the velodrome (also referred to as a “match”). The two riders start next to each other from a standing start. The first rider to cross the finish line wins the race, and the rider who wins the best of three races wins the match. Riders who qualify for this event are placed into a knockout format, with the winner of each match advancing to face a new opponent. As the name implies, the Sprint is a fast and furious test of a rider’s explosive power. But, tactics also come into play quite often. Spectators will often see one or both competitors ride slowly during the first lap or two in an attempt to conserve a bit of energy and force their opponent to make the first move, thereby “leading out” the sprint—which can often give an advantage to the other rider thanks to a slight aerodynamic draft. Because the Sprint demands explosive power and exceptional handling skills from the riders, bikes like the all-new TK FRD are optimal.
As its name implies, the Team Sprint is a variation on the Sprint event that showcases teams of three riders going head-to-head against one another. Each team begins from a standing start on opposite sides of the track, and they race for a distance of three laps. Once the race begins, a team’s three riders will quickly get into a paceline formation. The front rider will peel off after the first lap, then the remaining two riders will continue sprinting. At the end of the second lap, the lead rider will pull off, leaving the last remaining rider to complete the final lap. Whichever team’s last rider crosses the finish line first is the winner. At the highest levels of the Team Sprint competition, typical finishing times for a race are around 45 seconds, and riders will get up to speeds of around 40 mph / 64 kph. When it comes to the women’s competition for the Team Sprint, the format utilizes teams of two riders sprinting over two laps, instead of three riders over three laps for the men.
The Madison may very well be the most unique event in all of track cycling. Named for New York City’s Madison Square Garden arena where the event first gained popularity in the early days of track racing, the Madison is a complex team event that consists of two riders per team racing against several other teams at the same time, with each team attempting to score points at various points in the race. This summer’s competition in Tokyo will feature a women’s Madison event for the first time in the competition’s history. For the men’s event, the race is 50 kilometers long (200 laps of the velodrome), and the women’s is 30 kilometers (120 laps). Every 10 laps, teams will sprint to the finish line to accumulate points—5 points for the first team, 3 points for the second team, 2 points for the third team, and 1 point for the fourth team. Points awarded in the final sprint at the very end of the race are doubled. Teams can also earn a bonus 20 points if they lap the field and join the rear of the main pack of riders.
Only one member of each two-person team is active in the race at any given time. The other team member circles the track along the upper, or outer, section to rest between their sprints. When it comes time to swap places, team members must physically touch one another, which is most commonly done via a maneuver where the two riders will grasp hands and the active rider will “slingshot” the other rider forward to add a burst of acceleration. The team who completes the most laps is the winner, with the points standings deciding the winner if more than one team finishes the entire race without being lapped.
The Keirin event originated in Japan, where track cycling is incredibly popular. It’s a mass-start event that sees a group of six riders line up next to each other along the start line. Men’s events are contested over 8 total laps, while the women’s Keirin is contested over 6 total laps. The race kicks off when an official riding a pace bike (often a motorized scooter or electric bicycle) rides past the start line. The competitors will then launch from a standing start and settle into a paceline formation behind the official’s pace bike. The riders must stay behind the pace bike, which will gradually increase its speed up to around 45-50 kph. When there two and a half laps remaining in the race, the pace bike will peel off and out of the way, leaving the riders to sprint directly against one another towards the finish line. What makes the Keirin exciting is that sometimes there will be a full sprint between all the riders over those remaining two and a half laps, and sometimes there may be some tactics employed as riders may not wish to begin their sprints immediately, instead trying to coax their rivals into leading them out.
The Omnium is a competition for individual riders, and consists of a medley of four unique mass-start races. Riders receive points based on their results in each race, and the rider with the most cumulative points after all four racers is the winner. In each race, the winner receives 40 points, second place receives 38, third place receives 36, and so on. The entire Omnium competition will take place over the course of a day. Here are the four events that will make up the Omnium in Tokyo:
(Photos: Casey B. Gibson / @cbgphoto)
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