How Tom Pidcock narrowly qualified for Tokyo 2020 Olympics

The Brit very nearly missed out on his place, but took gold on his debut in the games

Tom Pidcock on the Olympic MTB race
Tom Pidcock on the Olympic MTB race
(Image credit: Tim de Waele/Getty Images)

Tom Pidcock is one of the early success stories in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, as the 21-year-old dominated the mountain bike event on his debut.

Pidcock’s emphatic victory off-road is the first cycling medal for Team GB and takes the British tally of golds to three after day three of the games.

But behind-the-scenes, Pidcock’s journey to Tokyo was turbulent to say the least, starting with the fortuitous series of events that led to the Yorkshireman qualifying for a spot in the games. 

Olympic MTB qualification system

The rules for qualification in Olympic cycling events are set by cycling’s national governing body the UCI and the International Olympic Committee. 

In the mountain bike event, 38 riders are allowed to compete in the men’s and women’s races, with a maximum of three riders per country. 

There are a total of 37 places available via the qualification system, with one spot saved for the host nation. Under the rules, the 21 highest-ranked nations in the UCI qualification ranking are able to compete in the Olympics, with the top-two teams earning three rider spots, while the third to seventh-place ranked nations get two riders, and the eighth to 21st ranked being allowed just one rider. 

Nations are ranked by a slightly complex system, which involves the three highest-placed athletes from each National Olympic Committee in the UCI’s cross country individual ranking. 

Heading into the games, for the men Great Britain were miles out of contention, languishing in 31st position in the Olympic ranking, just ahead of Kazakhstan and nowhere near the 21st position they would need to qualify one rider for Tokyo.

But there was another route into the games, which is where Pidcock’s chance emerged.

Tom Pidcock’s route to Tokyo 2020 

While Great Britain were not set to qualify a single rider for Tokyo 2020, there is one regulation that made all the difference.

Under the qualification system, the rules state that the two nations with the highest-placed under-23 riders will receive a place for the Olympic Games, but that only applies to nations that have not qualified by being in the top-21 countries in the qualification ranking. 

That means that Pidcock’s place in the Olympics actually dates back to the 2019 under-23 World Championships in Mont-Sainte-Anne, Canada and another British rider, Frazer Clacherty. 

In that race, won by Romania’s Vlad Dascalu, Clacherty finished 14th, 4-14 behind the victory. In that race, two riders finished ahead of Clacherty from nations that were outside the top-21 in the Olympic ranking - Romania and Chile - which meant Britain still didn’t have a place in Tokyo.

But that all changed in May, 2021 at the UCI World Cup round in Nove Mesto where Dascalu finished 17th. 

While Pidcock won that World Cup race, that still didn’t give GB enough points to qualify for Tokyo, but by sheer circumstance, Dascalu’s 17th-place finish actually bumped Romania up into the top-21 places in the Olympic ranking earning Dascalu a place, which meant they no longer needed a place through the under-23 ranking.

As Romania were removed from the under-23 qualification rule, Great Britain moved up into second in the under-23 ranking, which meant they now secured a single place in the games along with Chile. 

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This is the remarkable set of circumstances that gave Team GB a single spot in the Tokyo Olympics men’s MTB event, which selectors then gave to Tom Pidcock, in turn securing Britain the first gold medal in cycling of this year’s games.  

Alex Ballinger
Alex Ballinger

Alex is the digital news editor for CyclingWeekly.com. After gaining experience in local newsrooms, national newspapers and in digital journalism, Alex found his calling in cycling, first as a reporter and now as news editor responsible for Cycling Weekly's online news output.

Since pro cycling first captured his heart during the 2010 Tour de France (specifically the Contador-Schleck battle) and joining CW in 2018, Alex has covered three Tours de France, multiple editions of the Tour of Britain, and the World Championships, while both writing and video presenting for Cycling Weekly. He also specialises in fitness writing, often throwing himself into the deep end to help readers improve their own power numbers. 

Away from journalism, Alex is a national level time triallist, avid gamer, and can usually be found buried in an eclectic selection of books.