Essential guide to Olympic track cycling

Confused by the omnium? Bemused by the keirin? Here's Cycling Weekly's essential guide to track cycling disciplines

Track racing can seem confusing – particularly for fans just getting interested – so here’s Cycling Weekly‘s handy guide. If you have not paid attention to track racing before now, this is a perfect chance to get acquainted.

Read on to find out how each race works and what the peculiar rules are. Maybe we’ll even help you understand the omnium…

>>> Olympic cycling: Schedule, reports and latest info

Olympic disciplines

Team pursuit

Two teams of four riders start opposite each other on the track in a timed event over 4,000 metres for both men and women. Riders on a team share the pace-making before swinging up the banking and settling in at the back of the line.

The team’s time is taken on the third rider across the line. The fastest team wins. If one team catches another, they win. The winning team in each heat progresses to the next round.

>>> Read more about the Olympic team pursuit


The Omnium is a multi-discipline event introduced in the 2010 World Championships. The omnium consists of six disciplines: a 250-metre time flying lap time trial, a 40km points race (25km for women), a 4km pursuit (3km for women), a 15km scratch race (10km for women) and a kilometre time trial (500 metres for women) and an elimination race.

Riders are awarded points depending on their finishing position in the first five rounds, which they they take into the final points race.

During the points race, riders accrue more points – or drop points if they lose a lap. The omnium was introduced for the first time in an Olympic Games at London 2012.

>>> Read more about the Olympic omnium


Matches are contested between two riders who cover three laps of the track. The first rider over the line wins the race, best of three races wins the match. The top 16 riders qualify for the knockout stages with a flying 200-metre time trial.

Tactics play a huge part in the sprint racing. Track stands – where the riders come to a standstill in a bid to get their rival to the front to lead out the sprint – are common, as are sudden turns of speed.

>>> Read more about the Olympic track sprint

The match sprint is one rider against another, first person across the line wins

Team sprint

This used to be known as the Olympic Sprint before the name was changed to ease confusion. The team sprint sees a team of three riders race against each other over three laps of the track. The first rider gets the trio out of the start gate and up to speed before peeling off after a lap.

The leading rider must complete a lap and swing up in a designated zone 15 metres either side of the finish line. The second rider takes over the pace for the middle lap before the third rider finishes off.

The quickest team over the three laps wins. One false start is allowed but the team must get away cleanly at the second attempt. The women’s team sprint has pairs of competitors racing.

>>> Read more about the Olympic team sprint


This is the one with the motor bike – called a Derny – that paces a field of up to seven riders (though typically six in championship finals) round the track. The Derny leads the field for the first 1,400 metres taking the speed from 30 kilometres per hour up to 50 kilometres per hour (25kph to 40kph for women), before peeling off and leaving the riders to sprint it out.

No one is allowed to go in front of the Derny as the riders battle for position before the sprint starts in earnest. Keirin racing is very popular in Japan, as popular as horse racing in Britain.

>>> Read more about the Olympic keirin

Non-Olympic track events

Time trials (men 1km, women 500m)

The simplest, purest track race – which makes it all the more baffling why the UCI decided to eliminate it from the Olympic programme when asked to drop an event to make way for BMX.

The time trials continue as World Cup and World Championship events but with the sprinters focusing on the sprint and Keirin races – which are Olympic disciplines – instead, it’s lost its lustre. The riders start individually and the quickest rider over one kilometre (men) and 500 metres (women) is the winner.

Time Trial

Individual pursuit

The men race over 4,000 metres, women over 3,000. In qualifying each rider covers the distance alone and is timed – very much like a time trial. The best finishers are then seeded and take part in a knock-out for the medals, starting on opposite sides of the track.

The fastest two riders compete for gold, the third and fourth quickest go for bronze. If one rider catches an other, he or she automatically the winner, otherwise results are decided by times.

Individual pursuiters will have a coach track side, ‘walking the line’

Points race

This is a mass-start race. Qualifying tends to be over 15km, finals usually 30km or 40km. Intermediate sprints are held every ten laps, with five, three, two and one point on offer to the first four over the line.

If a rider laps the field he gains 20 points. The rider with the most points at the end of the race wins with the finishing sprint only counting if riders are tied on points. Speed, concentration, endurance and tactical sense are all important for a good points race rider.

Points race

Scratch race

Introduced to the World Cup and World Championship programmes in 2002, it’s not an Olympic race but it is an exciting, mass-start all-out race.

If no riders gain a lap during the race it comes down to a bunch sprint. The men race over 15km the women over 10km.

Scratch race


The most complex but absorbing race on the track. Named after Madison Square Garden in New York where it was first made popular. Teams of two riders compete together to score points at the intermediate sprints, held every 20 laps, (5pts, 3pts, 2pts, 1pt to the first four), and gain laps by attacking.

One member of each team is ‘in the race’ at any one time, while the other circles at the top of the banking. The riders switch over to give each other a rest – or perhaps to put the better sprinter in as a sprint lap approaches.

The rider must touch his team-mate to change over but usually this is done with a hand-sling to propel the other into the race. The team that covers the most laps wins, with points only counting to separate riders who finish on the same number of laps.

Madison: team-mates use a hand sling to change over