Essential guide to track cycling events: Olympic disciplines in depth

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

No brakes, no gears – track cycling is a discipline blessed with a beautiful simplicity. Or, is it?

Whilst the bikes might seem uncomplicated (until you’ve spent hours trackside debating gear inches), the competitions played out on the boards of a velodrome can be a bit more complicated than “first to the line wins.”

We’ve put together a guide to track racing, to help explain the various races you can expect to see at the 2020 Olympic games in Tokyo, plus an explainer to some of the non-Olympic races…

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

Olympic disciplines

Jump to:Team Pursuit | Omnium | Sprint | Team Sprint | Keirin | Madison

Team pursuit

The Olympic team pursuit sees four riders cover a distance of four kilometres (16 laps) riding as a cohesive unit to give each other shelter when they are not the rider on the front.

A team will pursue another team that starts on the opposite side of the track, except for qualifying rounds when a team rides alone to set a time. The race is between the two teams on the track, with the winning team being the one that posts the fastest time.

A team’s time is taken from the third rider across the finish line. It is common to see a team lose one rider before the end, typically the weakest rider who cannot maintain the speed, or the rider in ‘man one’ position who puts in extra effort at the start before fading at the finish.

Each team lines up side-by-side on the pursuit line in the home and back straights with ‘man one’ in the lowest position, just above the black pursuit line. It is their job to quickly get the team up to top speed, but steadily, allowing the three other riders to fall in line behind them. This generally takes around one-and-a-half laps of a 250m track.

track cycling events

Great Britain men’s team pursuit squad. Photo : Yuzuru SUNADA

Once a team is up to speed each rider will spend one or one-and-a-half laps on the front of the chain before swinging up the track in the banking, allowing their team mates to pass underneath them before dropping down the track and on to the wheel of the last rider. The best teams will maintain a consistent top speed as they make these changes and not allow for gaps to open up between the riders to ensure they gain maximum shelter. Riders can do shorter or longer turns – from half a lap to two laps – depending on whether or not they are starting to struggle or the strongest of the quartet.

If a team is caught by their opponents, they must not affect a change to allow the faster team to safely overtake them. In a medal race the race is over once one team passes their opponents, often referred to as ‘making the catch’. If both teams need to post a time for classification in a following round they both continue to cover the full four kilometres.

A pursuit bike is a standard frame typically ridden with front and rear discs (on an indoor velodrome) and tri bars. Gearing is typically between 104 -120 inches.

Omnium

track cycling events

Laura Trott won the Omnium in 2012 and 2016. Image: Andy Jones

The Omnium is a competition made up of aggregated results from a series of races.

The format was changed after the 2016 games, which means Tokyo 2020 will be the first time that the new format has been raced at the Olympics.

The new format sees the individual pursuit, 1km/500 time trial and flying lap dropped. The points race, elimination race, scratch race remain, and a tempo race has been added. All four disciplines are now endurance focused, and it all takes place over one day as opposed to the former two.

The winner in each race gets 40 points, with 38 for second, 36 for third – and so on. The points race comes last, and there’s double points for the final sprint.

Tempo race

This bunch race features a sprint on every lap after the first four – the first rider over the line wins a point, and any rider who laps the field gains 20. Losing a lap to the main field sees a rider lose 20 points. At the Olympics, the event is run over 10km for men and 7.5km for women.

Scratch race 

Seemingly, pure and simple – first rider over the line wins. Some riders may aim to break away and lap the field, whilst other will hold out for a sprint. The men race 15km and the women 10km.

Elimination race

Often called the “Devil Take the Hindmost”, or the Devil for short, in this race there is a sprint every two laps. The last rider over the line is eliminated.

Points race 

A long one – at the Olympics it’s 25km for men and 20km for women, but the distance varies at other events. Every ten laps, there is an intermediate sprint. The top four riders score points – 5 for the win, 3, 2, and 1. The last sprint is awarded double points. Lapping the field gains a rider 20 points.

Sprint

track cycling events

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.

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.

Keirin

The Olympic keirin heralds from Japan, where professional keirin racing is the equivalent of horse racing, drawing in huge crowds to gamble on the outcome.

The common misconception is that keirin means fight – actually it means ‘racing wheels’.

Although the length of Japanese keirin varies, in the Olympics the keirin is one for the sprinters.

 The riders line up side-by-side on the pursuit line and jump in behind the pacer’s bike, commonly called a derny, as it comes past. The riders’ starting position is determined by drawing lots beforehand. Position number one is at the bottom of the track and that rider should take the spot directly behind the pacer unless another rider beats them to it.

track cycling events

Image: Andy Jones

The riders will sometimes jockey for the position they want behind the pacer, and it’s common to see a few nudges between riders as they fight for the best wheel to follow. What they mustn’t do is pass the derny that slowly builds its speed (the pace bike rider judges the speed through his pedalling cadence) to 50kph for the men, 45kph for the women. 

With two-and-a-half laps to go the pacer swings down off the track and the sprint begins.

From here riders will use a variety of tactics; leading from the front, sitting in the wheels, or leaving it late with a burst of speed.

Sir Chris Hoy told us: “

Tactics will depend on the type of race it is. Sometimes it will be a flat out sprint for two and a half laps, while other times there’ll be a bit of hesitation, but no more than half a lap of waiting before the first rider will go for it.

“If you hit it the front hard, with a lap and a half to go, then not many folk will get round you. It’s about timing your attack correctly and holding on to the line. You have a plan A, and a plan B if they don’t work you ride on instinct and react to the situation around you.”

Madison

Mark Cavendish

Fernando Gaviria congratulates former Etixx-QuickStep teammate Mark Cavendish on his win in the Madison at the Track World Championships. Image: Sunada

A new addition to the Olympics for 2020, the Madison has long been considered 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.


Non-Olympic track events

Time trials (men 1km, women 500m)

track cycling events

The simplest, purest track race – which makes it all the more baffling why the UCI decided to eliminate it from the Olympic programme in 2016 when asked to drop an event to make way for BMX.

The time trials continue at 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.

Individual pursuit

track cycling events

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.

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