Track cycling events, explained
Looking for a guide to the track events at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics? Please follow the link. The article below is now out of date and doesn’t reflect some recent changes to Olympic event inclusions and the rules that govern track cycling.
Just three months after the Olympic Games in Rio de Janiero, the 2016-17 Tissot UCI Track World Cup series kicks off on November 4 in Glasgow, Scotland.
Three more World Cup events follow, in Apeldoorn, Netherlands, (November 11-13); Cali, Colombia (February 17-19); and Los Angeles, California (February 25-26). The international track season concludes with the 2017 UCI World Track Championships, held in Hong Kong, China, from April 12-16.
In the time between the Rio Games and the commencement of the 2017-17 World Cup series, the UCI Track Commission implemented several changes, made to improve the “competition narrative” and create more spectator-friendly racing.
Those changes impact the Madison, Omnium, Sprint, Kilometre and 500 metre Time Trial, Keirin, Team Pursuit, and Team Sprint — almost every event.
Here, we offer an explanation of what each track cycling event involves, and how it will be impacted by these changes.
Video: 2016/17 Tissot UCI Track World Cup Teaser
First, the basics: Track cycling events are split into two categories, sprint events and endurance events.
Sprint events require short explosive efforts, and are often very tactical, requiring a heavy focus on positioning. They tend to be contested by larger, muscular riders.
Endurance events are longer and require sustained hard efforts. Riders that race on both the road and track — such as Bradley Wiggins, Mark Cavendish, Elia Viviani, and Jack Bobridge — are usually more suited to endurance events.
Sprint (part of the Olympic programme)
Also known as the “match sprint,” the sprint is a one-vs-one format with two riders starting at the same point on the track. While the race is for 750 metres, only the final 200 metres are timed. Early laps are usually raced at low speed, with riders sometimes coming to a complete stop as they battle one another for position, trying to force their opponent to the front. The first rider across the finish line wins.
The sprint competition begins with a 200m flying start time trial to seed the riders for the knockout stages of three-lap races. The best two riders fight it out in the final. Sometimes riders will come to a standstill in an effort to make their opponent take the lead, which is the least advantageous position before the final sprint to the finish line. The race often comes down to the last 50mm but you may see some riders choosing to go early.
The new-in-2016 sprint format allows more riders to participate (28 instead of 24), and a slightly shorter tournament with the four athletes clocking the best qualifying times skipping the 1/16 finals and going straight to the 1/8 finals. The 1/16 rounds are straight knock-outs with the later quarterfinals, semifinals, and finals being decided over the best of three rides.
Men’s world record: 9.347 (Francois Pervis, Aguascalientes, Mexico, 2013)
Women’s world record: 10.384 (Kristina Vogel, Aguascalientes, Mexico, 2013)
Video: Women’s Sprint Final, 2014 UCI Track Cycling World Championships
Team sprint (part of the Olympic programme)
The team sprint is not a conventional sprint event — it’s closer in nature to a team time trial. The men’s race features three-rider teams and is contested over three laps, while the women’s event features two-rider teams and is raced over two laps.
Each race sees one team pitted against another, with one team on each side of the track. Each rider sits on the front for one lap before peeling off, leaving the team with one less rider after every lap. Therefore the team rider picked to finish last typically has the best endurance. The team to complete the required number of laps first is the winner.
All teams will post a time in the qualifying round with the top eight going through to the first round, where they will be drawn against each other based upon seeding (ie, first against eighth, second versus seventh etc.). The winners of the four heats advance to the medal round, with the two fastest teams competing in the gold-medal final and the two slowest teams racing for bronze.
While sheer speed is vital, technique is also key in this event as riders must get off the line quickly from a standing start, get rapidly into a tight and efficient formation, and race as close together as possible to maximise drafting. Each rider completes one lap at the front and only one rider from the team must complete the race so each rider can hold nothing back on their turn. No energy can be wasted and changeovers are closely scrutinised by the commissaires, so the margin for error is tiny.
Following the 2016 Olympics, a first round was added to the team sprint to bring it in line with the format of the Olympic Games, and similar to the current team pursuit format.
Men’s world record: 41.871 (Germany, Aguascalientes, Mexico, 2013)
Women’s world record: 31.928 (China, Olympic Games, Brazil, 2016)
Video: Men’s Team Sprint Final, 2015 UCI Track Cycling World Championships
Keirin (part of the Olympic programme)
A popular gambling sport that originated in Japan, the keirin is one of the most recognisable track events. Between three and seven riders compete in a sprint race of 600-700 metres after having followed in the slipstream of a pacing motorbike (derny) for the first 1,400 m. The motorbike gradually increases in speed from 30 to 50kph for the men, and from 25 to 45kph for the women before peeling off and letting the sprinters battle it out.
Positioning behind the derny is paramount as riders will jostle each other out of position to gain an advantage over their rivals as the derny speed increases. Riders draw their starting position by lots and have to keep that position behind the derny for at least one lap. With three laps remaining the derny leaves the track and the sprint is on. Hitting finishing speeds of up to 70kph (43mph), riders fight to be the first across the line.
The keirin is contested in rounds, with riders who narrowly miss out on qualifying from the first round having a chance to progress to the second round through the repechage rounds. The first three riders across the line in each of the two second round races will go through to contest the final with the remaining riders competing for 7-12 places.
The men’s Keirin was first introduced to the Olympics in Sydney in 2000, with London 2012 seeing the introduction of a women’s Keirin for the first time.
In 2016, the UCI increased the sprint distance from two-and-a-half laps to three laps to make the race more tactical; rules about overtaking the pacer were also clarified.
Video: Women’s Keirin Final, 2014 UCI Track Cycling World Cup, London
Kilometre Time Trial (Men)/500m Time Trial (Women)
The men’s kilometre, and women’s 500m, are individual time trial sprints, from a standing start. The competitor with the fastest time is the winner. These events are not part of the Olympic programme.
In terms of length of time — and lactic acid build-up — it takes top men a bit longer than the fastest runners complete a 400m sprint, and it takes women a bit longer than the fastest women runners complete a 200m sprint.
The current men’s kilo record is 56.303 seconds, by François Pervis of France, recorded in December 2013. The women’s 500m record of 32.268 belongs to Mexico’s Jessica Salazar, set at the 2016 Pan American Championships in Aguascalientes, Mexico.
New in 2016 for the Kilometre and 500 metre Time Trial, two athletes will ride simultaneously on the track during morning qualifications, and finals will be held individually in the evening.
Men’s world record: 56.303 (François Pervis, Aguascalientes, Mexico, 2013)
Women’s world record: 32.268 (Jessica Salazar, Aguascalientes, Mexico, 2016)
Video: Francois Pervis, Men’s 1km Time Trial, 2013 UCI Track Cycling World Championships, Mexico
The ultimate head-to-head endurance event, the individual pursuit is the definitive test of staying power.Two riders start on opposite sides of the track and compete over 4 km (3 km for women). The winner is the rider who manages to catch his/her opponent or who records the fastest time. While an explosive start is helpful, the ability to ride at a consistently high speed is important – some riders may appear to be well up on their opponents, only to fade in the last kilometre.
The qualifying rounds will see each rider post a time with the fastest four progressing to the medal finals. In the finals the first rider to complete the distance wins, unless one rider catches the other, at which point the race is won and it’s game over.
The individual pursuit was once, but is no longer, part of the Olympic programme.
Men’s 4km world record: 4:10.534 (Jack Bobridge, Sydney, Australia, 2011)
Women’s 3km world record: 3:22.269 (Sarah Hammer, Aguascalientes, Mexico, 2010)
Video: Men’s Individual Pursuit Final Heat, 2014 UCI Track Cycling World Championships, Colombia
Team pursuit (part of the Olympic programme)
In the team pursuit, two teams of four riders start on opposite sides of the track, racing against each other to be the first to complete 4km. Riders follow each other in close formation, each taking turns on the front. When the lead rider has completed their turn they peel off the front, swing up the track and then rejoin the team at the rear.
The team’s time is taken from the third rider to cross the line, so it is common for one rider to take a longer “death pull” towards the end, burying themselves such that they cannot maintain the group pace afterwards. This allows the remaining three riders to recover briefly in their teammate’s slipstream before making a final acceleration towards the finish line. In the final, if one team catches the other then the race is won there and then.
At previous Olympic Games, the women’s team pursuit was contested over 3km by three riders, however beginning in 2016 the women’s event is on par with the men’s at 4km and with teams of four riders.
To make the team pursuit more compact, two teams now ride simultaneously on the track in the qualifying heats. The winners of the heats involving the top four qualifiers go through to the gold-medal final. The two places in the bronze-medal final are determined by the fastest first round times of the six remaining qualifiers; there are no longer finals for fifth and sixth places, or seventh and eighth places.
Men’s world record: 3:50.265 (Great Britain, Olympic Games, Brazil, 2016)
Women’s world record: 4:10.236 (Great Britain, Olympic Games, Brazil, 2016)
Video: Men’s Team Pursuit Final Heat, Great Britain vs. Australia, 2013 UCI World Track Championships, Mexico
The aim of the points race is to accumulate as many points as possible; points are scored during intermediate sprints, which occur every 10 laps. The first four riders across the line pick up five, three, two and one point respectively. Points can also be earned by taking a lap from the field, for which 20 points are gained. Riders are awarded double points in the final sprint after the full distance.
As in the scratch race, endurance riders will try to take laps, and sprinters will try to hold the race together to compete for sprint points. Riders need to race intelligently, as well as having stamina and sprinting power, to ensure they collect as many points as possible.
At the UCI World Championships, the distance is 40 km for men and 25 km for women.
The points race is used in the Olympic omnium, but there is no individual points race in the Olympic programme.
Video: Men’s Points Race Final, 2014 UCI World Track Championships, Colombia
Named after Madison Square Garden in New York City, where the event was first held — and alternatively called “Le Americaine” in French — the Madison is the most exciting, and also confusing, event in track cycling. Essentially, it’s a longer version of the points race, competed in pairs.
Two-man teams contest the mass-start event, which is typically 50-60 kilometres. (A 20km women’s Madison will be introduced for the 2016-17 season.) Only one rider from each team is allowed in the race at a given time. Teammates hand-sling one another in and out of the race; resting riders circle the top of the banking.
Points are awarded for sprints with the top four teams awarded five, three, two and one respectively. Points awarded in the last sprint after the full distance are doubled, as in the points race, and like in the points race, teams gaining a lap on the main bunch are awarded 20 points while teams losing a lap are deducted 20 points. The team finishing with the highest number of points wins.
The best Madison teams will have one rider with great endurance, capable of a long push to take a lap, and one who specialises in sprinting and can take sprint points or make a sudden explosive effort to make a break. As an example, Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish have been world champions in this event twice, in 2008 and again in 2016.
The Madison is a feature of six-day races, but it can also be a separate race, such as at World Cups and the World Championships. The Madison was a Summer Olympic event for men from 2000-2008, but was dropped ahead of the 2012 London Olympics.
Video: Men’s Madison, 2016 UCI World Track Championships, London
The scratch could be described a simple “first across the line” race. And while this may sound straightforward, between the start and final sprint for the finish, strategy and tactics play a major role.
This is a race for up to 24 individual riders over 15 km for men and 10 km for women. The first lap is neutralised. Within the bunch will be a mixture of endurance and sprint specialists. Endurance specialists will aim to lap the field in order to prevent the powerful sprinters from saving themselves for the end of the race where they will have the upper hand. Sprinters will try to save their energy until the very end of the race by sheltering in the bunch until a sprint finish, but they must be careful not to let anyone take a lap, or a sprint for the line will be futile.
The blend of skills and tactics employed make the scratch race one of the most exciting to watch.
The scratch race is used in the Olympic omnium, but there is no individual scratch race in the Olympic programme.
Video: Men’s Scratch Race, 2016 UCI World Track Championships, London
Omnium (part of the Olympic programme)
Ahead of the 2012 Games in London, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) made significant changes to the Olympic track program, removing events such as the individual pursuit, points race and the Madison. They were replaced with the Omnium, a multi-sport event featuring six track cycling different disciplines over two days.
Following the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro, the Omnium was again updated, with the new competition format being four bunch events (scratch, tempo race, elimination and points race) all held on the same day. Dropping the timed events means the Omnium is no longer a “combined event,” instead becoming a pure endurance event. The idea, the UCI said, is to bring “better balance” to the track programme.
The tempo race is a new addition to the Omnium and sees riders accumulate points by winning sprints or taking laps. With the exception of the first five laps, intermediate sprints occur every lap with the first rider in each sprint awarded one point. Riders can also gain four points for lapping the main field, and any rider caught by the main peloton must immediately leave the track, losing any points they have accrued in that event. Their ranking is determined by the number of riders remaining on the track at that moment.
- Scratch race: 15km for men, and 10km for women
- Tempo race: 7.5km for men and women. Riders accumulate points by winning sprints or taking laps.
- Elimination race: Every two laps the last rider across the line is eliminated until only the winner remains.
- Points race: 40km for men, 20km for women. Points awarded at intermediate sprints and by lapping the field.
The winner of each of the first three events – the scratch race, elimination race and tempo race – will be rewarded 40 points with second place receiving 38 points, third place 36 points and so on. The final event will be the points race with riders starting with the points they have accumulated from the first three events. Their total will then increase or decrease depending on their performance in the points race to decide the final positions.
The rider with the most points after completing all four disciplines is the winner. The winner of the Omnium tends not to be a specialist in any of these events, but rather a jack of all trades.
Video: Men’s Omnium, 2014 UCI Track Cycling World Cup, London