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Preview: Your guide to the cycling events at the Tokyo Paralympics

What you need to know about all the different disciplines, how the different paracycling classes work, and some of the riders to watch.

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With the Tokyo Olympics now complete, it’s time for the world’s best para-athletes to take centre stage. The Tokyo Paralympics are set to begin on Tuesday August 24 and will run through to Sunday September 5.

Here’s a guide to all of the cycling events you can expect to see at the Tokyo Paralympics.

The basics

Cycling joined the Paralympics back in Los Angeles in 1984 when the event was known as the ‘International Games for the Disabled’. In all there are 230 cyclists taking part in the Tokyo Paralympics; 150 male and 80 female.

There’ll be a grand total of 51 medal events held across road and track disciplines: 29 for men, 20 for women, and two contested by a mixed field.

The classifications

To understand the dizzying array of medal events at the Paralympics, you first need to understand paracycling classifications.

In paracycling, athletes are divided into ‘sport classes’ according to the type and severity of their impairment(s). You can see a detailed breakdown of applicable impairments on page 33 of this UCI document, but in essence, there are eight impairments that make an athlete eligible for paracycling:

  • Impaired muscle power (e.g. due to a spinal cord injury)
  • Impaired passive range of movement
  • Limb deficiency (e.g. one or more amputations)
  • Leg length difference
  • Hypertonia: an increase in muscle tension and the reduced ability of a muscle to stretch, caused by damage to the central nervous system (e.g. via cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injury, or a stroke)
  • Ataxia: uncoordinated movements caused by damage to the central nervous system (e.g. via cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injury, or a stroke)
  • Athetosis: Continual slow involuntary movements (e.g. via cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injury, or a stroke)
  • Vision impairment (reduced or no vision)

There are minimum impairment criteria that an athlete must reach in order to be eligible for paracycling classification, and standardised tests that officials use when classifying riders (see page 34 here for more info). Different levels of impairment correspond with different classes, with lower numbers indicating a greater level of impairment.

As you’ll see below, some classes race together while others have their own medal event.

Here are the cycling classes you’ll see in action in Tokyo:

H1-5

Division H events are contested by handcyclists. Lower numbers (e.g. H1 and H2) indicate athletes with restrictions to both upper and lower limbs, while higher numbers (e.g. H4 and H5) indicate restrictions to their upper limbs only.

Athletes in classes H1-4 race on recumbent (i.e. reclined) bikes while H5 athletes use bikes that facilitate a kneeling or sitting position.

T1-2

Division T races are contested by athletes who ride tricycles, due to reduced balance and/or a severe restriction that prevents them from riding a bicycle.

The T1 class is for athletes with more significant coordination impairments, while T2 athletes have less significant impairments.

C1-5

Division C athletes ride a standard bicycle, often modified to accomodate their impairment(s). For instance, an athlete with an arm impairment might use differently shaped handlebars.

Lower-numbered classes (e.g. C1-2) indicate a more severe limitation in lower and/or upper limbs.

B

Division B is for vision-impaired athletes who ride a tandem bike piloted by a sighted athlete. Tandem pilots must not be part of a UCI-registered team, and must not have been part of a WorldTeam or ProTeam for the past 12 months.

Road cycling events

Here’s the full list of road cycling medal events at the Tokyo Paralympics:

Asterisks denote “factored events”. See below for more.

Road races

All road races (except the mixed team relay) will take place on the same 13.2 km circuit that starts and finishes at the Fuji International Speedway. It’s a lumpy circuit, defined by a 3.5 km climb to the finish line.

The number of laps will vary between classes.

All road races will be held between Wednesday September 1 and Friday September 3.

Time trials

All classes will race on a lumpy 8 km time trial course within the Fuji International Speedway complex. As with the road races, the number of laps will depend on the class.

All time trials will be held on Tuesday August 31.

Team relay

The mixed team relay will be contested by teams of three handcyclists. Each rider will complete three laps of a flattish 2.8 km Fuji Speedway course, for a total of nine laps per team. Riders two and three may start their laps when the previous rider crosses the finish line.

Team composition is governed by a points system, with athletes allocated points based on their gender and impairment(s).

Each team of three must only have a maximum of nine points, and must include an athlete with a maximum score of two points. Here’s the course and profile for the mixed relay.

The mixed team relay will be held on Thursday September 2. Follow the link for a full schedule of the road cycling events at the Tokyo Paralympics.

Track cycling events

Here are all of the track cycling medal events that’ll be happening at the 250 metre-long Izu Velodrome.

As above, asterisks denote factored events.

Here’s a breakdown of the various disciplines and what they entail:

The ‘Kilo’

A 1 km (four-lap) time trial contested by Division B (vision-impaired) men and women, and Division C (standard bicycle) men. Division C women contest this discipline over 500 metres (two laps).

Pursuit

An individual pursuit, with two riders starting on opposites sides of the track. First across the finish line wins.

Division B men and C4-5 men and women race over 4,000 metres. C1-3 men and women, plus Division B women all race over 3,000 m.

Team sprint

Raced by mixed-gender teams of three Division C riders over three laps. After each lap, the lead rider peels off, allowing the remaining rider(s) to continue on to the line.

A team is allowed a maximum of 10 points when selecting its line-up, with riders allocated points according to their gender and impairment(s).

All track cycling events will be held from Wednesday August 25 to Saturday August 28. Follow the link for a full schedule.

Factored events

Factored events are those that include athletes from different classes and where riders’ times are scaled in order to take into account the severity of each competitor’s impairment(s). The goal is to ensure equity between classes.

Some athletes will have their result ‘factored’, while others will not. The gold medal in such events is handed to the rider with the fastest time after all times have been factored.

As an example, here are the factors that apply to Division C road cycling events (you can find tables for other divisions in section 16.1.005 of the UCI’s Paracycling regulations).

In the women’s C 1-2-3 time trial in Tokyo, for example, C3 women will get whatever time they cross the line in. C2 women will be given a time that’s 96.15% of their finishing time, and for C1 women that percentage is 92.45%. The rider with the lowest time after all these calculations will win gold.

One quirk of this system is that a rider can break a world record for their specific class, but not win the event. Note too that while some time trials are factored events, the equivalent road races are not.

This video shows a rider’s time being factored.

Talking points

  • Great Britain has topped the cycling medal tally at the last three Paralympics: Beijing (2008), London (2012), and Rio (2016). In Rio, Team GB won 12 gold in a total of 21 medals. Most of that success came on the track. Great Britain will be among the nations to beat in Tokyo too.
  • Among Britain’s star performers in Rio was Kadeena Cox, who won gold in two different sports: in the C4-5 cycling time trial and in the T38 400-metre sprint (athletics). She’ll be back in Tokyo.
  • Sarah Storey will be another rider to watch for Team GB in her eighth(!) Paralympics. The 43-year-old is one of the most decorated athletes in British history with 14 gold medals – five of them in the pool, and nine of them on the bike. She’s the defending Paralympic champ in the C5 individual pursuit, C5 time trial, and C4-5 road race.
  • Sixty-year-old Australian Carol Cooke heads to Tokyo as the defending Paralympic champion in the T1-2 time trial and road race. It’s her third Paralympics, having taken gold in the T1-2 mixed time trial in London. She’ll face stiff competition from the USA’s Jill Walsh, who beat Cooke in both the TT and road race at the 2018 Paracycling Worlds.
  • Italy led the medal tally at the 2021 Paracycling Road World Championships in June, ahead of the Netherlands and Great Britain.
  • Luca Mazzone is one of Italy’s paracycling stars, and a veteran of four previous Paralympics (three as a swimmer, one as a cyclist). In Rio, Mazzone won gold in the H2 time time trial and took silver in the road race, and helped Italy to gold in the team relay.
  • In road cycling events, athletes must wear a helmet or helmet cover of a specific colour to denote their class. For instance, C5 men/women wear red, C4 men and women wear white, and C3 men and women wear blue. This allows commissaires and the public to tell, at a glance, which class a rider belongs to – vital in combined-class races. You can find the full list of required colours in section 16.10.002 here.
  • In combined-class road races where all classes start together, pacing and drafting between classes is allowed.
  • For a bunch of videos showing paracycling events from years gone by (including the Rio Paralympics), check out this YouTube playlist.

When were the events again?

Time trials: Tuesday August 31
Road races: Wednesday September 1 to Friday September 3
Mixed team relay: Thursday September 2

Here’s the full schedule of all road events.

Track races: Wednesday August 25 to Saturday August 28 

And here’s the full schedule of all track events.

How you can watch the Paralympic cycling

In the US, you’ll be able to catch coverage of the Paralympics via NBC and its associated platforms. In the UK, Channel 4 will be the place to go. The Seven Network will have coverage through its platforms in Australia. In Canada, you’ll be able to catch coverage via the CBC.

Follow the link for a full list of Paralympic broadcast partners around the world.

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