Katie Archibald, victorious in the inaugural Track Champions League

‘It’s nice that someone gave a shit’: The mission to save track cycling

The Track Champions League format is the latest gambit to revitalise the discipline, but will it work?

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Katie Archibald and Gavin Hoover are sat next to each other in the East London Olympic velodrome. They say hello, obviously knowing who each other is, but they’ve never actually met in person before.

Hoover tells Archibald over the noise of the track that he has previously met her brother Jon, a fellow professional, when he was out with ‘Landy’, as the subtitle to help us understand their muffled chat reads.

Who is this mysterious Landy character? An emerging track talent the wider cycling world is yet to meet? A non-racing friend who’s a good laugh on a night out? Neither. In fact, Hoover is referring to Ashton Lambie, a track world champion and the first rider to ever go sub-four minutes in the individual pursuit.

Fair enough, the person who cut the new six-part ‘Back on Track’ series chronicling the first UCI Track Champions League, designed to bring the discipline into this bright new modern era of sports documentary, is not likely to be a cycling fan who has ever heard of Lambie and his moustache. Yet between the suits at the UCI and broadcaster Discovery Sports Events, you would hope at least one person would have clocked this glaring error before showing the finished product to a room full of journalists and VIPs at the series’ launch.

The mild blunder perfectly encapsulates the uphill battle that currently faces track cycling, the obscure brother of road racing, the less cool sister of any of the cycling disciplines conducted off-road. With the series being released episode-by-episode, let’s hope they can rush the final one back to the edit suite to fix the lone splinter on these otherwise polished, pristine and streamable boards.

There is, however, a lot to be celebrated about the UCI Track Champions League. In the documentary, Katie Archibald recalls the first rider meeting before the opening round in Mallorca, how the group was told of the grand plans to transform their discipline, to make stars out of the participants, how athlete feedback and satisfaction would be central and paramount to the success of the enterprise. “It’s really nice that someone gave a shit about track cycling,” Archibald says, teary-eyed at the end of the final episode.

The question of whether track cycling even needs saving is answered here by Archibald. The sport will, of course, survive regardless of this latest innovation but for the riders who put in the hours to make it onto the boards, a move away from obscurity would be a just reward for their continued effort.

“I would have loved it,” Chris Hoy says at the press launch for the Back on Track. “Because you fell in love with the sport as a kid, you want to tell the world about it.”

“Back in the day when I first started competing for Britain, technically I was a professional cyclist,” he continued. “You’d be in a taxi and the driver would ask: ‘So what do you do then?’ ‘I’m a professional cyclist’ and they go, ‘alright, like a courier?'”

“People hadn’t heard of it. And the Olympics and the Tour de France in Britain have really elevated the sport. But there are lots of other countries around the world that have absolutely no idea what track cycling is.”

“‘The world wants to hear about us? But we’re just track cyclists,'” Hoy recalls as the initial reaction to the series from those who now star in it.

“Historically, there’s been so little interest outside of the Olympic Games…that I think they’ll feel like ambassadors for their sport, we’re in this together to show the world how great track cycling is. We’re all pushing in the same direction.”

That much is true. With a whole host of the discipline’s top riders signed up for the first edition of the Track Champions League, the broadcasters also bought in. Through the Discovery+ network alone 149 million viewers were reached, while 26 further broadcast partners, the majority of whom broadcasted each three-hour event live, helped reach 206 countries across five continents. Those numbers don’t lie. The investment here is serious.

The first edition received 3,708 advert slots to maximise awareness and the subsequent documentary series will be promoted heavily during the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France. Then, linear broadcast (‘real’ TV as opposed to streaming apps) will extend the reach even further in order to build up to the 2022 Track Champions League.

There is a tangible plan in place beyond the usual buzzwords of ‘authenticity’ and ‘storytelling’ used to describe what will set this series apart from the quickly-flooding market of streamable sport soap operas. It’s not just a load of hot air, regardless of whether the trophy riders are competing for closely resembles one of those Dyson tower fans.

Gavin Hoover celebrates after solving all of his air conditioning needs

Only in hindsight, a few years down the line, will we know whether the project will have paid off. For now, the question of what has led to this imbalance of attention between track and road is a pertinent one worth exploring once again.

“That is really a good question, I would like to ask you the same,” Lithuania’s Olivija Baleišytė says in response.

“Because I was always thinking why does road cycling have such a big impression, on TV and everything, and why is track so low down? And especially when track cycling is more intensive, faster. You don’t need to watch four hours, five hours, it’s one or two hours and it’s the most mind-blowing thing. I think what we are doing now will boost track cycling way up.”

“I think maybe it’s because some people, maybe even some of my friends don’t understand what I’m doing on the track. They don’t really know how the disciplines work, or what we are doing,” Emma Hinze adds. “So I think it’s a good thing that they describe before the goal of it and how it works.”

The Track Champions League format simplifies track cycling into sprint and endurance categories, doing away with some of the more complex and renowned races in order to not scare away new fans dipping their toes in. The riders are happy with the competition’s composition, their only minor complaint is that races come so thick and fast that the capacity for fast recovery is now an even more envious ability to possess.

The question has been turned back around to the non-athletes. What is the reason for the imbalance? What may hold this new format and accompanying docu-series back from being a smash hit that transforms the discipline?

Well, seeing as they asked. First, let’s take Formula 1 and Netflix’s Drive To Survive, which has successfully rejuvenated a sport past the wildest dreams of any of the stakeholders. The rivalries, jealousy and spats are ready-made for television. The glitz and the glam of globetrotting millionaires combined with the steeped history of the sole World Championship competition give the all-or-nothing mentality that drives the competitors to the very limit in search of victory. Similarly, the Tour de France, which will be getting its own Netflix series, has the undercurrent of subterfuge provided by its rich and controversial history. A canvas of stunning vistas to set the athletic competition against, the sheer magnitude of the physical undertaking of a Grand Tour awe-inspiring.

With track, it’s always inside in a velodrome that is always the same shape. In Back On Track the vast majority of athletes seem like nice, well-adjusted humans – which isn’t always the case in road racing. The competition, while grand compared to any non-world, continental or Olympic championships that have come before, is only just beginning. The struggle is to create a competition that lasts long enough for the lore to emerge, for people to become invested in giving a damn who the Track Champions League winners are.

It’s a bold move, airing these opinions while looking Chris Hoy, six-time Olympic champion, in the eye, but we both have our opinions, best to lay them out in the open.

“Personally, I don’t think so,” Hoy responds. “I think velodromes are a spectacular venue for racing. But really, we could be talking about fly fishing. It’s the personalities that are the centre of everything here. Obviously, I’m passionate about track cycling, but this is what will draw new fans into the sport, it’s the people that are watching Formula 1 now, a lot of them didn’t really care about motorsport at all.”

“I personally disagree because I think there are been some great shots in there. It’s not just the velodrome, the drone shots in Port Glasgow and then in Holland with all the windmills.”

“Without being cynical, what’s the difference between two football pitches?” chimes in Giles Peruzzi, the UCI’s Head of Track Cycling, taking the place of David Lappartient who’s had to run off to fight some cycling-related fire somewhere.

Out of touch men in suits aside, the passion of the competing riders, famous flagbearers such as Hoy, and backing from governing bodies and TV networks mean the Track Champions League is as good a shot at revitalising this sport as you could think up. The last scene of the series shows Emma Hinze and Lea Friedrich sat at a cafe in Mallorca when someone comes up to ask them for a photo. Taken aback, they ask why. Well, they were competing in the Track Champions League just the other day, of course. If everyone keeps pushing in the same direction, this whole thing might just work.

The first episode of Back On Track will be broadcast on Eurosport Player and GCN+ on April 4 (available later on discovery+), with new episodes released on a weekly basis therein.

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