The UCI Track Champions League in London.

Reviewing the second UCI Track Champions League

Spoiler alert: It was damn good.

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I got a bit excited last night. Way more than I expected to.

Saturday saw the grand finale of the second ever UCI Track Champions League, bringing to a close two nights of intense racing at the Lee Valley velodrome in London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. And the organisers couldn’t have asked for a better finish to the series, which has been bigger, closer and more action-packed than their debut season last winter.

The big prize at the end of round 5 was the trophy (and jersey) of league champion for each of the four categories, something which gives the series an arc from beginning to end, providing a unique narrative that, like the general or points classification on the road, lends additional drama to each event. 

I’ll admit I was sceptical about this particular feature of the new format when it was announced last year. With a less evenly matched and competitive field, the general classification element of the series might have ended up a bit of a sideshow, with world champions showing off the light blue/turquoise skin suit for the duration as they amass an unassailable lead in points. But thankfully, that has very much not been the case, especially this year which has been much closer and more hotly contested, with new names jostling to the fore and thrilling rivalries born.

Just as there have been multiple winners of each event, there have been several different league leaders across the five rounds – except in the women’s endurance, the only category to have the same leader from beginning to end. And it’s seemed like new names have made themselves known each week. That in itself was a big goal for the organisers: to show off new heroes and new rivalries in the enigmatic sport of track cycling.

On the last night of competition, only the women’s Sprint category looked relatively safe, Mathilde Gros (France) leading by nine points; a change was not out of the question, but it was unlikely. The Men’s Endurance was tightest at the top with Sebastian Mora (Spain) and Claudio Imhof (Switzerland) tied on 99 points, the Spaniard claiming the lead having positioned higher in Friday’s Scratch race. Third and fourth-placed Mathias Guillemette and Mark Stewart were also in with a shout of regaining the jersey they both wore earlier this series, the Canadian and Scottish (okay, British) riders both within 12 points of the lead.

On the women’s Endurance side, it was a two-horse race between defending champ Katie Archibald (also Scottish) and American Jennifer Valente, who has worn the leader’s jersey since round 1 in Mallorca, which is where Archibald had a shock early exit in the Elimination race meaning she’s been catching up ever since. And finally, the big surprise: the top-placed male sprinters were separated by just two points, with defending league champion Harrie Lavreysen (Netherlands) trailing series-long rival Matt Richardson (Australia) who took over the lead in Friday’s penultimate round.

By the end of round 5, the lead had only changed hands in one category, but that’s not to say that the last evening of competition wasn’t a blockbuster affair.

The grand finale

The first winner of the night was Colombian sprinting star Martha Bayona who claimed her second win of the league in a very close – and Dutch-dominated – Keirin.

Next up was the women’s Scratch race and Archibald’s first chance to put Valente under pressure, but the American proved unshakable and the Scot was only able to trim the gap by two points.

After a few Sprint heats, it was the turn of the Endurance men, the closest fought category of the night, and the action was suitably heated. Once again, it was the British boys who took centre stage. Mark Stewart, Ollie Wood and William Perrett had all won at least one event each, and on Saturday night, Stewart – who had also been stranded in the southern hemisphere last season – was able to double up, book-ending his series with Scratch race victories, and in thrilling fashion.

If it wasn’t already spicy enough, things really started to heat up as Lavreysen and Richardson took to the boards for the Sprint, Lavreysen back in the world champ’s rainbow bands – a fine compromise. As we’ve come to expect, it was incredibly close yet again, and with Lavreysen nudging ahead, the defending champion edged back into the virtual lead by a single point. It would all come down to the Keirin.

But before Richardson could confirm his overall win with Keirin victory, there was the small matter of the Elimination races – probably my favourite event at the league. There was a lot at stake, with potential for the leadership to change hands in both. It didn’t quite work out for Archibald in the women’s ‘Devil’ but as the eliminations ticked down and Valente survived, the Scot switched her motivation over to winning the event, and that she did, putting on a show in front of a home crowd.

The men’s event was a little closer – all eyes on Mora and Imhof. Scratch winner Stewart was also worthy of attention, as was former leader Guillemette, but with the younger pair eliminated around the halfway point, it all came down to the older statesmen. In the end, the Spaniard made it to the final four before being eliminated, and with Dutchman Matthijs Büchli next to fall away, Imhof had the event in his sights along with overall victory. 

The only thing that stood in his way was Ollie Wood. The 27-year-old road and track cyclist was part of the British Team Pursuit squad that beat the Olympic champions Italy during October’s World Championships, and his form continued to flourish throughout the Track Champions League with wins in rounds 2 and 3, the Scratch and Elimination races respectively. But when it came down to that final two-up sprint between he and the Swiss veteran, Wood seemed utterly shattered, his head drooping as Imhof pulled out a gap of several bike lengths with a lap and a half to go.

It looked like it was all over. But then a switch flicked somewhere in the deepest corner of Wood’s soul. With the crowd lifting the atmosphere into a frenzy, the Brit flattened his back, tucked in his elbows and swept into Imhof’s slipstream.

Watching from my sofa at home in Edinburgh, the TV coverage went into slow motion as the theme from Gladiator began to play in my head. Imhof was flying, but Wood was gaining, determination, pure grit and the home crowd propelling him onto the wheel. He still had ground to make up in the last bend, but somehow he made it. Wood took a stunning victory. And Imhof did too.

The League wrapped up

Looking back across the whole series since it got underway in Mallorca on November 12, I think it’s fair to say that it’s got better from beginning to end. That’s not to say that round 1 wasn’t a thriller – it was brilliant, with new big names already bursting onto the boards – but it could have been rather different, and again, I’ll admit that I was dubious. I wasn’t convinced that the excitement could be maintained.

With five rounds of the exact same race programme, I expected there was a good chance that the racing might become stale and samey, but such repetitive competition instead meant that the riders had ten chances – more for the sprinters as they progressed through the heats – to experiment with racing style and tactics. Never was that more obvious to me than on Friday night during the fourth consecutive Individual Sprint final between Lavreysen and Richardson.

This pair have been trading blows since Mallorca, sharing out every single Sprint win between them. Last year, Lavreysen seemed pretty well unbeatable in the inaugural Track Champions League, carrying the lead from beginning to end. Meanwhile, Richardson was forced to watch from home by continued pandemic protocols, he and fellow Australian Thomas Cornish ‘peeling each other out of bed’ (Richardson’s choice of words) in the middle of the night to get a taste from afar, dreaming of future participation.

Twelve months later and Richardson has become one of the stars of the Track Champions League. It’s not like he came from nowhere. It’s not necessarily a ‘new’ rivalry as such. But the difference here is that we got to see a duel play out over several weeks rather than in fits and starts at major events like the World Championships. What’s more, we’ve got to know these riders on and off the bike, and that’s not something we get at other events, exciting though they may be.

The goal of the Track Champions League was to show off the sport’s characters and rivalries, and put on an accessible series of exciting racing; I think it’s fair to say that it’s been a great success, rising in spirit and excitement from beginning to end and finishing with a blockbuster curtain call. Yes, there have been plenty of quiet moments and lulls in the action, but without that, the treat of high action wouldn’t feel quite so elevated.

I’m absolutely certain that the riders have loved having more competition to get their teeth into, new fans have been brought into the sport, the short format is working, and I have it from the horse’s mouth that there are exciting developments to come. I for one am very much looking forward to next year.

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