Welcome back to Fixture Calendar’s series on Olympic sports. This week, we will be taking a look at track cycling: the events, the riders, and why you should watch it in Tokyo.
Track cycling has appeared at every modern Olympics except Stockholm in 1912, because the city did not have a velodrome. Modern Olympic track cycling takes place on indoor, oval-shaped, banked velodromes which total 250m in length.
In recent years, track cycling has changed its roster of events, and for Tokyo it will be gender-balanced, with the same 6 events for men and women. Of these events, three are contested in teams, and three individually. The two most successful Olympic track cyclists of all time are the British athletes Chris Hoy and Jason Kenny, with 6 golds and 1 silver each. Laura Kenny is the most successful female track cyclist with 4 gold medals.
Some Rio gold medallists will return to defend their medals, there will be famous names seeking to improve, and Olympic debutants hoping to write themselves into the history books. We will now look at each event, and who the medal contenders are, starting with the team events.
The Men’s Team Sprint is contested in teams of 3 over 3 laps of the velodrome.
Racing in a line, each rider completes one lap at the front, before pulling off, and the race finishes when the final rider crosses the line at the end of the third lap. This event requires good teamwork - it is important the rider on the front doesn’t get away from his teammates, so they can continue to “draft” behind him, but he must also not hold them up. Even the smallest mistakes can cost teams gold.
In Tokyo, each team will compete initially in a time trial “qualifier”, and the top 8 teams will advance to the first round, where teams will race head-to-head starting on opposite sides of the track. From this, the two fastest heat winners go into a head-to-head final, and the next two fastest go into a head-to-head race for the bronze medal.
At the last Olympics, Great Britain’s team set an Olympic record of 42.440 seconds to win gold, and they will be looking to defend their title with 2 of their 3 team members likely returning for Tokyo. The Dutch team, however, beat the British team in the 2020 World Championships final, setting a new World Record in the process. The Australians came a close third at the World Championships, and will be hoping to improve on their bronze medal from the Rio Olympics.
The Women’s Team Sprint is contested by 2 riders over 2 laps, but is otherwise the same as the men’s event. China’s Gong Jinjie and Zhong Tianshi won gold in Rio, setting a World Record in the process. With Gong Jinjie retired, Zhong Tianshi is now racing with Chen Feifei. They only came 3rd at the 2020 World Championships, where they were beaten by Germany (Grabosch-Hinze), who won the event, and Australia (McCulloch-Morton), who came 2nd.
The Team Pursuit is an endurance event, where teams of 4 compete over 4km (16 laps). They can take turns on the front, and the clock stops when the third team member crosses the line (head-to-head rounds can end before this if one team catches the other). In the first, “qualifying” round, teams race to set the fastest time in what is effectively a time trial. From this, the fastest 8 times qualify into the knockout rounds which determine final placings. Again, teamwork is required in addition to individual power, as riders must balance the amount of time they spend on the front, and not pull away from their teammates.
In the Men’s Team Pursuit, Great Britain has won gold in each of the last 3 games. However, their team has undergone a lot of changes since their Rio triumph, and at the 2020 World Championships, they only came 7th. That World Championship was won by Denmark, who emphatically set a new world record of 3:46.579 in the process. 3 of the 4 cyclists who won Silver in Rio for Australia are likely to return and will be hoping to go one better in Tokyo.
The Women’s Team Pursuit was first introduced to the Olympics in 2012, and Great Britain has won the event both times it featured. They will likely be the favourites, but they came 2nd behind the US team at the 2020 World Championships, and this could well be the year that their dominance ends.
The Madison is returning to the Olympics for the first time since 2008. In Tokyo there will be a men’s event and, for the first time, a women’s event. The men’s event is contested over 50km and the women’s event over 30km, both with 16 teams. Teams consist of 2 riders; generally, one is an endurance rider, and the other more of a sprinter. At any one time, one team member is resting and the other racing, and they swap over with a hand sling. Points are gained for lapping the bunch, and points are lost for being lapped by bunch. There are also sprints every 10 laps for bonus points, and the final sprint scores double points.
The last Men’s Madison in 2008 was won by the Argentine duo of Curuchet and Pérez. The German pair of Theo Reinhardt and Roger Kluge won the World Championship in 2018 and 2019, but only came third in 2020 behind teams from Denmark and New Zealand; all these nations have a good chance to win gold.
The Women’s Madison will see the Dutch duo of Kirsten Wild and Amy Pieters enter as clear favourites having won the last two World Championships. As with all cycling events though, upsets can happen, and all competitors will be keen to write themselves into the history books as the first women’s Madison gold medal winners.
There will also be three individual track cycling events for each gender at the Tokyo games. First, we will look at the Individual Sprint. Initially, a short time trial determines who qualifies for the heats. From the ⅛ final onwards, the event consists of close, tactical, head-to-head races over 3 laps; the riders start next to each other, and will fight for the best position for the final sprint. After the ⅛ and ¼ finals there are also repechages providing alternative routes through to the next round.
In the Men’s Individual Sprint, Jason Kenny will be looking to win his third successive gold medal, and despite finishing a disappointing 7th at the 2020 World Championships, he will expect to be amongst the medals. We may, however, expect it to be close between him and the Dutch riders Lavreysen and Hoogland who came 1st and 2nd at the 2020 World Championships respectively.
The Women’s Individual Sprint has had 4 different winners in the last 4 Olympics, and it’s hard to pinpoint an exact favourite. Emma Hinze (GER) will be looking to build on her gold medal at the 2020 World Championships, but she will need to be at her best to win gold in Tokyo.
The Keirin is contested over 8 laps. A popular betting sport in Japan, it was first introduced to the Olympics as a men’s event in 2000, and a women’s event in 2012. The event runs over 8 laps in total, with 6-7 competitors per race. For the first laps, the riders jostle for position behind the derny (a motorised bike which laps at gradually increasing speeds), then with 2.5 laps to go, the derny pulls off and the sprinting begins. Riders need to be careful to not go too early, or they will run out of energy and be overtaken, but if they start their sprint too late, they will not have time to reach the front. At Tokyo, there will be a first round, where the top riders go through, then a repechage which finalises the semi-final competitors. The final will then be contested with 6 riders to determine the medal placings.
The Men’s Keirin at Rio was won by Jason Kenny (GBR) in a dramatic final which had to be restarted twice, due to starting infringements. Kenny came 8th at the 2020 World Championships, which was narrowly won by Harrie Levreysen (NED). The Keirin is an unpredictable event, in which falls are frequent and this can easily lead to upsets, so it is certainly worth watching.
The Women’s Keirin has had 2 different winners in its two Olympic appearances. 2016’s Olympic gold medallist Elis Ligtlee (NED) has since retired, and no one medalled at both the 2019 and 2020 World Championships, so this event really is wide open.
The Omnium consists of 4 events, all raced in a single day. These events are the scratch race (points awarded by finishing order - 10km for men; 7.5km for women), tempo race (points awarded for winning sprints every 10 laps and lapping the pack; points deducted for being lapped - 10km for men; 7.5km for women), elimination race (every 500m the last placed rider is eliminated), and points race (as the tempo race, but longer at 25km for men, and 20km for women). These points are all added together to determine the overall standings.
For the Men’s Omnium, Benjamin Thomas (FRA) is the current world champion, and he will be looking to win gold at Tokyo. The complexity and length of this event, however, means it is easy to make a mistake, so even relatively unknown competitors will be looking for gold.
In the Women’s Omnium, Kirsten Wild (NED) won gold at the 2018 and 2019 World Championships, but only came 7th in the 2020 event which was won by Yumi Kajihara (JAP). As with the men’s event, almost all the competitors will have a chance to medal, so it is sure to be a great day’s racing.
Having so few favourites will certainly make for exciting competition, and you will have to tune in to find out who triumphs. Be sure to use Fixture Calendar to follow road and track cycling events throughout the year!
Callum Farnden, May 2021
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