Track cycling events at the Tokyo Olympics, explained

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Team pursuit track cycling event.

Track cycling events at the Tokyo Olympics, explained

With the road, MTB, and BMX racing now complete at the Tokyo Olympics, we turn our attention to track cycling at the 250 metre-long Izu velodrome.

Track events dominate the cycling programme in Tokyo: of the 22 cycling events, 12 of them are on the track. All told, there’s a full week of velodrome racing on offer, from Monday August 2 to Sunday August 8.

 

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If you aren’t familiar with track racing, it can be hard to get your head around all the different disciplines involved. Hopefully the following guide will help.


First up, it’s important to note that 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, more muscular riders.

Endurance events are longer and require sustained hard efforts. Riders that race on both the road and track — the likes of Mark Cavendish, Elia Viviani, or Kirsten Wild — are usually more suited to endurance events.

Cyclists complete a handsling during a madison track cycling event.
Dutch pair Kirsten Wild (left) and Amy Pieters complete a handsling during a madison event.

Sprint events

These are the three sprint events happening at the Tokyo Olympics, all of which have a men’s and a women’s competition.

  • Sprint
  • Team sprint
  • Keirin

Let’s break these events down.

Sprint

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 worst spot to be). The first rider across the finish line wins.

A total of 30 riders will start the competition, which begins with a 200-metre flying-start time trial to seed the 24 fastest riders. From there, there are five rounds of one-on-one racing to narrow the field down from 24 to 16 to 12 to eight to four and finally to two for the final. Between the rounds of 24, 16, 12, and eight there are a total of three “repechage” rounds to give lower-ranked riders a second chance of progressing through the competition.

All quarterfinals and semifinals, plus the final, will be contested via best-two-of-three matches.

Men’s world record: 9.100 (Nicholas Paul, Cochabamba, Bolivia, 2019)
Women’s world record: 10.154 (Kelsey Mitchell, Cochabamba, Bolivia, 2019)

Team sprint

The team sprint is not a conventional sprint event — it’s actually more like 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. Only one rider from the team must complete the race. The team to complete the required number of laps first is the winner.

The men’s competition is expected to feature eight teams of three, while the women’s will feature eight teams of two.

Women's team sprint track cycling event at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Two riders competing in the team sprint at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

All teams will post a time in the qualifying round with teams then paired against each other in the first round based upon seeding (i.e. 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. No energy can be wasted and changeovers are closely scrutinised by the commissaires, so the margin for error is tiny.

Men’s world record: 41.225 (Netherlands, Berlin, Germany, 2020)
Women’s world record: 31.928 (China, Olympic Games, Brazil, 2016)

Keirin

A popular gambling sport that originated in Japan, the keirin is one of the most recognisable track events. Between three and six riders compete in a sprint race of three laps (750 metres) having followed in the slipstream of a pacing motorbike (derny) for the first 750 m. The motorbike gradually increases in speed from 30 to 50 km/h before peeling off and letting the sprinters battle it out.

Positioning behind the derny is paramount – after the first derny lap riders will jostle each other out of position to gain an advantage over their rivals as the derny speed increases. With three laps remaining the derny leaves the track and the sprint is on. Hitting finishing speeds of up to 70 km/h, riders fight to be the first across the line.

Thirty riders will start the women’s competition, and likewise in the men’s.

Keirin track cycling event.
Riders follow the derny during a keirin event.

The keirin is contested over four rounds. In round 1, the top two in each of the five heats will progress to round 2. The remaining riders will go the “repechage” where they’ll have a second chance to earn their way into the second round.

There’ll be three heats in the second round, with the top four in each going through to the semifinals. The semifinals will feature two heats of six, with the top three in each going to Final A (for the medals) and the bottom three in each going to Final B (for places 7-12).

Endurance events

There are three endurance events happening in Tokyo as well. As with the sprint events, these are all contested by men and women.

Team pursuit

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 4 km. If one team catches the other before the finish, the race is over there and then.

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 finish 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. 

Note the time-trial-style handlebars used in the team pursuit, compared to the drop bars used in sprint events.

Eight teams of four will each contest the women’s and men’s competitions. These competitions will begin with a qualifying round with each team setting a time for seeding. In the first round, the top four teams are seeded against each other (first vs fourth, second vs third) and the bottom four teams race one another.

The winners of the top-bracket races go on to race in the gold-medal final. The seeding for the rest of the finals (for bronze/fourth place; fifth/sixth; seventh/eighth) is determined by team times from the first round.

Men’s world record: 3:44.672 (Denmark, World Championships, Berlin, 2020)
Women’s world record: 4:10.236 (Great Britain, Olympic Games, Brazil, 2016)

Madison

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 perhaps the most exciting, and also confusing, event in track cycling.

Two-rider teams contest the mass-start event, raced over 50 km (200 laps) for the men and 30 km (120 laps) for women. 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 every 10 laps with the top four teams awarded five, three, two and one points respectively. Those points are doubled for the final sprint. 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 hasn’t been held at the Olympics since 2012 when it was a men’s-only event. Tokyo hosts the first ever women’s Olympic madison.

Cyclists performing a handsling in amadison track cycling race.
Wiggins (left) and Cavendish on their way to a madison world title in 2016.

Omnium

The omnium is a multi-race event. In the case of Tokyo, the omnium comprises four different mass-start races held on the same day (down from six events at the Rio Olympics). Those four events are:

Scratch race: All riders start together with the goal of being first over the line. This is raced over 10 km for men and 7.5 km for women.

Tempo race: 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 20 points for lapping the main field, and any rider caught by the main peloton loses 20 points. Raced over 7.5 km for women and 10 km for men.

Elimination race: The last rider is eliminated after every second lap, until only the winner remains.

Points race: Points are awarded at intermediate sprints every 10 laps, with five points for first place, three for second, two for third, and one for fourth. Points are doubled at the last sprint. A rider who laps the field gets 20 points while a rider lapped by the field loses 20 points. This event is raced over 25 km for the men and 20 km for women.

The winner of each of the first three events – the scratch race, elimination race, and tempo race – will be awarded 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.

The rider with the most points after all four events 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.

Cyclists in a track cycling event.
In Tokyo, the omnium consists of four mass-start races.

When the races are

Want to know when you can watch a particular track event? Follow the link for a full schedule of track cycling events at the Tokyo Olympics. Alternatively, here’s a list of the medal events that are happening each day and at what time, Tokyo time (GMT +9):

Monday August 2

  • 6:06pm: Women’s team sprint (bronze medal race)
  • 6:09pm: Women’s team sprint (gold medal race)

Tuesday August 3

  • 5:19pm: Women’s team pursuit (bronze)
  • 5:26pm: Women’s team pursuit (gold)
  • 5:41pm: Men’s team sprint (bronze)
  • 5:44pm: Men’s team sprint (gold)

Wednesday August 4

  • 5:59pm: Men’s team pursuit (bronze)
  • 6:06pm: Men’s team pursuit (gold)

Thursday August 5

  • 5:45pm: Women’s keirin
  • 5:55pm: Men’s omnium points race (final event of four)

Friday August 6

  • 5:15pm: Women’s madison final
  • 6:35pm: Men’s sprint finals – race 2
  • 6:50pm: Men’s sprint finals – decider

Saturday August 7

  • 4:55pm: Men’s madison final

Sunday August 8

  • 11:45am: Women’s sprint finals – race 2
  • 12:00pm: Men’s keirin final
  • 12:05pm: Women’s sprint finals – decider
  • 12:25pm: Women’s omnium points race (final event of four)

Viewing notes

Here are a few things to keep in mind as you tune in:

  • Early reports are that the Tokyo velodrome is very fast. Australian team pursuit rider Luke Plapp told CyclingTips “It’s so quick here! I’m expecting some times that may not be broken for a long time! Conditions are crazy!” Expect new world records in the men’s and women’s team pursuit.
  • The women’s team pursuit has only been in the Olympics since London in 2012 and Great Britain has won both gold medals since. Team USA, headlined by Chloe Dygert, are the reigning world champions though.
  • The British men’s team pursuit squad has won the last three Olympic gold medals. Since Rio, though, Denmark has risen as one of the teams to beat, so too New Zealand, and Italy with Filippo Ganna at the helm.
  • Australia’s men’s team pursuit squad was left reeling after fifth place at the 2020 Track Worlds (won by Denmark ahead of New Zealand, France and Italy). The Australian team is desperate to bounce back, and improve on the silver medal it won in Rio.
  • The men’s team pursuit world record has been broken five times since Rio. Twice by Australia (2018 and 2019), and then three times in two days by Denmark (at the 2020 Track Worlds). Their fastest effort was a full two seconds faster than their previous best.
  • Laura Kenny (Great Britain) is the two-time reigning Olympic champ in the omnium and will be among the favourites for that event. Perhaps her biggest rival will be reigning world champ Yumi Kajihara (Japan).
  • Road star Elia Viviani (Italy) is the reigning men’s Olympic omnium champ. France’s Benjamin Thomas (also a road racer) is the reigning world champion.
  • Great Britain’s Jason Kenny (husband to Laura), has been in the gold-medal-winning team sprint team for the past three Olympics. He’s also won the last two individual sprint gold medals. Kenny is currently tied as the athlete with the most Olympic golds of any British athlete (six, with Chris Hoy). He’s a great chance of setting a new record in Tokyo.
  • The Dutch pairing of Kirsten Wild and Amy Pieters will start as favourites in the first women’s Olympic madison. They’ve won the last two world titles and took silver the year before that.
  • In the men’s madison, the favourites will be Denmark’s Michael Mørkøv (of Deceuninck-QuickStep fame) and Lasse Norman Hansen. They’re the reigning world champs.

If you want to go deeper on the rules and competition structures of track cycling, take a look at the UCI’s rules and regulations document.

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