Cycling at the Olympics: a quick guide to all the disciplines
From the team pursuit in the velodrome to fast and ferocious BMX racing, Olympic cycling covers a huge range of events and styles. In this guide, we’ll take you through all of the disciplines to help you get clued up on all things two-wheeled.
*Olympic track cycling *
Team pursuit: In the team pursuit, two teams of four start at opposite sides of the track and race for 4km – and it’s the time that counts. Riders share the responsibility of pace-making at the front of the team before swinging up the bank and joining the back of the line. The final time for each team is taken when the third rider crosses the line and the fastest finish wins. In the final, the winning team is the one that crosses their line first. Watch Team GB take gold in Rio to see how it’s done.
Omnium: The four-event omnium takes place over a single day. The Olympic track cycling event – dominated by Laura Kenny in Rio 2016, when the event covered six races – takes place over a single day. The scratch race sees all athletes competing in a straightforward race – 10km for men and 7.5km for women – to the finish line; the tempo race, covering the same distance as the scratch race, features a sprint for every lap, from the fifth lap onwards, with a point for each sprint’s winner; in the elimination race, the last rider is eliminated every two laps; and in the final points race, 25km for men and 20km for women, the athletes ride together in one race, with points for sprint wins and lapping other competitors.
Sprint: The sprint involves two riders competing against each other over three laps of the track, often using tactics to outwit the competition. This is where you’ll see Olympic cyclists riding as slowly as possible to the top edge of the velodrome, waiting for their opponent to make the first move.
Team sprint: The team sprint begins with two teams – men’s races comprise three riders per team, while it’s two for women. The lead rider is the first out the block and must get their team up to speed before peeling off after one lap. In men’s races, the second rider takes over for the middle lap, before also leaving the race. The final rider completes the last lap and the fastest overall team wins. Watch China take victory against Russia in Rio 2016.
Madison: After last being seen at Beijing 2008, the Madison race has been re-introduced for Tokyo 2020 and will be competed for by women for the first time. Racing in pairs, teams take it in turns to complete laps of the track - 200 laps for men, 120 laps for women - whilst their team mate rests. Points are awarded during intermediate sprints throughout the competition. One other notable feature is the changeover between riders - where the active rider grabs their teammate's hand and slings them into the action.
Keirin: The keirin is the Olympic track cycling race where the motorised bike, known as a derny, leads and sets the pace – usually to 45km/h for women and 50km/h for men. Once up to speed, the derny peels off, leaving the competitors to sprint it out on the track for the final two and a half laps. The men’s Rio 2016 final, won by Britain’s Jason Kenny, was a masterclass in how it’s done.
Race: One of the newest Olympic cycling sports, BMX makes for some spectacular viewing. It made its Games debut in Beijing 2008, where men battled it out for 370 metres, and women for 350. There are eight riders per race, and it’s first to the finish line via jumps, obstacles and sharp turns. Take a look at USA rider Connor Fields as he rides to gold in Rio 2016.
Freestyle Park: BMX Freestyle Park will make it's Olympic debut at the Buenos Aires Youth Olympics before being featured at Tokyo 2020. In Japan, 9 men and 9 women will compete for the first Olympic gold medal in the discipline, which requires riders to perform tricks over ramps and transitions. Each rider gets two, one minute runs to try and impress the judges.
Cross-country: One of the Olympics’ longer cycling events, cross-country mountain biking sees around 50 competitors tackle several laps of a course – usually between four and six kilometres – across a variety of inclines, descents and challenging terrains. The Olympic mountain biking race aims to take around 1hr 30mins to 1hr 45mins, so the number of laps is usually revealed once the track is complete. Watch the final from Rio 2016, when Nino Schurter clinched his first Olympic gold, defeating reigning champion Jaroslav Kulhavy.
Individual time trial: The individual time trial is all about strength, speed and stamina – the winner is simply the rider who sets the fastest time. Each competitor goes out alone, so there’s no opportunity to take advantage of a slip stream or plan tactics. The distance varies from Games to Games but should usually take the riders around an hour to complete. For Rio 2016, the USA’s Kristin Armstrong beat the rain to take gold with a winning time of 44 mins 26.42 secs.
Road race. The Olympic road race is the largest of the cycling events, with around 140 competitors attempting to complete distances of around 240km. Unlike the Tour de France, there aren’t any actual teams entered and every rider qualifies individually, based on their performances before the Olympics.