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Rio 2016: a beginner’s guide to track cycling at the Olympics

What's up for grabs in the velodrome at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games?

While the cycling action at the start of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games focuses on the road, attention will switch to the Velodrome from Thursday (August 11) when the track cyclists take centre stage.

Taking place at the brand new Velodromo Muncipal do Rio – designed by the same architects at Schuermann who designed the Beijing 2008 track – there will be ten gold medals up for grabs in all.

Bradley Wiggins could become Britain’s most decorated Olympian at Rio 2016 (pic: Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com)

British hopes include Sir Bradley Wiggins, who will bid for a national record-breaking eighth Olympic medal, while Laura Trott is in contention to repeat her double gold medal-winning feats of London 2012.

The track cycling events have changed over the last couple of Olympic cycles, so what do you need to know, and what’s up for grabs in Rio?

Let’s take a closer look…

Sprint vs Endurance

The ten track cycling events can be split into two different categories: sprint racing and endurance racing, with six events in the former and four in the latter.

Several other events have been discontinued, many of which were last contested in Beijing in 2008, meaning the programme is the same as that used in London – despite the UCI petitioning the IOC for changes.

Laura Trott and Mark Cavendish will ride in the Rio 2016 omnium (pic: Simon Wilkinson/SWpix.com)

For the sprinters, there is the Keirin, individual sprint and team sprint – with men’s and women’s races in both – while the track endurance riders will compete across the team pursuit and omnium.

Riders in the sprint events are typically built more for power – think Sir Chris Hoy or Germany’s Robert Forstemann, whose thigh circumference was measured at 29 inches during London 2012.

The endurance event, by its very nature, requires stamina and road racing fans will find plenty of familiar names on the startlist – Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish, for example.

While Cavendish may be a sprinter on the road, he is very much an endurance rider when it comes to the track.

Team pursuit

In a change from London 2012, both the men’s and women’s team pursuit events take place with four riders per team over 4,000m (the women raced 3,000m with three riders until 2013).

Great Britain won gold in both events in London, setting world records in each – the men’s record still stands today, though the change in format for the women mean Australia are the current world record holders.

Great Britain won gold in both the men’s and women’s team pursuit at London 2012 (Pic: Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com)

The four-rider teams first take part in qualifying at first, with the time they post over 4km (taken from the third rider to cross the finish line) determining their initial ranking.

The four fastest teams will race against each other (1st v 4th; 2nd v 3rd) for a place in the gold medal final, while the next four fastest (5th vs 8th; 6th vs 7th) also progress to the first round.

From the first round onwards, two teams start at opposite sides of the track and ride against each other – the team setting the fastest time wins, while the race is over if one team catches the other.

Only the winners of the races involving the four fastest qualifiers can reach the gold medal final, while the times of the six teams not to make that race are used to determine who will race for bronze.

Finals to determine 5th place and 7th place are also raced, with all four finals following the same format as above – two teams, at opposite ends of the track, ‘pursuing’ each other with the fastest team over 4km the winners.

In short: Four riders, four kilometres, fastest team wins

Omnium

The omnium was introduced for London 2012 and is the ‘grab bag’ of track endurance racing – six different disciplines, spread across two days, with points awarded for each.

It was added to the Olympics to replace the points race, individual pursuit and Madison which were all dropped after Beijing.

The omnium features six different disciplines, including three mass start races – the scratch race, elimination race and decisive points race (pic: Alex Broadway/SWPix.com)

The points system is different to four years ago, with points awarded for finishing position in the first five events and then added to points scored in the points race – the final event.

First up is the scratch race, which is simply a mass start race to the finish line, which like all of the first five events is worth 40 points to the winner, 38 to the runner-up and so on.

Next up is the individual pursuit (4,000m for the men, 3,000m for the women), which like the team pursuit involves riders lining up on opposite sides of the track – the times they finish in determine their points for the omnium.

The third event, and the final one of the first day of racing, is the elimination race – a mass start race whereby the rider in last place after every few laps is removed from the race.

The following day’s action is started by the time trial – 1km for the men, 500m for the women – which is exactly as it stands: an individual, standing start race to set the fastest time over the respective distances.

The flying lap is also raced individually against the clock but is done from a ‘flying start’ – i.e they are already riding – as opposed to a standing start.

And that all sets everything up for the points race, where riders can add (or lose) points from their tally so far.

The mass start race (40km for men, 25km for women) rewards points for gaining a lap on the rest of the field or for finishing in the top three positions at the intermediate sprint (usually every ten laps and contested by everyone regardless of laps gained etc).

The rider to finish the points race with the most overall points wins, but in the event of the tie it is the finishing position at the end of the race which is used to separate the riders.

At the 2016 UCI World Track Cycling Championships in London, the top three riders all finished the men’s omnium tied on 191 points, so it was Fernando Gaviria who won gold by virtue of being the first of those three across the finish line in the final race.

In short: A bit of everything, points mean prizes

Team sprint

The team sprint is contested by teams of three in the men’s race and two in the women’s race, over three laps and two laps respectively.

The team sprint is similar in some respects to a team time trial (pic: Luke Webber/Revolution Series)

Riders line up at opposite ends of the track and set off from a standing, gated start in team time trial format, with the first rider swinging off after the first lap, the second rider after the second and the third racing until the finish line to set the fastest time.

Qualifying is done with each team racing by themselves against the clock, before a knockout round to determine who will ride for gold, and who will ride for bronze.

In short: Blink and you’ll miss it, fastest team wins

Individual sprint

While the team sprint is misleading because it is more like a team time trial than a sprint, the individual sprint can also be a bit of a misnomer given you’ll often spot the riders going really slowly in their head-to-head races.

The seedings for the match sprints are determined by qualifying, performed as a flying 200m time trial with the fastest qualifier facing the slowest and so on.

The individual sprint features plenty of tactical intrigue, and will often see riders slow right down in order to gain a strategic edge (pic: Alex Broadway/SWpix.com)

Once the riders get to the match sprint, however, that’s where it gets tactical – both riders often dropping their speed right down and waiting for the other to make their move.

The reason? Science. Or more specifically, aerodynamics. The rider leading out the sprint will expend more energy than the rider drafting just behind – but they will get the choice of the racing line so there are plenty of tactics at play.

Match sprinting is initially a knock-out round, before a ‘best of three’ format ensues.

In short: Slow start, lots of tactical eyeballing, head-to-head sprint to the line

Keirin

The keirin is another sprinting event, characterised by its use of a motorised derny bike to set the pace on the early laps before the riders sprint against each other to the line.

The keirin features six riders being motor-paced up to speed before a flat-out sprint for the line (pic: Simon Wilkinson/SWpix.com)

Riders must remain behind the pacer as it ramps up the speed from around 25km/h to 50km/h before it departs the track to leave the sprinters to slog it out over the final lap-and-a-bit.

Like the individual sprint, the three rounds are all being held over one day at the Olympics; six riders qualify for the final, where the three medals are up for grabs at the finish line.

In short: The one with the motorcycle

Where’s the hand-slinging?

Format changes post-Beijing meant several track cycling races were dropped from the Olympic schedule.

The victims were the points race, individual pursuit and Madison, meaning Madison world champions Sir Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish will not be hand-slinging their way around the Rio track.

The Madison was one of three events removed from the Olympic programme after 2008 – the ten events at Rio will be the same as those at London four years ago (pic: Simon Wilkinson/SWpix.com)

The UCI, cycling’s governing body, did petition the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to return the points race to the Rio games but the IOC have left things as they were at London (barring the individual changes to the races detailed above).

Nevertheless, with ten gold medals up for grabs – and Britain having won seven of them in London – there will be plenty to ride for when the action gets underway from Thursday.

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