Cycling events have been present at every staging of the Modern Olympics since Athens 1896. Women’s cycling was introduced in Los Angeles 1984 and mountain bike made its Olympic debut at Atlanta 1996. With the advent of professional cyclists in Atlanta, Olympic cycling grew in popularity. It didn’t take long for the professionals to make an impact at the Olympics with Miguel Indurain of Spain winning the road time trial in Atlanta 1996 and German Jan Ullrich winning the road race and finishing second, one place ahead of American Lance Armstrong, in the road time trial in Sydney 2000.
The traditional gender inequality of cycling is set to be smashed with drastic changes to the London 2012 Olympic program. In Beijing there were only 35 female track cycling competitors, but in London this will rise to 84. The IOC has removed the individual pursuit, points race and men’s madison events to make way for three new women’s events. This evens the ledger with five events for both men and women: sprint, team sprint, keirin, team pursuit and omnium.
Omnium is a reasonably new event that sees six disciplines collide in an event attractive to endurance riders. The International Cycling Union (UCI) and the IOC hope the event will make for exciting television viewing. The innovative omnium reflects the latest IOC trend of adopting engaging events. The discipline of BMX was added to the cycling program for Beijing 2008, replacing individual time trials on the velodrome.
There are four cycling disciplines- BMX, mountain bike, road and track.
There are two BMX (Bicycle Moto Cross) events on the Olympic program - Elite Men (19 years and older) and Elite Women (19 years and older).
BMX races are held on short outdoor tracks that include jumps, bumps and tight banked corners. Eight riders compete in each heat, with the top four qualifying for the next round. Races take about 40 seconds.
Mountain bike competitors complete laps of an undulating race circuit designed to produce a specific winning time rather than a specific distance. Races are over 40-50km for men, and 30-40km for women. The riders start together and must complete a set number of laps of the course. The winner is the first past the finish line.
The number of laps depends on the track and weather conditions and a decision on the number of laps can be made by organisers at the latest two hours before the start of the race to determine the optimum finish time:
Minimum Optimum Maximum
Men 2h:00 2h:15 2h:30
Women 1h:45 2h:00 2h:15
Men and women compete separately and riders are seeded on a starting grid according to their current world ranking.
The road competition consists of the road race and individual time trial for both men and women. The road race is a mass start event and the first cyclist to cross the finish line at the end of the total distance is declared the winner. The men’s race is approximately 230km and the women’s, approximately 120km.
The Time Trial is a race against the clock over a shorter distance. For the individual time trial, men cover approximately 48km and women cover about 24km. Cyclists start at 90 second intervals and race against the clock. The cyclist with the fastest time is declared the winner.
The sprint is a classic short distance event in which two or more riders cover three laps. Only the final 200 metres is timed. The special requirements in the sprint are strength and speed. The key is tactics. Sudden and dramatic changes in speed, standstill attempts, and feints are typical ways to surprise an opponent. Riders obtain a seeding through the qualifying 200 metre flying time trial with 18 men and 12 women qualifying for the first round. From quarter final stage onwards rivals match up in best of three heats to determine progress to the following round.
Keirin was created in the 1940’s and is the Japanese version of the traditional sprint event. Up to seven riders compete over 2000m. A special motorised bike called a derny leads the field for the first 1,400m starting at 30km/h and bringing the riders up to a speed of 50km/h. Cyclists manoeuvre for the best position before the derny leaves the track. It is then an all up frantic sprint for the finish line. The first two riders across the line in the qualifying heats go through to the first round with the losers contesting repechage heats. The two winners of each of three repechage heats go through to the first round. In the first round the first three riders in each of the two heats qualify for the medal final and the losers ride off for 7-12 place.
The Team Sprint pits two teams of three riders against each other and the clock over three laps of the track. The task of the starting rider is to get out of the gate cleanly and bring the team up to high speed as quickly as possible. After one lap the first rider peels off to allow the second rider to make the pace. This rider completes their effort with one lap to go and then it’s up to the final cyclist, traditionally a time trial specialist, to finish off. The leading rider must not swing up until a full lap is complete and must peel off between an area of 15 metres before and after their start line, otherwise the team will be disqualified. The fastest eight teams go through from the qualifying round to the first round and from there, the fastest two winning teams contest the race for gold and silver and the other two winners contest the race for bronze.
Four endurance cyclists comprise a pursuit team and their success relies on how well they work together. The rider on the front of the quartet must keep the pace as high as possible but must not ride so fast that he drops any of his following teammates. The cyclists within a team must ride as close as possible to the rear wheel of the rider in front of them to gain every possible aerodynamic benefit. The front rider will swing up the track at the end of his “turn” and must smoothly rejoin his team in the fourth wheel position. The pace is then set by the rider now on the front of the quartet. The time is taken on the front wheel of the third rider across the line and it is often the case that only three riders will finish.
In the qualifying round each team rides alone on the track against the clock with the fastest eight teams going through. In the first round and finals, one team starts on each side of the track and they race each other and the clock. The fastest two winning teams of the first round contest the race for gold and silver and the other two winners race for bronze. In the finals the winner is determined by either catching the other team or recording the fastest time. A team is deemed to have been caught if the team chasing comes within one metre of the back wheel of the rider at the back of the rival team.
This event will make its Olympic debut in London in 2012. It cycling’s version of a decathlon- a medley event involving a Flying Lap (250m time trial), Points Race (30km for men, 20km for women), Individual Pursuit (4km for men, 3km for women), Scratch Race (15km for men, 10km for women), Kilometre Time Trial (500m for women) and finally an Elimination Race (every two laps the last rider over the line is eliminated).