While the pleasures of artistic cycling and cycleball will not be on show at London 2012, the official Olympic cycling programme is remarkably diverse. Yes, all of the events involve people racing each other on two-wheeled machines. But there are many different kinds of racing, all of which call for special tactics and privilege different skills. Here’s a very basic guide to what will be on offer.
The road races come in two formats. First there’s the standard scratch format: everyone starts at the same time with no handicaps (or “from scratch”), and whoever reaches the finish line first wins. There’s also the time trial, where every rider has to race alone against the clock. The former is a battle amongst breakaways and leaders, while the latter is a lonely test of stamina and skill.
Mountain biking is a conventional scratch race, but it has the feel of rallying: it’s the only event in which you might see riders having to run with their bikes (at impossible muddy hills) or fixing their own bikes in the middle of the race. The BMX competition, meanwhile, combines manic micro time trials with fearsome and aggressive multi-rider races on short tricky courses.
In the velodrome, track racing is currently Britain’s main strength—the British team won seven gold medals at this year’s European championships. The event pits teams, starting on opposite sides of the track, against one another. In the sprint version, the teams race but lose a rider after each lap. But in the pursuit, the whole team stays on as they chase each other’s tails. There is also an individual sprint event in the track category: in the first two laps, competitors play a game of cat and mouse for position, occasionally coming to a complete halt, before riding like fury over the last 200m.
To try and prevent this kind of stalemate races like the Keirin have been developed. It’s an eight lap race, but you can’t hang about. The first five and half are led by a pace setting moped or motorised bike that winds things up to 35km/h. After that it’s hell for leather to the line: expect a lot of desperate moves to get out of tight spaces, and a lot of crashes.
Most complex of all is the omnium: cycling’s version of a heptathlon and an event which takes some explaining. Riders can choose to begin with conventional standing starts or flying starts, where they can build up speed for a lap before being timed. The event also includes the gruelling points race over 30km, a long slog in which competitors score according to their final finishing position, but they also fight for extra points in lung-busting sprint races every ten laps. And in the elimination race round, keep your eyes on the rear of the pack not the front: the back marker is eliminated every two laps, until just one rider is left.
David Goldblatt is the author, with Johnny Acton, of How to Watch the Olympics (Profile 2011)
Read David Goldblatt on the arts of cycling at the World Indoor Cycling Championships in Prospect