The history of track cycling at the Olympic Games dates back well over 100 years, to the first ever modern Games in 1896.
A full 25 different track cycling disciplines have featured in the Olympic Games since then, only five of which are still competed to this day – the keirin, omnium, team pursuit, team sprint and individual sprint.
The individual sprint is the longest running of the current track cycling events, having been featured in all but two of the 28 modern Olympic Games, while the omnium is the most recent addition, having only been introduced for London 2012.
What Exactly is Track Cycling?
The first thing you need to know before you watch the Olympic track cycling is what track cycling actually is. Let's quickly hit the basics.
Track cycling is any bicycle racing event which is held on a specially built track or velodrome, as opposed to on dirt, roads or mountains. This of course spans a wide range of disciplines, and as such, those involved in the Olympics have chopped and changed over the 120 year history of the modern Olympic Games.
Track bicycles are used for the events. These are bikes build specifically for the velodrome and unlike road bikes, they are fixed-gear, meaning they have a single gear ratio to optimise pedal efficiency and speed. They also don’t have brakes.
A Short History of Track Cycling in the Olympics
It’s tough to give a short history of track cycling in the Olympics, what with it having been in the Games since 1896 and all. But let’s give it a shot.
In that first Olympic Games back in 1896 in Athens there were six cycling events contested, the road race, the sprint, the time trial, the 10km, the 100km and the 12-hour race, the latter being a gruelling 12 hour trip round a track won by Adolf Schmal of Austria.
All of these events were classified as track cycling, except the road race... which was raced... on a road. Pretty simple, right?
For the second Olympic Games, held in Paris in 1900, the event list was changed significantly, and only the men’s sprint remained from Athens – it turns out not many people fancied riding round in a circle for 12 hours – and by 1904 in Missouri, all the events had changed again and a dude called Marcus Hurley from the USA pretty much won everything.
Now, we’re not going to run through every Games year by year, but this gives you an idea of how quickly the Olympic events change around. Out of the 25 total track cycling disciplines that have featured in an Olympic Games at one time or another, 14 events only appeared at one Games.
The longest running disciplines which are no longer featured in the Games include the individual pursuit, which ran 12 times from 1964 to Beijing 2008, the tandem, which ran from 1908 to 1972, and the 1km time trial, which ran in the original 1896 Olympics before running in 18 more consecutive Games from 1924 to Greece 2004.
The 1912 Olympics in Sweden were the only Games ever to not feature any track cycling events at all. All other Games have featured between 2-8, normally settling around the 4 or 5 mark.
It may surprise some to know that women’s track cycling events were only introduced to the Olympics as late as the Seoul Olympics in 1988, when the individual sprint first came in. More women’s events were then added each year until women were able to compete in all of the same events as the men in track cycling in London 2012.
Now, let’s take a look at the history of the track cycling disciplines which will feature in the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
Track Cycling: A History of the Keirin in the Olympic Games
What is the Keirin?
The keirin is a track cycling race which starts with the riders involved trailing behind a motorised pacer riding around the velodrome. The pacer then drops off the track after bringing the riders up to speed and leaves the competitors to fight it out over the final two and a half laps or so to determine the winner.
When did the Keirin become an Olympic track cycling sport?
The keirin has a slightly more bizarre history than most Olympic sports, in that most Olympic sports weren’t originally invented for gambling purposes in Japan in the late 1940s. Anyway, it’s come along since then.
Keirin first featured in the Olympics in Sydney, Australia in 2000, where Frenchman Florian Rousseau took the gold. It didn’t become a women’s discipline at the Olympics though until London 2012.
The keirin is probably best known for bringing Sir Chris Hoy two gold medals – one in Beijing in 2008 and Hoy’s record-breaking sixth gold medal in London in 2012, where Victoria Pendleton also took home the top prize in the sport.
Track Cycling: A History of the Omnium in the Olympic Games
What is the Omnium?
The omnium is a track cycling event that consists of several events, with a points-per-place system used throughout and the time trial used as the decider if there is an eventual tie on points.
In the Olympics, there are six events in the omnium, and they are as followed:
- The Flying Lap: an individual time trial over 250m with a “flying start", rather than a stationary start
- The Points race: a 30km points race with scoring for intermediate sprints as well as lapping the pack
- The Elimination race: a “miss and out" elimination race where the last rider to cross the line after a set amount of laps is eliminated, until only a certain amount of riders remain, and then sprint for the finish line
- The Individual pursuit: a 4km pursuit with placing based on timing. Two cyclists begin the race from a stationary start on opposite sides of the track. They then set off to complete the race distance in the fastest time.
- The scratch race: a race where all riders start together and the aim is simply to cross teh finish line first after a certain number of laps. Held across 15km.
- The time trial: a 1km timed race with two riders starting at opposite sides of the track and racing at once.
When did the Omnium become an Olympic track cycling sport?
The omnium has only been an official Olympic discipline since London 2012, where it replaced the individual pursuit, the points race and the Madison. It was won by Danish rider Lasse Norman Hansen in London, with Britain’s Ed Clancy winning the flying lap, the time trial, coming second in the individual pursuit and taking the bronze as a consequence.
The women’s omnium was won by Team GB’s reigning World and European champion Laura Trott in London. She won the flying lap, the elimination race, the time trial and came second in the individual pursuit on route to her win.
Track Cycling: A History of the Team Pursuit in the Olympic Games
What is the Team Pursuit?
The team pursuit sees two teams, each of four riders, start on opposite sides of the velodrome and race 4km. The ultimate goal is to race the 4km faster than the other team, or to overtake or catch up with your rivals.
When did the Team Pursuit become an Olympic track cycling sport?
The team pursuit is one of the longest running cycling events at the Olympic Games, with the first one held in the London 1908 Games, where Team GB took the win.
Since then, it has been included every year except 1912 in Stockholm, with Team GB winning the past two men’s events in Beijing and London, in 2008 with a team made up of Ed Clancy, Paul Manning, Geraint Thomas and Bradley Wiggins, and in 2012 Ed Clancy, Geraint Thomas, Steven Burke and Peter Kennaugh.
The women’s team pursuit was introduced to the Olympic agenda for London 2012, and saw Team GB’s trio of Danielle King, Laura Trott and Joanna Rowsell take the top prize.
Track Cycling: A History of the Team Sprint in the Olympic Games
What is the Team Sprint?
The team sprint is a time trial which consists either of three men racing three laps of a velodrome or two women racing two laps of the velodrome. Two teams race against each other, starting on opposite sides of the track. When one lap has been complete, the leading rider from the train pulls away to leave the second rider leading for the next lap. In the men’s event, the second rider then pulls away after two laps to leave the final rider to complete the final lap by themself, putting a lot of emphasis on the finishing cyclist.
When did the Team Sprint become an Olympic track cycling sport?
The men’s team sprint was introduced in Sydney in the 2000 Olympic Games, where France took the win. It has since been competed three times, with Team GB winning in 2008 with Sir Chris Hoy, Jason Kenny and Jamie Staff, and in 2012 with Hoy and Kenny this time being joined by Philip Hindes.
The team sprint is another discipline only introduced to the women’s schedule for London 2012, and saw Germany’s Kristina Vogel and Miriam Welte take the gold.
Track Cycling: A History of the Individual Sprint in the Olympic Games
What is the Individual Sprint?
An event involving between two to four riders, the individual sprint sees whichever rider finishes the track – between 250-1000m first – win the heat.
Unlike traditional athletic sprints though, riders do not sprint straight from the start gate, usually employing a “track stand", where they bring their bike to a halt without moving backwards for as long as they can to try and make rival contenders make the first move and take the lead. This allows the sprinter behind to draft off the leading cyclists flow and save his energy for a late overtake as the frontman tires.
When did the Individual Sprint become an Olympic track cycling sport?
The sprint is one of the longest running Olympic disciplines, having only not been featured in two of the 28 modern Olympic Games that have been run since 1896. The two Games it did not feature in were way back in 1904 in St. Louis and in 1912 in Stockholm, meaning the individual sprint has been part of the program for 24 consecutive Games.
The men’s individual sprint is another – yes, another – category that has been won by Team GB for the past two years. We’re not so bad at this cycling malarkey, are we? In Beijing 2008 Sir Chris Hoy took the win, while Jason Kenny stole gold in 2012.
The individual sprint was introduced to the women’s program in Seoul in 1988, when Erka Salumae from the Soviet Union took gold. Victoria Pendleton would win 20 years later in 2008, while Anna Meares is the reigning gold medal winner after being Pendleton into first in London 2012.
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