Olympic Preview: Cycling

Updated February 21, 2017 | Factmonster Staff

First Olympic Appearance: 1896

by Beth Rowen

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The olympic cycling competition features four disciplines—Mountain biking, road racing, track racing, and BMX–the newest entry.

Mountain Biking


Did You Know?
Unlike mountain bikes and road bikes, track bikes have no brakes.


Mountain biking debuted at the 1996 Games in Atlanta and differs from road and track in that the bikes used are sturdier, with larger, knobby tires, and race courses comprise undulating and sometimes very narrow dirt trails over periodic obstacles. In London races will last between 1 hour and 30 minutes and 1 hour and 45 minutes for both men and women. Bikers will complete several laps of the 4.7 km long course, which is located in Essex on Hadleigh Farm.

Unlike road and track cycling, the mountain bike riders may receive no outside assistance during the race. They must make all repairs to their bikes themselves.

Road Cycling

Road cycling is the original Olympic cycling competition and the most popular cycling competition worldwide. The world famous Tour de France is a road race.

In the first modern Olympics (1896), the cyclists raced 87 kilometers over two laps of the marathon course. It wasn't until 1984 in Los Angeles that women got to join the action. Currently there are four events in the Olympic road-racing program: men's and women's road race and men's and women's time trials. The road race has a mass start and the riders race directly against one another. The men's distance is 250km and the women's distance is 140km. In the time trials the riders, who start at 90-second intervals, race against the clock over distances of 44km for men and 29km for women.

Track Cycling

Track cycling is a different type of racing. All the competition is contained in a smooth oval track, called a velodrome, which is banked at an angle of 42 degrees on the ends and 12 degrees on the straightaways. In London, the races will be held at Olympic Park's Velodrome. Some of the events, like the sprint, can involve elaborate tactics. In 1964 at the Tokyo Games, during the semifinals of the 1000 meter sprint, two racers stood motionless on their bikes for nearly 22 minutes, each waiting for the other to make the first move. The person in the back of this one-on-one race is considered to have the edge because they can "draft" off the leader and pounce when they are not aware. Drafting is when the rear rider rides in the aerodynamic wake of the leader thereby giving them a slim but crucial advantage.

The standoff time limit was later limited to three minutes maximum so you won't be seeing anything quite like that in London. Here is a quick rundown of the events in track racing: The men's and women's track time trial is like the road racing version in that the racers go off one at a time and race alone against the clock. The men race 1000 meters, four laps around the track, while the women race 500 meters, two laps around.

In the men's and women's sprint, the races are one-on-one, three-lap affairs. The racers face off in a best-of-three-heats series. In the first lap the two cyclists must ride no slower than walking pace but after that anything goes (remember though that standoffs are limited to three minutes), the leader must leave room on the right to pass and the first bike across the line wins the heat.

In the men's and women's individual pursuit, the riders start the race on opposite sides of the track. A rider can win by either catching up to their competitor or recording the faster time. The men's pursuit is raced over 4km and the women's race is 3km.

In the team pursuit, raced only by men, two four-man teams race over 4km. The rules are much the same as the individual pursuit. However, the position of the third rider is the key to everything. The times are recorded when each team's third place rider's front wheel crosses the finish line. One team has caught the other only if the third place rider has caught up to the third place rider on the other team.

The men's and women's points race are a bit confusing. Riders accumulate points over the 40km race (25km for the women) by being one of the top four to cross the finish line every tenth lap. After the race distance has been completed the winner is the racer that has lapped the field. Usually it is more than one racer and that is when the points come into play. The racer with the most points out of the group that has lapped the pack is the winner.

The Madison, a team version of the points race, is competed only by men. The two-man teams race over 60km but only one rider is actually able to earn points at any one time. The teams usually comprise one sprinting specialist and one endurance racer.

The Keirin made its Olympic debut at Sydney. Pronounced "kay-rin", the race originated in 1940s Japan and was a popular betting race. It is contested over eight laps. For the first 5½ laps a motorbike sets a gradually quickening pace. After the motorbike leaves the course it's an all out sprint for the finish line.

The team sprint also made its debut at the Sydney games. It is a men's event where two three-man teams race full blast over three laps. Each rider must lead his team for one lap. The team with the fastest time (marked when the last rider crosses the finish line) wins.


The 2008 Beijing Games were the first to feature men's and women's individual BMX events, which features riders on bikes with 20 inch tires, only one gear, and one break racing over a dirt course that includes numerous tight turns and jumps. Each race lasts about 40 seconds. The BMX competition, as well as the track and mountain bike events, will be held on the BMX Track at Olympic Park.

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