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Olympics

Olympic Track Primer: Breaking down the events

Track cycling events, explained

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With a new Olympic track program opening Thursday that includes five events each for men and women, including the new omnium, we’ve outlined the events below. The Olympic Velodrome in London plays host to the world’s top track cyclists over the next week, beginning with tonight’s women’s team sprint qualifying. All events are contested on a standard 250-meter velodrome.

Sprint (a.k.a. match sprint): In one of the track’s most thrilling events, cyclists compete two at a time against each other for three total laps around the velodrome. The riders tend to race close together for the first two laps, staring each other down and often coming to a complete stop in a track stand — but when the bell rings for the final lap, an all-out sprint ensues and the strongest rider launches across the line at speeds that reach up to 45 mph. Riders are seeded via a 200m flying sprint and are divided into three heats from the quarterfinals on.

Current world champions: Grégory Baugé (France), Victoria Pendleton (Great Britain)
Current Olympic gold medalists: Chris Hoy (Great Britain), Victoria Pendleton (Great Britain)

Team sprint: Teams of three ride in a tight pack in a team time trial formation for a total of three laps around the velodrome (women ride in teams of two for two total laps). Each teammate leads for a lap, then peels away up the banking to make way for a new leader. Leading the first lap will be the teammate with the most explosive speed out of the start, while the strongest all-around rider will bring it home in the final lap. Two teams race at a time, starting on opposite ends of the track.

Current world champions: Australia (men), Germany (women)
Current Olympic gold medalists: Great Britain (men), no women’s event at 2008 Games

Keirin: After a mass start, six riders race over a total of eight laps. A derny, or motorized bicycle, paces the riders for the first 1400 meters, gradually increasing in speed and reaching up to 50 kph before dropping off with 600m to go. Keirin is a contact sport, as competitors wrestle, bump and elbow each other to find good positioning in the pack. Riders are eliminated through knockout rounds on the way to the finals, though some cyclists who barely missed qualification may get a second chance to make the final round through repechages (similar to a losers’ bracket).

Current world champions: Chris Hoy (Great Britain), Anna Meares (Australia)
Current Olympic gold medalists: Chris Hoy (Great Britain), no women’s event at 2008 Games

Team pursuit: Like the team sprint, teams start on opposite ends of the velodrome and race in a team time trial formation. Men race in teams of four for 16 total laps (4000m), while women race in teams of three for 12 laps (3000m). Teams switch leaders regularly throughout the race, with riders peeling off up the banking to allow teammates to take over at the front. Teams may drop one rider each, so the finishing time is determined by the third rider (second for women) to cross the line. Initial qualification is determined by a time trial, and knockout rounds eliminate teams up until the final medal round.

Current world champions: Great Britain (men), Great Britain (women)
Current Olympic gold medalists: Great Britain (men), no women’s event in 2008 Games

Omnium: In a new Olympic event, the winner of the omnium must excel in six different races: a flying 250m sprint for time; a points race (30km for men, 20km for women); an elimination race in which the last rider to finish each lap is eliminated until two riders sprint in the final lap; a 4000m individual pursuit (3000m for women); a scratch race; and a 1km/500m (men/women) individual time trial. The winner is determined via a points system in which first place in each event earns one point, second earns two points, etc., and the lowest total point count wins. Riders must compete in all six events, and according to UCI rules, the cyclist racing the omnium must also race in the team pursuit.

Current world champions: Glenn O’Shea (Australia), Laura Trott (Great Britain)
Current Olympic gold medalists: n/a (no event at 2008 Games)