Olympics

What am I watching? Thursday’s track events explained

RIO DE JANEIRO (VN) — It looks like bike racing and sounds like bike racing, but even for the seasoned road racing fan, track cycling can be impenetrably confusing. We’re here to help. For each Olympic track racing session, we’ll run through the day’s racing, explaining how the events work, who…

RIO DE JANEIRO (VN) — It looks like bike racing and sounds like bike racing, but even for the seasoned road racing fan, track cycling can be impenetrably confusing.

We’re here to help. For each Olympic track racing session, we’ll run through the day’s racing, explaining how the events work, who to watch, and when to tune in.

Thursday is the first day of track racing at the Olympics. It’s a short session, less than three hours long, and will feature only two types of track events: the team sprint and team pursuit. Here’s what you need to know.

Team pursuit

Four riders ride four kilometers as fast as possible. The team pursuit is one of the most technically difficult disciplines in all of cycling, requiring both incredible power and absolute precision. It’s both beautifully simple — get to 4,000 meters the fastest and you win — and quite complicated.

World records are expected to fall both for the men and women.

The American women’s team won the world championship this spring and enters as a top favorite.

“The goal for the team is to make history,” said USA Cycling track head coach Andy Sparks. “The goal for the ladies is to win the first ever gold medal for American women in track cycling.”

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What’s the secret?
The difficult part comes during the exchanges. It’s a maneuver teams spend years perfecting. The front rider swings off the front mid-corner, slowing as she rides up the track’s steep banking and allowing her three teammates to pass, then dives back down the track to slot in perfectly behind the last rider. Any error in timing, however small, requires a surge in power to get back on the wheel, wasting energy and costing the team time.

Both men and women complete 16 laps of the 250-meter track and tend to exchange 10-12 times. Time is taken with the third rider across the line, so one rider will often take a huge pull then drop off in the final laps.

The pursuit has long been considered an endurance event, but more explosive riders have recently been used to great effect. The standing start means that teams that can get off the blocks quickly can create big gaps. The Americans won their world title thanks to a blistering first lap.

Every pursuit is full gas. There can be no saving energy, as the results are so close and a single bad run can relegate a fast time out of the medals.

“Even though there are different heats it really is an all-out race every time,” said U.S. rider Jennifer Valente. “Every effort, you’re only looking at that race. We’re pushing ourselves to go as fast as we can go. You don’t look at the next heat or the next round until the ride is over.”

The contenders
On the women’s side, the United States, Canada, Great Britain, New Zealand, and Australia are all contenders for gold. The U.S. was fastest at the world championships, but GB always comes on strong for the Olympics. “We expect them to get three seconds faster, because they always do,” said Sparks.

The Australians crashed in training on Monday. One rider was taken to the hospital. It’s unknown how the crash will affect the team four days later.

The men’s event is likely to be a battle between Great Britain, led by Bradley Wiggins, and their Australian rivals, who were fastest at worlds. Denmark and New Zealand are also riding well.

When’s the good stuff happening
Thursday’s session is the qualifier. The women’s qualifiers begin at 4:19 p.m. local time, 3:19 p.m. ET. The men’s qualifiers begin at 5:23pm local time, 4:23pm ET. Each team will complete their 4k, and their time is then used to set up the Round 1 heats, which will occur on Saturday morning. The finals will be Saturday evening.

Men’s Team Sprint

Though it’s called a team sprint, this is really a three-man time trial wherein only one man has to finish at the end of three laps. For women, it’s two women and two laps. (The women’s team sprint takes place Friday.)

Three men line up on the track for a standing start. The furthest down the track leads for one lap, then pulls up in a designated zone. Watch for this — teams have been relegated in the past for not pulling up at the right time. The second man then does a lap and pulls up. Then the last man does his lap and crosses the line for the team’s time.

What’s the secret?
A strong start is key. You’ll hear lots of bellowing from the starters as they muscle huge gears off the line. The middle rider is perhaps least important; he just keeps the speed up.

It is crucial to have an anchor rider who can ride at 95% sprint for two laps, then 100% for a third. Ouch.

The contenders
Great Britain monstered this event in London, but have been unable to fill the hole left by Chris Hoy’s retirement.

New Zealand’s trio of Ethan Mitchell, Sam Webster, and Edward Dawkins are the favorites, followed closely by the Netherlands’s Jeffrey Hoogland, Theo Bos (returning to the track after a hiatus on the road), and Matthijs Buchli. Keep an eye on France and Germany as well.

When’s the good stuff happening?
The men’s final is at 6:25 p.m. local time. That’s 5:25 ET.