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Can the UCI Track Champions League bring new life and new fans to the sport? The pros certainly think so.
The new racing format was launched earlier this month and the second round in Lithuania is set for this weekend with all the big stars of track cycling in attendance once again.
Each round is a fast and furious night of competition with a very slimmed-down schedule compared to other track events, as it features just two sprint and two endurance events. The sprinters have the Individual Sprint and a Keirin, while the endurance riders battle it out in a Scratch Race and an Elimination Race.
To add to the simplicity, there are fewer rounds to reach the Sprint and Keirin finals, making it far simpler to follow for the casual viewer. Special jerseys have also been designed to make each nation’s riders stand out from the others in the pack.
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Speaking in a call from Lithuania, alongside fellow sprint world champion Emma Hinze, Dutchman Harrie Lavreysen believes the new series will draw in new fans of the sport.
“Yes, I think so,” Lavreysen said. “When watching the Olympics, the sprint event was over three days and with a lot of heats and I think a lot of people didn’t understand it. I don’t want that to change, the classic sprints at the Olympics are really important for us. But I think for the Champions League it’s way more interesting to do this way.”
While some track die-hards are happy to watch hours of bikes whizzing around a track, day after day, from heats to finals, most tune in for just the key moments. The UCI Track Champions League tries to distill the essence of both the heats and finals and puts everything into just a few hours on a Saturday evening.
As the format name suggests, it is a league and not a group of standalone events. Riders need to keep their form throughout the evening, and across the five rounds, to make sure they get as many points as possible — riders can get 20 points for a win and only one for 15th.
Like the Omnium event, having a bad race can put a serious dent in your overall hopes, so riders have to take a different tack from other competitions.
“It was a lot different from other races because it’s short,” Lavreysen said. “We only have like five races on one evening. For me, it felt like it was five finals because the first race is already really important. If you make one mistake you’re out and you are doing a bad job in the league classification.
“For the people who watch, it’s really only finals. Maybe it’s different for other riders, but I think it’s really good for entertainment and like only the important stuff that you see on the TV.”
A gateway to track racing
Lavreysen got off to a good start in the first round in Mallorca, winning the Sprint and taking second in the Keirin. German star, Hinze has a two-point lead ahead of Canada’s Kelsey Mitchell in the women’s sprinter standings having had the same finishes as Lavreysen.
The 24-year-old hopes the UCI Track Champions league will prove a gateway for people to get an understanding of velodrome racing.
“I hope that people will get to know track cycling better, and people will understand discipline even better when watching the Champions League on TV or live,” she said. “I think someone really thought about it to get it better publicity and to help people understand it better. I think it will be really interesting to watch on TV, so I hope a lot of people watch the other races too and try to understand and cheer us on.”
In the endurance events, it is Katie Archibald that leads the way for the women, while New Zealander Corbin Strong leads the men’s standings with a full complement of 40 points from the first round in Mallorca.
In addition to the change in format, the sprint competitions are run with three riders on the track rather than the usual two that we see at most events. It makes for very different dynamics and Lavreysen believes the races will get quicker as riders adapt their tactics.
“Nobody wants to be in position three. It’s almost impossible to win in position three. So, if you want three, we want to be in front and they don’t want to be third as well. So, it’ll be a quick race,” Lavreysen said.
“You can’t really use the track normally. If you’re in second position, you can get height or if they can get on the first rider. But if you take height, the third rider will go under you, and then you’re screwed. So, you have limited options.”
The Champion’s League is a world away from what the riders have experienced over much of the last 18 months. There was next to no racing at all in the build-up to the Olympics, while many events have had limited spectators.
“I really enjoy racing in front of the crowd because kind of strange there’s nobody in the Velodrome which is like training so I’m really happy that it’s possible again. I think it was the wrong way around because now we have a lot of competition with people watching it, and for the Olympics where we would need it, there was no race or only training races. Now I really enjoy that it’s kind of normal again.”
If you haven’t already, give the track champions league a go. It’s available on GCN+ in North America, and Canadians can also watch it on CBS Sports.
If it isn’t for you then maybe track cycling isn’t your cup of joe.