Bicycle racing seems pretty basic, right? If you're talking about BMX or road racing, yes. The first one across the line wins. But in track cycling, there are multiple variations of the competition to understand.
First, you need to know about the track, called a velodrome. An Olympic velodrome is made of wood and is a minimum of 250 meters around where it is closest to the track infield.
You will see several lines on the track. The first is a wide blue line near the bottom. This separates the track from the infield warm-up area. Riders are not allowed here. A thin black line next to it represents the shortest distance on the track.
Above that is a red line or "sprinter's line." Anyone who wants to pass a rider in front of them must go to the right, or above, the red line. Once the pass is complete, they can go back below the red line. Above that is a thin blue line. The area above that is a rest area for riders taking part in the Madison race, which will be explained later.
The bicycles used in track cycling do not have brakes because braking could lead to a collision with other competitors. The bicycles have fixed gears, so the speed is gradually slowed by pushing back on the pedals.
When you first watch this, you may be a bit confused. At the start, the racers don’t always go all out to try to win this three-lap race. They will often meander around, sometimes even coming to a full stop, trying to force their opponent into an unfavorable position. But when it gets to about the last 200 meters or so, it’s an all-out sprint to the finish.
In men’s team sprint, each team has three riders who race three laps. For women’s, it’s two riders racing two laps. The teams ride together for the first lap, with one rider in the lead. When that lap is done, the lead rider peels off and the remaining rider(s) continue. The clock stops with the final rider crosses the finish line.
Two teams of four start at opposite ends of the track and race for 16 laps (4 kilometers). There are two ways to win: One is to catch the other team. The other is to finish in the shortest time. Watch the riders as they take turns in the lead, thereby taking turns in having to deal with the most wind resistance. But remember this: The time stops with the front wheel of the third rider in the group crosses the line.
Think of this individual race like a NASCAR race. The multiple cyclists aren't starting from a dead stop. For the first three laps, they follow a pacer motorcycle called a derny that is gradually gaining speed up to 50 kph. During these pacer laps, the cyclists jostle for position. When the derny peels off, the cyclists go into a three-lap sprint for the finish.
If cycling had a decathlon event, this would be it. Cyclists are involved in four different races in one day, throughout which they accumulate points.
The scratch race is 15km for men and 10km for women. The first one over the line wins.
The tempo race, which will be new at the Tokyo Olympics, awards riders points for every lap they lead.
The elimination race is just that. Every two laps, the rider who crosses the finish line last is eliminated. This keeps going until there is only one rider left.
The points race is 25km for men and 20km for women. Sprints are held at various points throughout the race (listen for the bell to signal this). The riders who get across the line first in each of these sprints are awarded points.
The rider with the most points at the end of these four events wins the gold medal.
Think of this kind of like a relay race you see in track and field, but without the baton. Two riders on each team each take turns racing. While one is on the track, the other rests above the aforementioned blue line. When the resting rider is ready to come back in, they grab them by the hand and slingshot them to the front. The first team to cross the finish wins. It's a 50km race for men and 30km for women.