A geek’s guide to Cycling

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Cycling in sport refers to various races and formats; namely Road Bicycle Cycling, Mountain Bike Racing, Track Cycling and Bicycle Motocross (BMX). They have one thing in common though, competitive racing riding a pedal bicycle.

There are countless other freestyle bicycle sports, yet these tend not to be as competitive. The four formats listed in this article are all Summer Olympic sports that audiences worldwide follow. Cycling competitions and challenges entertain a considerable following in North America, Europe and Asia.

Road Bicycle Cycling

Road cycling can be speed related or endurance, with races taking over a day and sometimes weeks to complete.

Individual Time Trial

Great Britain's Bradley Wiggins (centre) poses with his gold medal after winning the Men's Individual Time Trial. Great Britain's Bradley Wiggins (centre) poses with his gold medal after winning the Men's Individual Time Trial.

In this event cyclists race solo against the clock over mountain roads, rolling or flat terrains In the Individual Time Trial, the winner is the cyclist who has the fastest time completing the course. Riders take turns to complete their 'trial.' Race distances vary depending on the competition.

Road Race

Great Britain's Mark Cavendish (left) races for the finish line to win the Mens Road Race. Great Britain's Mark Cavendish (left) races for the finish line to win the Mens Road Race

Single-day road races may be as long as a few hundred kilometres. Ultimately the road race is where the rider who finishes first wins the race, being the fastest around a course distance. Shorter road races tend to favour sprint riders, whilst longer distances favour endurance competitors.

Stage Races

Riders in the Tour of Britain stage 3 cycle race pass near the Grey Mares Tail on their way to Dumfries from Jedburgh. Riders in the Tour of Britain stage 3 cycle race pass near the Grey Mares Tail on their way to Dumfries from Jedburgh.

Stage races are actually several races, known as stages that riders must complete in the shortest time. The competitor with the lowest cumulative time across all stages will be declared the winner. Each stage winner is the first cyclist to cross the finish line and thus, becomes the fastest rider.

There are three-week stage races known as the Grand Tours, including three of the most prestigious races in cycling; the Giro d'Italia, the Tour de France, and the Vuelta a España.

Mountain Bike Racing

In mountain bike racing, there are four classifications: four cross, downhill, trailquest and cross-country.

Four Cross

Four cross is four mountain biker riders competing on a highly-challenging course. Races are usually frenzied, and due to the speeds involved, races last only 25 seconds to one minute.

Courses include an array of obstacles that riders must navigate and get over whilst riding at high-speed combined with jostling with other competitors. Needless to say, this event has many bicycle crashes.

Downhill

Downhill is the ultimate mountain bike test of nerve and control, with the race being who is the fastest from top to bottom. The difference between first and second can be a matter of seconds.

Michael Hannah from Australia takes Bronze medal during the World Championship 2009 Elite Men Down Hill Michael Hannah from Australia takes Bronze medal during the World Championship 2009 Elite Men Down Hill

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Riders race down a steep course attempting to navigate bumps, jumps and drop-offs, making this race very exciting and unpredictable for spectators.

Trailquest

This discipline combines orienteering with cross-country racing. Competitors must search for specific locations on courses and clip special cards to demonstrate they have completed particular points. This event can last hours, it is not about the fastest race time but accumulating points from completing the special course cards.

Trailquest can either be a team event with two riders or an individual competition.

Cross-country Racing

Cross-country racing is the only mountain biking event at the Olympics. Riders must have brilliant bike handling skills to manoeuvre around rocks, branches, trees and small streams.

Austria's Maria Osl takes a bend during the Women's World Cup Cross Country race Austria's Maria Osl takes a bend during the Women's World Cup Cross Country race

This draining event requires riders to be incredibly fit and have high endurance levels, with the race lasting several laps and a few hours over descending and ascending terrain.

Track Cycling

Track cycling is divided into two further formats; sprints and endurance, with riders tending to focus on either format and rarely compete in both.

Track cycling sprint races

Sprint
Sprint riders require both explosive speed and excellent bike-handling skills. Before the race begins, riders are drawn lots to determine who starts on the track inside and who must lead for the first lap.

In track sprint races, riders don't want to lead nor leave themselves open from attack from competitors behind them. The race begins very slowly as cyclists jostle to a favoured position before bursting into speed on the final lap attempting to get away from their opponent and sprinting to the finish line.

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Keirin
The keirin is an odd event, originating in Japan. Similar to the sprint except it has six to eight riders instead of two; riders follow a small moped-type bike called a derny.

Great Britain's Jack Carlin during the men's Keirin final. Great Britain's Jack Carlin during the men's Keirin final.

The role of the derny is to set the pace for the riders for the first few laps of an eight-lap race. The derny increases its speed gradually before pulling off the arena with two-and-a-half laps to go leaving riders to sprint frantically to the finish.

Riders again jostle for position before the derny breaks away (and not permitted to overtake, remaining behind the back wheel of the derny) meaning that during the last laps the fast and furious race incurs many crashes!

Track time trial
A pretty straightforward race, the track time trial is a race against the clock from a standing start. Riders need to have strength, stamina and speed and judge their pace to not run out of steam at crucial points of the race.

An explosive start is required to get ahead of the clock however if riders go too fast they will burn out too soon and miss out of completing timed checkpoints.

Team sprint
Two teams, consisting of three riders, start on opposite sides of the velodrome track. The race is three laps long, and at the end of the first lap, the leading rider pulls up leading the second rider to lead for the next lap, with the third rider leading for the third lap.

France's Francois Pervis, Quentin Lafarge and Sebastien Vigier in the Team Sprint Men's First Round. France's Francois Pervis, Quentin Lafarge and Sebastien Vigier in the Team Sprint Men's First Round.

All the time the team must keep a perfect team shape and not be too far from each other. The first rider must have the speed of a sprinter, with the second rider power to pull away from the opposing team and the third rider with endurance taking the team home to (hopefully) win the race.

The team crossing their finishing line first wins the race.

Track cycling endurance races

Individual pursuit
In the Individual Pursuit, two competitors start from the opposite side of the velodrome track, with the aim of catching each other up. Should this not happen, the cyclist covering the distance in the fastest time will win the race.

As with most endurance races, an explosive start is not always required, rather the ability to ride at high speeds for the entire of the race. Riders must be adept in pacing themselves to win the team pursuit.

Madison
The Madison takes its name from New York City's famous Madison Square Garden. The race is a whopping 50km long on the velodrome track and is a team event, not an individual one.

The Madison begins with all riders on the track; however, only one rider from each team is permitted to race at any given time. The rider’s teammates circle the track resting themselves until their teammate brings them back into the race with a hand-sling motion - grabbing their teammates hand and propelling them along the track to continue the race in their place.

Great Britain's Laura Kenny and Katie Archibald (top left) following the Women's Madison Final. Great Britain's Laura Kenny and Katie Archibald (top left) following the Women's Madison Final.

Riders are attempting to lap their opponents and obtain points for doing so plus for specific sprints along the race. The team with the most points at the race's end is the winner.

Omnium
Competitors in the Omnium each ride five events, all of which must be completed:

  • 15km points race
  • 200m flying time trial
  • 5km scratch race
  • 1km time trial
  • 3km individual pursuit

Points are given in reverse order, so winning riders obtain one point and the lowest rider getting more. The rider with the least amount of points will be declared the winner.

Omnium riders require a combination of bunched racing, sprinting and time-trialling.

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Points race
A points race is a combination of endurance and a sprint racing, with the race being 25-40km depending on the rider’s gender.

It is scored similarly to the Madison, except that the Points Race is a solo and not a team event. Once again, the primary aim is to gain a lap on the rest of the field. If a rider does this, they win the race. This is a very tactical race, with distance riders looking to lap the rest of the field and sprinters looking to burst to score more points during sprint sections of the race.

For each sprint finish, the first four riders that cross the line will be awarded points with double points awarded on the last lap.

Team pursuit
The Team Pursuit, like the Individual Pursuit, has two sets of competitors starting on the opposite sides of the track, except rather than solo riders, there are four in each team covering over 4,000m.

The primary aim of the race is for the teams to catch each other or complete the race in the fastest possible time, with each rider taking turns to lead for half-laps or full laps.

Belgium riders during the Team Pursuit Women first round. Belgium riders during the Team Pursuit Women first round.

Crucially, teams cannot afford to lose any of their riders during the race because it is the third rider crossing the line that counts as the final finishing time.

Team Pursuit participants require colossal stamina levels and excellent inter-team riding skills - the wheels of each team members bikes are only a few centimetres apart.

Bicycle Motocross (BMX)

BMX has several stunt events that are highly popular within the sport, containing overtaking moves and big jumps. However, within the summer Olympics, only the 'Race' has been given official recognition for the sport's inclusion. The BMX race involves eight or fewer competitors competing around a track.

Men's BMX Race Competition at Pulo Mas International BMX Center. Men's BMX Race Competition at Pulo Mas International BMX Center.

Unlike typical BMX bikes, the race bikes are much longer and lighter, enabling riders to maintain high speeds and remain stable on the track. The race is a simple, whoever wins the race is the winner, with competitors attempting to overtake one another along the designated course.

Cycling has so many formats and events that it would be impossible to cover them all. However, with this geek’s guide to cycling, you should be armed enough to begin understanding the sport and its most essential formats and events to watch and bet on.

Words: David Bailey-Lauring

Images: PA

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