Everything You Need To Know About...Cycling Disciplines

Words by Harry Archer

on 22/02/2018 15:10:36


The UCI Track Cycling World Championships are due to be held at the end of this month, taking place in the Netherlands at the Omnisport Apeldoorn from 28 February to 4 March 2018. This high-octane competition comprises a variety of world championship events for the various disciplines and distances in track cycling, including a time trial, keirin, individual pursuit, team pursuit, points race, scratch race, sprint, team sprint, omnium and Madison. Although both genders partake in every competition, Women's events are generally shorter than men's. There are also separate competitions for Para-cycling and Juniors.

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Originally held in 1893, the races were for amateurs with separate professional races held from 1895. Amateurs and professionals competed in individual events for almost a century until 1993, when the two factions were merged to form one singular competition hosting what are now known as "open" races. The Championships are a national competition, meaning that in order to participate, riders must be selected by their national cycling association and compete in the colours of their country. Not national teams?! I hear your cries - But we are actually pretty handy when it comes to cycling as a nation, With Jason Kenny, Laura Kenny and Bradley Wiggins (All CBE) leading Team GB to victory in 2016 and securing the UK's place as the second highest ranking team in the all-time medal table. So none of that crushing disappointment that goes with watching the cricket or the football is likely to feature! But what's the difference between all these exciting events? We can help you there. The following article will give you a quick run through of everything you can expect to see at the Track championships this year - and a brief overview of the other numerous disciplines across the cycling spectrum. This will ensure you'll have the knowledge to follow the many different cycling competitions that go on over the year whilst broadening your horizons and perhaps enticing yourself to take up something new. Cycling is one of the most diverse sports in the world, with so many varieties of riding from downhill mountain biking to time trials - it would be a shame to limit yourself to just one...

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Track Cycling

Time Trial - Competing against the clock, the riders attempt to record the fastest time possible over a specified distance. The Women's sprint is 500m in length whereas the Men's race is usually 1000m and therefore the race is often referred to as the 'Kilo'. The standard Time Trial begins with a standing start but there's also a variation known as the 'flying' start whereby a race will be held over 200m when riders are already in motion.

Keirin - Competition-level keirin races are held over several rounds with one final. Normally 1.5km long. Keirin races involve a motorised vehicle, normally a motorbike, that acts as a pacer, gradually increasing the speed of the pack of riders behind for the first few laps. The riders, who have drawn lots to determine their starting positions, are paced by the motorised vehicle until they're 750m from the finish - at this point they are released and sprint for victory, with the winning rider sometimes clocking crazy speeds of nearly 45mph! Previous Team GB Winners in this event include : Victoria Pendleton (2012), Sir Chris Hoy (2008,2012) and Jason Kenny (2016).

Pursuit(Individual & Team) - The individual pursuit is held over 4km for men and 3km for Women. Two cyclists start the race from a stationary position on opposite sides of the track and start at the same time. The aim of the race is to complete the distance faster than the other rider. The Event is known as the Pursuit due to the riders being positioned on the pursuit line at the bottom of the track which is the fastest area of the track. The two riders pursue each other, trying to catch the other rider who started on the opposite side of the track. If the catch is achieved, then the successful pursuer is declared the winner. Very exciting to watch, the only difference between the Individual and Team Pursuits is that two teams, each of up to four riders, compete against each other with each team starting on opposite sides of the velodrome. Team GB are the reigning Olympic champions in the individual categories with Sir Bradley Wiggins and Rebecca Romero both claiming victories in 2016.

Sprint(Individual & Team) - The sprint event involves between two and four riders, though usually it's a one-on-one race between opponents who start next to one another, unlike the individual pursuit. Distances range between 250m and 1000m with riders not confined to lanes. Sprints aren't all about being the fastest all the time - Riders will often ride slowly, attempting to force their rival to make the first move and allowing them to use their draft and expend less effort overall, saving themselves for the final sprint to the finish. Jason Kenny (CBE) is the current Olympic champion so this is another event that Team GB stands a very good chance of reaching the podium in (at least). The Team Sprint sees the riders begin on opposite sides of the velodrome and comprises of a three-person team time trial held over three laps for Men and a two-person event held over two laps for Women.

Madison 'The American' - A conventional race with an American twist, with the current format (twelve hours riding per day per rider maximum) originating from New York in response to the immense physical restraints of the old six day races. Riders in each team ride a proportion of the distance before handing over to another member of the team, resting, and then returning to the race. Teams are usually of two or three riders with only one member of the team racing at any time. The replacement rider has to be touched before he can take over, a bit like a relay race in athletics. The touch is often a push, giving the new rider a boost as they head out onto the track. How long each rider stays in the race is for each team to decide, with the overall winners being the team that is able to complete the most laps within the designated time period. Madison races vary in length depending on the competition, With UCI races taking place on a singular day instead of the historical six day affairs.


Omnium - A multiple event race, the Omnium has taken a variety of forms throughout the years of track cycling competitions. In each race, points are designated to the winners of each event, with the overall winner of the race being the rider that collects the most points over all involved events. Since 2016 the Omnium has comprised of four events:

  1. Scratch Race - Riders start the race together with the objective simply to finish the race, normally 15km for men and 10km for women, quicker than any other rider. No intermediate points or sprints, just pure full-on racing.
  2. Elimination Race - During this race, certain criteria will see riders eliminated from the race whilst it remains ongoing. The 'Miss and out' elimination races work via removing the last rider to cross the line at the end of every lap or every set number of laps. When only a few of remain, they sprint for the finish. 'Win and out' races work basically in the same manner except that the first rider to cross the line is removed from the race and wins first place, the second rider removed wins second place, ETC. Elimination races are the place to see crashes and nail-biting action, with such high stakes due to the nature of the eliminations.
  3. Points Race (Tempo) - A mass start event involving a larger amount of riders on the track at the same time. It's a race over a long distance, with 40km for men and 25km for women the distance raced in UCI championships. A sprint is usually held every ten laps, with five, three, two, and one point/points being awarded to fastest four riders in each sprint. The winner of the race is the rider to have the most points accumulated over the duration of the race. In addition to the sprints,riders can gain an extra twenty points by lapping the main field - making for a chaotic, slightly confusing but extremely exciting tactical event. Within the current Omnium, 'Tempo' point-based rides feature, with riders awarded more points for finishing second in sprints as well as first.
  4. Meet The UCI Track Cycling Team For 2018 >

    So there we are, Everything you'll need to know about the different things you can expect to see at the UCI World Track Cycling Championships this year. But what about the variety of other, equally fascinating, Cycling disciplines? Below are some brief descriptions of the other major cycling disciplines and the events scheduled for this year:

    Road Cycling

    The oldest of all the disciplines, Road Racing has been popular since the end of the nineteenth century and has gone from strength to strength since then, with the flagship competition - The Tour De France - becoming one of the most popular annual sporting events in the world. But there's more to road riding than that, with a huge variety of different types of event designed to test every aspect of a rider's skill on the skinny tyres.

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    Single Day Races & Criteriums - Taking place over a specified distance from Point A to Point B, single days races can contain laps or a continual route. The winner is the first rider to reach the finishing line. Criteriums are short-circuit races usually held in urban areas and are raced in laps, again rewarding the fastest rider to the finish with the victory. Certain races and criteriums will have a 'handicap' format where slower riders start before quicker riders, allowing those of all abilities to race competitively with one another. A famous example of a single day race would be the Paris-Roubaix, one of the oldest races in competitive cycling.

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    Stage Races - These Events comprise a number of 'stages'(races) ridden consecutively over a specified amount of time. The rider with the quickest time over the entirety of the race is the overall winner but there are also individual awards for stage victories,climbing,sprints,age group and other categories that can gain riders extra points towards an award at the end of the race (E.G The infamous polka dot jersey for the king of the mountains in the Tour De France). The most renowned stage races on the UCI calendar are three week competitions known as 'Grand Tours' - The Giro D'Italia, Vuelta a Espana and Tour De France are all examples of UCI Grand Tours.

    Time Trials (TT) & Team Time Trials (TTT) - Varying in difficulty,duration and terrain depending on location, a Time Trial is won by completing a set distance quicker than any other competitors. The major difference between individual and team time trials is that the use of drafting (using another rider's or vehicle's slipstream to gain an aero advantage), which is only permitted during team based races. Individuals and teams all start at different times in order to make the race fair.

    Ultramarathons - Races that are held over large distances and time frames where the clock is always running and riders determine their own breaks and schedules. The pinnacle of endurance racing, they include events such as RAAM (Race Across America) with riders either supported or unsupported by a team depending on the rules of a specific event.

    Guide To Endurance Road Bikes >Cyclocross Guide >

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    Cyclocross - Mixing cycling,running and obstacle courses into one crazy mix, Cyclocross races are normally between 1km and 3km and consist of a mixture of terrains and obstacles ranging from mud to steps. The pace of riding is intense, with the continual movement of getting on and off the bike to run with it ensuring that only the strong succeed in this discipline. The bikes are sturdy, drop-bar cross or gravel bikes with wider tyre profiles for grip, with many competitors using Cyclocross races as a way to stay fit in the winter off season whilst improving their bike handling and technical skills.

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    Mountain Biking

    Although most people associate Mountain Biking as something that was conceived in the hills of California relatively recently, it's actually been around since about the same time as road bikes, with the first off-road bikes being used by the different Armed forces from way back in 1891! It's fair to say that a lot of development has occurred since then and as such there's now a variety of styles of Bike and competitions throughout the Mountain Biking community.

    Guide To Full Suspension Bikes >Mountain Bike Guide >Hardtail Mountain Bike Guide >

    Cross-Country (XC) - Racing from one point to another on a specified section of trail, XC riders are the most common type of Mountain Biker, with competitions held from local levels all the way up to Olympic standard. Routes will incorporate fire roads, quick single-tracks and a variety of technical climbs and descents that test a riders handling,endurance and technical skill. Jumps and large obstacles are rarely seen due to the lower travel of the XC bikes used within this discipline.

    Enduro - An Enduro race will feature routes with an increasing amount of technical lines, steep gradients and larger jumps and obstacles when compared to XC races. Enduro competitions are stage based, with riders having to travel an entire route involving climbing and singletrack before undertaking different timed descents. As such, Enduro bikes tend to be balanced to perform well across the board, with enough travel to descend well without negatively impacting climbing ability. The winner is the rider that completes the timed descents in the quickest time.

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    Downhill - The fastest and most technically demanding of the off-road disciplines, downhill riding combines pace, massive jumps ,large obstacles and difficult terrain such as roots or slippery rocks. Intense and extremely exciting for spectators due to the potential for wipe-outs and split second decisions riders face on the trails, expect to see Downhill Bikes that are super slack, with enough travel to soak up a lot of abuse from the rough nature of this riding style. Competitors are individually timed on specific descents with the winner being the quickest rider to reach the finish line.

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    Other Notable Cycling Disciplines

    Trials - Without their feet touching the ground, riders will jump,hop and manoeuvre around man-made or naturally occurring obstacles. Think Danny MacAskill - If you don't know who that is then we highly recommend checking out his Trial Bike videos. They're insanely good. Winners are those that show the best technique and perform the wildest tricks.

    Dirt/Urban Jumping & Freeriding - Riding over a set of dirt mounds or man-made objects on specifically made, small wheeled, low travel bikes is essentially the basis of dirt and urban jumping, with riders earning points for technical skills and tricks performed. Freeriding is essentially an aggressive version of XC riding, with bigger jumps and descents and a lot more technical riding over logs,bridges and the like. Courses tend to have multiple lines a rider can choose to take, with the winner being the competitor that impresses the judges the most over the entirety of the race.


    Marathon- Much like the Ultramarathons of Road Cycling, Marathon Off-Road races involves a variety of terrain over long-distances. The winners are the riders that reach the finish line first. Basically a competitive version of cycle touring.

    BMX- BMX races take their inspiration from Motocross races by utilising flat, lap based routes on dirt tracks that incorporate jumps and tricks into a race format. Riders usually start the race next to each other in a starting gate with the winner being the first to reach the finish line. There are also competitions that focus more on the trick aspect of BMX riding, with the winners of these events being those that perform the best tricks and show the highest level of technical skill.

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