A Guide to the Cycling Events at the Olympics

The 2021 Summer Olympics will be unlike any in recent memory. The games were postponed from the summer of 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and even now, in the spring of 2021, there is some debate about whether or not they should be held. By all accounts, however, the International Olympics Committee is past that debate. It was recently announced that the Tokyo games will be held even if Japan is under an official state of emergency come summer.

Whether or not this is the right decision is a debate for another time and another forum. In the meantime though, we now know with certainty that there will be Olympic games in 2021 — and that means plenty of action for cycling enthusiasts to latch onto! The Olympics mark a rare occasion when a sport like cycling can really take center stage, and we can all get a look at the best athletes, teams, and even equipment in the world.

In preparation for the occasion, we’ve written up a thorough guide to the cycling events we’ll be seeing at the Olympics, as well as some of the teams and athletes to keep an eye on.

The Events

In total, there will be 22 different cycling events at the 2021 Olympics: 11 types of competition, with a men’s event and a women’s event in each one. Of these, some are among the very oldest competitions in the modern games, and some will be new. Here’s a more detailed breakdown of what we’ll be seeing:

Road Cycling Events

The road cycling portion of the competition will feature four events: men’s and women’s individual road races, and men’s and women’s time trials.

The individual road races (for men and women) will run from a starting point at Musashinonomori Park to a finish line at Tokyo’s Fuji International Speedway (though the respective races’ specific routes will vary slightly). The men’s race will be held on July 24th (the first day of Olympic cycling this summer), and will involve 130 athletes; the women’s race will take place the following day, and will be contested between 67 cyclists.

The time trials will take place at the Fuji International Speedway as well. The events will see 40 men and 25 women all competing for best times on July 28th.

Track Cycling Events

Track cycling at the 2021 Olympics will, for the first time since 2008, feature 12 events: Men and women will compete in keirin, omnium, team pursuit, sprint, and team sprint, as well as Madison, which had previously been removed from Olympic competition for the 2012 games.

Keirin events will see as many as seven cyclists in each race (men’s and women’s) competing over the course of six laps. The women will race first, with heats on August 4th and quarter-final, semi-final, and final events on the 5th; the men will have heats on August 7th, and quarter-finals, semi-finals, and a final on the 8th (the final day of cycling at this Olympics).

Omnium will take place on August 5th for the men, and August 8th for the women. For those who may not be familiar with the intricate differences between cycling events, this may be the most unique of the bunch — particularly given that it was changed significantly for the 2016 games, making 2021 only the second time we’ll have seen this iteration of the omnium. Essentially though, this is a four-in-one event consisting of a scratch race, a tempo race, an elimination race, and a points race. Competitors earn points for their performances in each of these races, which go toward total placement in the omnium.

Team pursuit will see both men’s and women’s heats on August 2nd, and semi-finals on the 3rd. The women’s final will also be held on the 3rd, while the men’s will be on the 4th. This tends to be a popular event, consisting of two teams of four competing over the course of 4km.

The sprint is a straight-up individual track race, and the event will be somewhat spread out on the calendar this summer. Men will race in the sprint through heats on August 4th and 5th, quarter-finals on the 5th, and both semi-finals and finals on the 6th. Women’s heats will be on August 6th, with quarter-finals on the 7th and semi-finals and finals on the 8th.

The team sprint is a competition between two teams of three cyclists, with the fastest time between each team’s final finisher winning. This summer, we’ll see the women’s team sprint first, with heats, semi-finals, and finals all occurring on August 2nd. The men will follow with the same three stages all occurring on the 3rd.

Madison, as mentioned, was taken out of the Olympic cycling program in 2008. It was one of a handful of new competitions considered (along with BMX freestyle, which we’ll get to below, and cyclocross, which was denied but may get Winter Olympics consideration) however, and is now back in the games. This is a two-on-two endurance relay, and will be held on August 6th for the women (in a 30km race) and August 7th for men (50km).

Mountain Biking

Mountain biking involves just a single event for men and women: MTB cross-country. At the Tokyo games, this event will take place on a 4,100m trail (the Izu Mountain Bike Course) that is expected to be remarkably challenging. Varied terrain and 150 meters worth of elevation differences will test riders over the course of multiple laps, in what is ultimately a straight-up race. The men will take on the course in a single race on July 26th, with the home following on the 27th.

BMX Events

BMX events at the 2021 Olympics will consist of men’s and women’s competitions in BMX racing and the newly instated BMX freestyle.

BMX racing was added to the Olympics for the 2008 games in Beijing, and has become a popular addition. It’s another straight-up race between competitors on an almost motocross-like track, and there is often some focus among fans on the bikes themselves. BMX bikes at the Olympics are required to have 20-inch wheels, and are often built to be as light as possible. This summer, BMX races for men and women alike will consist of quarter-finals on July 29th and semi-finals and finals on the 30th.

BMX freestyle is brand new for this summer’s games. The event will see competitors given 60 seconds at a time to showcase tricks and skills within a course in an effort to earn high marks from judges. And as with BMX racing, there will be some intrigue about the bikes as well as the competitors. BMX freestyle bikes have a lower seat height than the average competition bike by a significant margin, and competitors also don’t typically factor in brake adjustment — instead merely using their feet to drag on back wheels. It is perhaps the most unique cycling sport, and will be showcased this summer though men’s and women’s heats on July 31st and finals on August 1st.

The Teams

Naturally, there are different teams and competitors to watch in each of the different cycling sports. Based on recent history in the sport more broadly though, there are a few teams to keep a particularly close eye on:

Great Britain

It should perhaps come as no surprise that Great Britain excels in cycling, because the country generally performs well in long-standing Olympic competitions that reward individual performance. Great Britain is third in the all-time count of rowing medals for instance, and according to Bwin Sports is second only to the United States in middle-distance and relay competitions in track and field.

In cycling, Great Britain is third in the all-time medal count, but was first in 2016 in both total medals (12) and gold medals (6). The team should be very competitive once more in 2021, particularly with Jason Kenny (twice a gold medalist in 2016) back in the mix. Katie Archibald and Elinor Barker (who won gold together in team pursuit) will also be among Great Britain’s leaders.

Netherlands

The Dutch finished second in total medals (6) and tied for second in gold (2) in 2016. And in the time since, the Netherlands has excelled in international competition, particularly in the track cycling area (where the nation was dominant at the 2019 World Championships). Matthijs Büchli and Kirsten Wild will be headliners for the men and women respectively, though the women’s road team may ultimately be the Netherlands’ strongest suit. Anna van der Breggen, Demi Vollering, Van Vleuten, and Marianne Vos may well rack up a medal count.

The Dutch also tend to be fan favorites, in part because they tend to combine interesting and eye-catching kits with incredible talent. Of late, Netherlands kits have somehow combined flag colors (red, white, and blue) with the country’s trademark orange color for sporting competitions — along with top-of-the-line equipment and what look to be classic Oakleys, which are always among the best cycling glasses. In short, there’s a lot to like about this team.

Australia

Australia was a virtual non-factor in cycling competition at the 2016 Olympics, with two medals (one silver, one bronze) to its credit. This year, however, we’d suggest you keep a close eye on the Aussies.

Australia scored 10 medals (6 gold) at the 2019 UCI Track Cycling World Championships, and will be looking to translate that success into more of an impact at the 2021 games. Australia looks competitive in track events, will boast strong road teams (anchored by Richie Porte, Rohan Dennis, Grace Brown, and Amanda Spratt), and will have 24 total athletes competing — the most of any nation entered in cycling competitions.

United States

The United States has never been dominant in Olympic cycling, but tends to put together a respectable performance — as was the case when it earned the third-highest medal count (5, with 2 gold) in Rio in 2016. With 17 athletes heading to Tokyo, the U.S. should be reasonably competitive across most of the events.

The main reason to highlight the U.S. here though is the addition of BMX freestyle. Americans Connor Field and Alise Post took gold and silver respectively in BMX racing in 2016, and Team USA could have a similarly strong debut in freestyle this time around. Hannah Roberts looks to be the favorite for gold on the women’s side, and there are a few U.S. men who should compete for the final podium (though Australia’s Logan Martin may be the man to beat).

So there you have it! Olympic cycling covers a lot of ground, and all things considered is one of the more sprawling and dynamic parts of the games. Hopefully this guide will give you a few things to look forward to though as we prepare for a very fun summer of cycling.

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