How to watch the Olympic Cycling Track Sprint – a beginner’s guide

As GB's Victoria Pendleton, Jess Varnish, Chris Hoy and Jason Kenny hit the Velodrome, Jamie Ewbank tells us what to look out for in the team and individual events

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Tonight’s Sprint and Team Sprint finals at the Olympic Velodrome will give us our first inkling of whether the British track cycling team can repeat the incredible success it had in Beijing, where they won 11 medals, including seven golds.

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The riders

Britain’s track team has evolved in the four years since Beijing: Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish are now concentrating on road racing, while Sir Chris Hoy will be contesting the Team Sprint and Keirin, but not defending the gold medal he won in the Individual Sprint. That honour will go to Jason Kenny, the current World Champion and silver medallist from Beijing. Victoria Pendleton will defend her Individual Sprint gold medal from Beijing, and compete alongside newcomer Jess Varnish in the newly introduced Women’s Team Sprint.

The tactics

Given the simple banked oval of the track, the gearless bikes and the sheer size of Sir Chris Hoy’s thigh muscles, you would be forgiven for thinking that track sprinting is less nuanced than road cycling. Although athleticism plays a significant role in track cycling, tactics will still be as important as pure power.

– The Individual Sprint

The riders will qualify with a 200m flying lap that ranks them before the eliminations begin, the fastest rider is matched against the slowest, second fastest against the second slowest, until the final eight competitors will face each other in best-of-three competitions of three laps each.

This is where the tactics come into play. The rider who starts on the inside line has the best route around the track, but will be forced to lead and won’t be able to see when their opponent starts their attack. Slower riders will try to keep the pace low for as long as they can so that their faster rivals don’t have the time to get up to their top speed once the dash for the line begins. 

Faster riders might try to swoop down the banked track to gain a little extra acceleration, but such moves are just as likely to be a crafty feint designed to panic their rival into attacking sooner than they want to. Sometimes riders will come to almost a complete halt, known as a track stand, in an attempt to lure their rivals through to the front or blunt their impending acceleration with a standing start.

Amid all this cat-and-mouse riders also have to contend with the difficulty of controlling the bike on the banked track. On the straights the bike will want to drop down below the black line that marks the edge of the track, while a fast ride through the curves will see the bike trying to rise up the banking. Expert bike handling is required to prevent the inner bike from veering dangerously into the path of the outer rider, and it’s not unusual for fast riders to be disqualified because their bike control isn’t as refined as their speed.

– The Team Sprint

The Team Sprint, on the other hand, is all about power. Raced over two laps for the women and three for the men, each rider takes it in turn to do a single lap at the front at the very highest speed they can manage. As the teams aren’t racing head to head, tactics take a back seat to strength. It’s an unforgiving event in which victory is decided by a few hundredths of a second, so there’s no chance to recover from error or ride at anything less than your desperate best. 

The contenders

Favourites for the men’s Team Sprint are the defending champions, Team GB, the current World Record holders from Germany, and the French with their self-described “caged Tiger” Gregor Bauge. The women’s Team Sprint is likely to see another clash between old rivals Team GB and Australia.

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In the Individual Sprint, Jason Kenny is likely to find himself up against France’s Gregor Bauge and Germany’s Robert Forstemann, while Victoria Pendleton will probably battle her long time rivals, Australia’s Anna Meares, Lithuania’s Simona Krupeckaite and Shuang Guo of China.