Britain’s track team has evolved in the four years since London: Sir Chris Hoy and Victoria Pendleton have retired, while Jess Varnish was controversially not selected for Rio. There are still plenty of familiar faces however – current World Champion Jason Kenny will be defending his 2012 gold medal in the Individual Sprint, as well as competing alongside Phillip Hindes and Callum Skinner in the Team Sprint.
Given the simple banked oval of the track, the gearless bikes and the sheer size of a track sprinter’s thigh muscles, you would be forgiven for thinking that track sprinting is less nuanced than road cycling. But while athleticism certainly 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 three laps, each rider takes it in turn to do a single lap at the front at the very highest speed they can manage, while their teammates follow in their slipstream. 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.
Among the favourites for the men’s Team Sprint are the defending champions, Team GB, the current World Champions New Zealand, and the strong German team. The women’s Team Sprint is likely to see a clash between World Champions Russia, and ever-present threats China, Australia and Germany. Team GB haven’t qualified for the women’s Team Sprint, but Britain’s former two-time World Champion Becky James will do battle in the Individual Sprint against contenders including Australia’s Anna Meares, Germany’s Kristina Vogel and World Champion Zhong Tianshi.
The Sprint qualifiers begin on 11th August from 8pm on BBC1