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Olympic track cycling Team Pursuit: a viewer's guide

How and why do the riders change places on the track? Who are the main contenders? And can Team GB's men and women defend their London 2012 titles?

Published: Thursday, 11th August 2016 at 6:00 am

The most beautiful event in track cycling is the Team Pursuit, which combines speed and endurance with complex manoeuvres as teams compete to outdo each other over a distance of four kilometres.


The race

For viewers it’s a particularly enjoyable spectacle, as the teams start on opposite sides of the track and pursue each other over 16 laps. A dominant performance will see one team visibly gaining ground on the other, while a more hard fought battle will see teams appearing to maintain almost identical track positions, with only hundredths of a second between them. If the teams seem to be flashing across the top and bottom of your TV screen at the same time, then you’re witnessing a really tight battle, but if you’re watching one catching up with the other then you’re seeing one team perform astonishingly well.

The riders start from positions spread up the banking and quickly fall into a line, with the rider closest to the inside of the track having the delicate task of attaining top speed as quickly as possible without burning his or her teammates off their back wheel.

Once the team is riding at full speed, each member will take it in turn to do a lap or a lap-and-a-half at the front, before attempting an inch-perfect manoeuvre: swinging up the banking to allow the following riders through, before dropping back down into the rearmost position. This way, the riders alternate between the tough leg-work at the front and the benefit of riding in their teammates' slipstream at the back.

If the returning rider drops back into line too late it will be almost impossible to close the gap in time for their next turn on the front. Teams will often burn one rider off entirely, having them put in an extra, sacrificial effort to keep the pace high, as the time recorded is based on the third rider to cross the line.

The favourites

The need to attain maximum speed and perfect synchronisation makes the Team Pursuit one of the most difficult disciplines in track cycling. Team GB are the defending Olympic Champions in both the men’s and women’s events, and although the teams have changed since 2012, they are looking good in training. The men’s team has unofficially broken world records during a practice session, although they’ll face stiff competition from reigning World Champions Australia.

Of particular interest to British fans is the return of Sir Bradley Wiggins as part of the team, not to mention Laura Trott’s defence of her Team Pursuit gold from 2012.

The women’s Team Pursuit has been updated since the last Olympics, with the women now riding the same distance as the men, rather than the 12 laps of 21012. In the women’s event the Australians, again, are always dangerous, as are the reigning World Champions, the USA.


The first round of the men's and women’s pursuit starts on 11th August from 8pm on BBC1


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