There’s a moment in track cycling where everything pauses: the audience holds its collective breath, riders set their stance, and then - like a shot - they're off, pushing the limits of human potential. Looking at the track season ahead, we are now at this exact moment, on a broader scale.
The winter is upon us. For road cycling, athletes and fans alike, this means one thing: off-season. To some, this means a break from the sport until the opening weekend in late February. Some search for different incarnations of cycling – and most often find it in cyclocross. Spending the afternoons watching the short-lived, exhilarating discipline, maybe even freezing at the side of a course to see the heroes of these muddy adventures battle it out in the flesh. (If you haven’t been to a ‘cross race but there are some near you, I highly recommend it. The vibes are immaculate).
To me, the winter means track season. It means that I get to waffle on about my favourite sport in the world. It means I get to be glued to my screen or sitting in a velodrome, feeling the electrifying thrill, the rush, of watching one of the rawest, most honest forms of cycling.
The season of track cycling, where every millisecond counts and where the roar of the crowd reverberates with the whir of wheels, is about to kick off with the third edition of the UCI Track Champions League.
The Genesis of the Track Champions League
Emerging as the beacon of modern track cycling, the UCI Track Champions League has, in the short span since being introduced in 2021, redefined the landscape of the sport. Conceived to bring together the crème de la crème of track athletes, it has already etched a distinctive mark on the international cycling calendar.
The League's allure isn't just in its assembly of champions but in its novel format. Streamlining the events brings the thrill of both sprint and endurance races into a single evening's showcase. Riders vie for top honours in disciplines like the keirin, sprint, elimination, and scratch, making every round a compact adrenaline rush.
Past editions saw the likes of American Jennifer Valente and Swiss Claudio Imhof command the endurance league, while French star Mathilde Gros and the dynamic Australian Matthew Richardson were in a league of their own in the sprints. These victories weren't just personal triumphs but symbolic of the League's essence — a platform where the best battle the best. Olympic and world champions participate, making the level of sport elite.
For track cycling, the Champions League is more than just another competition. It's a testament to the sport's enduring charm and its evolving future.
The Beauty of Track Cycling
For the uninitiated, track cycling may seem like an incomprehensible blur of helmets and wheels, but dig a bit deeper, and you discover a world of strategy, endurance, and raw power. It takes place in a velodrome, a specially designed stadium, that houses a closed-looped cycling track, usually made of high-quality wood. The tracks are banked at either end, providing a centripetal force that keeps riders' momentum going and enables them to maintain the fastest positions on the track.
I like to call track cycling an honest test of power. There are no mountains, no head- or tailwind, no echelons. With all these outside factors removed, the athletes mostly contest their individual strength, reflexes, and bike handling skills. Sometimes, there is not even a peloton. In disciplines like the time trial, a rider is alone with their bike, only competing against their own pain. It is controlled, manufactured even, to the highest possible level, and still, it remains unpredictable. Because at the end of the day, it comes down to the human on the bike; their strength, endurance, and intuition. It brings out the best of human performance by removing as many disturbing outside factors as possible. There is a raw beauty to the pureness of this sport that I can only admire.
Distinguishing track bikes from their road counterparts is essential in understanding the sport better. Track bikes are singular in their design, optimized for the velodrome. Unlike the multi-gear road bikes, track bikes possess only one fixed gear, ensuring the highest speeds. This means if the bike is moving, the pedals are rotating; they do not freewheel. Track bikes don't have brakes, either. To halt, riders resist the pedal's forward momentum using their legs. Every add-on that you would need in a road race to react to different situations is removed; the bike is optimised for peak aerodynamic performance and speed.
Riders compete in a plethora of races, divided into sprint and endurance categories. Sprint races are short distance and all about pure strength, while endurance races go on over longer distances, and therefore require the riders to have a high endurance – as the name suggests. Each category can furthermore be split into indirect or direct competition racing. For example, in a time trial, a rider is alone on the track with their bike, only fighting the time and themselves, while in, say, an elimination race, a peloton of riders is directly competing with each other. Direct competition means head-on confrontation in the race, and is, admittedly, a bit more interesting to watch, which the Champions League takes advantage of in its race format.
Previewing the 2023 UCI Track Champions League
The UCI Track Champions League is divided into two primary leagues: the sprint league and the endurance league. Sprinters will tackle the keirin and sprint races, while those in the endurance league face off in elimination and scratch races. Condensing these races into a single evening per round ensures a continuous adrenaline rush for spectators. Across all evenings, a general classification points system is in place. Victory fetches a rider 20 points, with the second-place finisher getting 17. This cascades down to the 15th place, which earns a solitary point. This points system stretches over the entire timespan of the tournament, making up a classification that will see an overall winner emerge. The leader of each individual league is identified by a sky blue jersey, similar to the yellow jersey in the Tour de France.
Originating from Japan, the Keirin is a true test of timing and tactics. A group of riders, usually five or six, follow a motorized pacer, which gradually increases speed before leaving the track. As the pacer exits, a frenzied dash ensues in the last few laps. In a 250m Velodrome, six laps will be raced and the pacer exits after the first three. The riders must strategize and position themselves perfectly, launching their final attack at the opportune moment to seize victory.
The Sprint is track cycling's game of cat and mouse. Over three laps, two riders go head-to-head, often beginning with tactical slow-riding and stalking each other. The true action ignites in the final lap, where raw speed and willpower determine the victor in a one-on-one sprint.
A dramatic and ruthless contest, the Elimination Race removes the last rider crossing the finish line every two laps. This relentless knockout format demands riders to stay ahead of the pack while conserving enough energy to outlast their competitors over a set number of laps, making it a thrilling spectacle of strategy and endurance.
The Scratch Race is straightforward but intense, a pure race of distance. All competitors start together and vie to cross the finish line first after a set number of laps. It's an all-out battle of pacing, positioning, and perseverance, where any lapse can cost the race.
2023 is set to be historic. With its curtain-raiser in Palma de Mallorca, Spain, the competition traverses iconic venues across Europe, from Berlin’s wood-panelled Velodrom to London's award-winning Lee Valley VeloPark. Each venue is a monument to the sport.
The majesty of a velodrome isn't just in its aesthetics but in the intricate technicalities that make each race a thrilling experience. All four velodromes set to host the 2023 UCI Track Champions League are marvels of modern architecture and engineering, designed to facilitate high-speed track cycling. They all boast a 250-metre track length, the gold standard for world-class cycling competitions. This uniform length ensures consistency in race conditions across venues. The degree of banking across these velodromes lies within the region of 45 degrees, optimizing them for both sprint and endurance events. Each velodrome, while unique in its aesthetic and history, offers a technically refined and consistent racing environment for the world's top cyclists.
The stage is set, starting in Palma de Mallorca at the Velòdrom Illes Balears on 21 October. This 6,000-capacity multisport venue, inaugurated in 2007 and designed by the revered Sander Douma, has already tasted the fervour of the UCI Track Champions League in its 2021 debut.
From there, the action moves to Berlin's Velodrom on 28 October. This architectural masterpiece, capable of hosting 6,000 spectators, boasts a unique wood-paneled exterior. Designed by Dominique Perrault, it has the highest banking out of all the venues, reachinga spectacular 45 degrees.
Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines in France plays host on 4 November. As the crown jewel of the French Cycling Federation, this velodrome, which can hold up to 5,000 spectators, is designed by Ralph Schürmann. Come 2024, it will also witness the greatest sporting spectacle on Earth - the Olympics.
Finally, the series culminates in London at the Lee Valley VeloPark. Constructed for the 2012 London Olympics, it's been a favourite for many pivotal moments in track cycling history. On 10 and 11 November, it will once again be the battleground for the final days of the Track Champions League: The fourth round on the 10th, with the grand finale immediately following on the 11th.
The line-up? Nothing short of spectacular. With five Olympic Games gold medals, 32 UCI Elite rainbow jerseys, and 149 Continental Champion titles between them, these riders are the titans of track cycling. Harrie Lavreysen, Katie Archibald, and Jean Spies are just a few names that promise epic duels on the track. But this isn't just about the established stars. New talents are determined to shine.
The Men's Endurance League promises an intense competition with standout riders like Switzerland's Claudio Imhof, who won the 2022 Endurance League thanks to his consistent results. Canadian Dylan Bibic, the 2022 World Champion in the Scratch Race and second-place finisher in the Elimination Race, is another contender. Their performances in 2023 have set the stage for an intriguing Champions League showdown. Also, keep an eye on William Tidball, the 2023 Scratch Race World Champion from Great Britain, and Japan's Eiya Hashimoto, who has consistently ranked high across disciplines.
In the Women's Endurance League, Britain's Katie Archibald leads the pack, boasting victories at the 2023 Team Pursuit World Championships and Madison European Championships. Her persistent top 5 placements make her a favourite this year. Neah Evans, another Brit, clinched the Team Pursuit and Madison titles at the 2023 World Championships, and also secured the Team Pursuit at the European Championships.
In the Men's Sprint League, Harrie Lavreysen of the Netherlands stands out. His remarkable achievements in 2023, including World Championship titles in the Sprint and Team Sprint and European Championship wins in Keirin, Sprint, and Team Sprint, showcase his dominance. With 13 World Champion titles, he's the reigning King of Sprints. Yet, Kevin Quintero of Colombia, the 2023 Keirin World Champion, has shown that Lavreysen isn't invincible. Australia's Matthew Richardson, the 2022 overall league winner and a double silver medallist at the 2023 World Championships, is another formidable contender.
For the Women’s Sprint League, the spotlight is on Ellesse Andrews of New Zealand and Emma Finucane of Britain. While Finucane clinched the top spot in Sprint and second in Team Sprint at the 2023 World Championships, Andrews won the Keirin and secured third in the Sprint. Lastly, Britain's Sophie Capewell, with her consistent performance throughout the season, is gearing up for a Champions League win.
For a more detailed overview of who will be competing, their chances and results over the 2023 track season so far, you can read my riders preview. It is notable that a few big names will be missing, such as Mathilde Gros or the German Trio of Emma Hinze, Lea-Sophie Friedrich and Pauline Grabosch. Many riders already have the 2024 summer Olympics on their mind and are in full training mode for the games, and as a result of this, some could not make time for the Champions League. Nevertheless, I anticipate races that are not just about speed but about heart. The beauty of track cycling lies in its unpredictability. A split-second decision can change the fate of a race, and this is where the magic happens. The combination of raw power, tactical decisions, and the sheer will to win is what makes this sport so special to me.
I cannot emphasise enough how monumental this year's Track Champions League will be. With a combination of seasoned champions and rising stars, battles will be intense, records may shatter, and history will be written.
So, mark your calendars, pick your favourites, and gear up for a roller-coaster of emotions and adrenaline. The future of track cycling is here, and it promises to be nothing short of spectacular: it's a testament to the enduring charm of track cycling. It’s a reminder of the sport's golden days, and perhaps, an indicator of the brighter days ahead. To the racers, the teams, and every single fan out there – here’s to a season of unparalleled excitement. May the best win!