Track cycling: it’s 20 or so riders going as fast as they can around a giant hamster wheel. It's Scalextric blown up to real-life size. Fast. Furious. Dynamic. Exciting. The risk is high, the speed unfathomable, the race done and dusted quickly. Tension floods the velodrome as it falls silent in the early stages of a match sprint, until it slowly builds to a deafening roar during the final gallop for the line. There’s no waiting on the side of a road in the wind and rain for a quick glimpse of your favourite riders; you’re inside, dry and warm – with a pint in hand, if desired – only a few metres away from the stars of the show. Track cycling has all the ingredients to be one of the best spectator sports in the world.
So, why does it not hold the popular imagination for longer? Every Olympic cycle, the sport has a brief and blinding popularity, which sees entire nations get behind the likes of Katie Archibald, Harrie Lavreysen and Filippo Ganna. We all become master tacticians for a few days every four years, screaming at the TV, telling our compatriots to sprint harder or attack now.
When the Games are done, though, track cycling goes back into comparative hibernation. The buzz is over and we barely hear about it. Much like the tennis racquets that return to their cases after brief, enthusiastic airings in the weeks after Wimbledon, the velodrome grandstands are gathering dust. All that’s left is athletes training in empty arenas, hearing nothing but the echoes of their own panting. Riding, waiting and dreaming of that fervour once more.
With a gap in the calendar as road racing dies down over winter, fans are scouring TV schedules for a taste of that live racing excitement. It’s time to capitalise on the potential of track cycling and this year, our prayers may have been answered with the new UCI Track Champions League. Starting in Mallorca on November 6, it’s a series of six races over six weeks designed to break the four-year cycle and bring track to the fore.
Television coverage is key. François Ribeiro, Senior Vice President at Discovery Sports, sees track racing as the best-kept secret in the cycling world, and Discovery are ready to share it. With events held in velodromes in Spain, France, Lithuania, Israel and the UK this winter, they are here to make track cycling permanently loved by the masses.
Ribeiro had the big idea when he attended a UCI World Cup. He spent three hours in the grandstand, writing down everything he would change for the future UCI Track Champions League. “There are four categories: super accessible, super spectacular, very compact and very eventful. If we could base our show out of those four categories every year, for two and a half hours, maximum, I think we could do something,” he told the UCI during the planning process.
Gone are the 120-lap points races and Madisions that require a notebook and rapid mental maths to even begin to understand who might be leading. Ribeiro wanted it fast, exciting and simple. With this in mind, each round of the Champions League will hold just two races each for the sprint and endurance categories: the sprint and keirin, and the scratch race and elimination respectively. “It's going to be something which has never been done in track cycling,” says Ribeiro.
With live power and heart rate data from athletes displayed on TV screens and live in the velodrome, as well as a specifically designed app for spectators which can compare their favourite riders and send cheers, it aims to present the discipline in a fresh way.
Stories and interviews with racers will give a human touch, in the hope that those watching will root for, and follow, their chosen rider at each round. No more struggling to follow World Cup rounds scattered sporadically through the year: the Champions League aims to have a narrative arc, no doubt with juicy plots.
Getting fans on board is one thing, but what about the riders? They’ve got it covered: prize money exceeding €500,000 overall will draw the biggest names in the sport, and with UCI points on offer, and the event’s partnership with Discovery Sports, the Champions League could well draw a global audience of millions around the globe.
Six-time Olympic gold medallist and official event ambassador, Sir Chris Hoy, is confident that riders will invest in the racing, stating that it’s the first time an opportunity like this has been available to track cyclists. “It’s distilling it into the most exciting format,” he says. “I think it’s a sport with untapped potential.”
Recently retired three-time Olympic gold medallist Ed Clancy agrees. “I see a lot of my team-mates go off and ride the road,” he says. “I’m super happy for them, but I sometimes think: I wish we had the Tour de France of track cycling, something that just captivated the entire nation.”
The UCI Track Champions League has the backing, the format, and the potential to engage fans. Track racing is back in the spotlight, where it belongs. Settle in for six weeks of thrills and spills.
The UCI Track Champions League begins in Mallorca on the 6th November and will be shown live on Eurosport/GCN