Olympic Countdown: Plenty of Hills, Brand New BMX Action, and 22 Gold Medals Up for Grabs

By Megan Flottorp

With less than 100 days to go, it is crunch time for hopeful Olympians and patient fans who have been waiting over a year for the action to begin. Better late than never, though, and with the Olympic torch officially on its way to its destination at Tokyo’s crowning stadium, the UCI has published a guide and timetable to the 2020/2021 (the merchandising is going to be confusing for all of us, folks!) Olympics.

The Olympic cycling events are set to commence on July 24th, just a day after the opening ceremonies, and will open with the men’s road race. The Games will feature five cycling disciplines: road, track, mountain bike, BMX Racing, and for the very first time, BMX Freestyle. Of course, things will look a little different this year—with notably fewer fans and a bevy of extra safety and hygiene protocols in place. However, there will still be plenty of epic racing, contentious rivalries, and even a few Olympic firsts. Let’s take a look at some of the history of Olympic cycling and what we have to look to this summer.

W can look forward to some BMX action. in Tokyo. © Profimedia

A long legacy of greatness

Since the first modern Olympics were organised in 1896, cycling has been on the docket. One of only five sports to have featured at every single instalment of the summer Games, cycling plays an integral role in the history of sports’ most illustrious event. Now boasting five distinct disciplines, thanks to the addition of BMX Freestyle for the first time in Tokyo, cycling has populated the Olympic programme as follows:

• Road (since Athens 1896 for men, Los Angeles 1984 for women)
• Track (since Athens 1896 for men, Seoul 1988 for women)
• Mountain bike (since Atlanta 1996)
• BMX Racing (since Beijing 2008)
• BMX Freestyle (since Tokyo 2020).

We’ll break down the disciplines below, but in total, there are 22 gold medals ready and waiting for cycling’s elite to claim in Tokyo. This makes cycling the number three sport, following just athletics and swimming, in terms of amount of medals awarded and number of athletes participating.

Inching towards gender parity

As you’ll notice above, women cyclists were first welcomed to the Olympics almost a full 100 years after the men, and they still aren’t on wholly level playing ground. Despite significant improvement, it can be hard to comprehend just how recently gender discrepancy was so pronounced. Of course, that doesn’t mean there weren’t women riding at a very high level this entire time, and they got straight to work making up for the lost time.

Anna van der Breggen
Anna van der Breggen at the 2016 Olympics in Rio. © Profimedia

Women made their much-anticipated Olympic road racing debut in Los Angeles in 1984. An indisputable success, they were joined by track races four years later. The 2012 Summer Olympics were the first at which men and women competed in the same number of events in all cycling disciplines (previously, track cycling had more events for men than women). Finally, at the end of last year, the UCI announced an equal number of female and male cyclists would compete at the Paris 2024 Olympic Games, with the equalisation of athlete quotas for road and track (already achieved for BMX Racing, BMX Freestyle and mountain bike).

Road cycling delivers plenty of hilly combat

As far as this year goes, road cycling at the Tokyo 2020 Games in 2021 will split into two events for each gender—a road race and a time trial. The road races will feature 130 men and 67 women, respectively, and will unfold as mass start events. The men will cover 234 km with an elevation gain of 4865 metres; the women’s road race will only run over 137 km with an elevation gain of 2692 metres. Both individual time trials are solo races against the clock, with athletes starting at pre-defined intervals. The men will compete over two laps of the 22.1km circuit; the women will do one lap.

An interesting fact to keep in mind for road racing enthusiasts is that Tokyo was host to the closest road cycling finish in Olympic history. In 1964, nobody could make a successful breakaway, and the top 99 finishers were all given a time within two-tenths of gold medallist Mario Zanin of Italy.

Mountain biking pushes the limits in Izu

This year, the world’s fiercest mountain bikers will be confronting a specially designed 4.1km course in Izu. With the iconic Mount Fuji as the backdrop, riders will grapple with 150 m of elevation per lap, to be covered multiple times. Test events in 2019 generated plenty of praise from athletes who felt proud to be taking on such a technically and physically challenging course. The men’s race will occur on Monday 26 July, followed by the women’s race on Tuesday 27 July.

BMX racing provides waterfront action

Now sitting comfortably in its fourth Olympic instalment, BMX Racing will take place at the Ariake Urban Sports Park on the waterfront. Not far from the Athletes’ Village, this thrilling event will play out over two days for both men and women. According to UCI, a test event held in October 2019 saw victory go to Frenchman Romain Mahieu in the men’s competition, while Australian Saya Sakakibara proved to be the strongest in the women’s field.

Two BMX freestylers will make Olympic history

Also set over two days, this debut competition will see two people walk away as the first-ever men’s and women’s BMX Freestyle Park Olympic Champions. With nine women and nine men eager to lay claim to this historic title, you can bet that the atmosphere in the Ariake Urban Sports Park will be tense, exciting, and bursting with nervous anticipation. This inaugural event will take place on Saturday 31 July (Women’s and Men’s seeding) and Sunday 1st August (Women’s and Men’s Finals).

Track cycling unfolds at UCI World Cycling Centre satellite

Izu velodrome
Izu, the velodrome venue for the cycling track competition at the Tokyo 2020/2021 Olympic Games. © Profimedia

Track cycling enthusiasts will already be familiar with the theatre for this year’s Olympic velodrome drama. The indoor Izu Velodrome in Shuzenji, Shizuoka Prefecture, which houses one of UCI World Cycling Centre’s satellites, will see Olympic Champions crowned in 12 events: the keirin, omnium, sprint, team sprint, team pursuit and madison for both men and women.

An event unlike any before

Despite incurring various controversies and challenges to its relevance over the years, the Olympics remains a steadfast standard of athletic excellence and populates the dreams of many young sportspeople. A testament to hard work, determination, and sheer force of will—simply getting on an Olympic team requires a level of dedication that few people will ever know. Precision, rigour, and perseverance are qualities that characterise those who make it, which is part of what makes this year especially interesting. All competing athletes are in a unique position, with the Games being delayed a year, and no one wants to hit the biggest stage of them all feeling rusty.

In a year of cancelled races, covid outbreaks, and unpredictable circumstances, the climate going into this year’s Olympics is even more volatile than usual. Elite athletes have had to resort to unconventional means to keep motivation high and maintain their mental edge. Inevitably some have adapted better than others, and the next few months will be crucial for Olympic hopefuls as they compete in their last qualifying events. We wish everyone luck and can’t wait to cheer on our favourite cyclists at the Olympic cycling events in July!