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The science behind wheeled sports
The science behind wheeled sports

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1 Cycling events at the Olympic Games

Four different types of cycling event are now part of the Olympic Games; BMX and mountain biking having recently been added to the more traditional disciplines of track cycling and road cycling.

The bicycles used in the four events fall into two broad categories: those with large wheels and frames, used in track and road cycling, and those with small wheels and sturdier, smaller frames, used in mountain biking and BMX.

The four separate cycling disciplines shared a combined total of 18 gold medals at the 2008 Games.

Track cycling

These events are held in a cycling stadium called a velodrome (Figure 1), which has an oval-shaped track that is banked very steeply. Cyclists ride around this track in a variety of different events that include both individual and team races.

Grateful acknowledgement is made to Adam J.W.C. Used under a Creative Commons Licence.
Figure 1 The Dunc Gray Velodrome in Sydney, site of the Olympic track cycling events in the 2000 Olympic Games.

Road cycling

In these events, cyclists ride on a temporary course laid out in the streets of a town, city or district. The race distance is not fixed exactly, although modern races are usually about 120 km long and take more than two hours to complete.

There are two events in road cycling: the road race, in which all cyclists compete at the same time as each other (as runners do in a marathon); and the time trial, in which cyclists ride individually and try to set the fastest time possible over the course.

Mountain biking

This sport developed first as a recreation in California in the 1950s, when enthusiasts began cycling on rough terrain rather than on roads. It then developed into the cycling equivalent of cross-country running or cross-country skiing.

In Olympic competitions, there is one event each for men and for women. The cyclists start the race as a group and usually complete the course in about two hours.


BMX, which stands for 'bicycle moto-cross', is the newest cycling discipline. It was added to the Olympic programme in 2008. Cyclists race each other around laps of an unpaved, uneven track, and events are structured with heats, semi-finals and finals, as in sports such as sprinting and swimming.

Grateful acknowledgement is made to Getty Images (Figure 2a and Figure 2b).
Figure 2 Cycling events at the 2008 Olympic Games: (a) Germany's Sabine Spitz competing in the women's mountain biking event; (b) Great Britain's Shanaze Reade racing in the women's BMX event.