Olympics Summer

Need To Know: Cycling

Canada's Catharine Pendrel is favoured to win mountain bike gold after taking the world title and last year's Olympic test event in London.
Canadian mountain biker Catharine Pendrel won the Olympic test event at Hadleigh Farm, pictured, and she's the reigning world champ. (Bryn Lennon/Getty Images)

Fast Facts

Dates: July 28-29, Aug. 1 (road), Aug. 2-7 (track), Aug. 8-10 (BMX), Aug. 11-12 (mountain bike)

Venues: Olympic Park Velodrome (track races), The Mall (road races), Hampton Court Palace (road time trials), Olympic Park BMX Track, Hadleigh Farm in Essex (mountain bike)

Medal Events: 118 (10 track, 4 road, 2 mountain bike, 2 BMX)

Athletes: 528 (212 road, 188 track, 80 mountain bike, 48 BMX)

The Basics

The Olympic cycling program consists of four very different disciplines: track, road, mountain bike and BMX.

BMX (Short for Bicycle Motocross. Now you know.) is the youngest, hippest of the cycling family members, having just made its Olympic debut in 2008. Competing on a half-kilometre outdoor dirt course using one-gear bikes, groups of eight riders start down an eight-metre-high ramp before tackling an obstacle course of jumps, bumps and banked corners. The top finishers move on to the next round.

Mountain bike riders must navigate a rough, hilly outdoor course that takes about an hour and a half to complete. It’s a mass-start, so the first to the finish line wins. The course at Hadleigh Farm (about 60 km outside London) is on an open countryside (rather than in a forest), which will make the event more TV-friendly. Organizers have widened the track to encourage more passing.

Road cycling races are like the kind you see in the Tour de France, covering longer distances and held outdoors. In London, the road race course stretches 250 km for men, 140 km for women. The time trial course is 44 km for men, and 29 km for women. What’s the difference between a regular road race and a time trial? A standard road race is a mass-start. First to the finish line wins. A time trial sends riders off at 90-second intervals. Best time wins.

In track cycling, athletes compete on an indoor, 250-metre oval called a Velodrome, with banks ranging from 12 degrees (along the sides) to 42 degrees (on the ends). Think NASCAR on bikes, but with a bunch of different races, all with their own rules. Here’s a quick guide (note: the individual pursuit and the points race are no longer held as separate competitions; they are now part of the omnium):

Time trial: A sprint event in which riders compete solo to post the fastest time. The men’s distance is 1,000 metres (four laps), while the women's is 500m.

Keirin: A Japanese-invented mass-start sprint in which riders follow a pace bike until it peels off the track and they sprint for the finish. The top riders advance to the next round.

Omnium: A grueling, decathlon-like event that rewards versatility. Riders compete in six different disciplines: a flying lap (moving start, against the clock), a 30-km (20 km for women) points race, an elimination race, a 4-km individual pursuit (3 km for women), a 15-km scratch race (10 km for women), and a 1-km time trial (500m for women). You might recognize the scoring system from your rotisserie baseball league: the winning rider in each event gets one point, the second-place finisher gets two, and so on. Lowest total score wins the gold.

Points race: A mass-start endurance event held over a long distance (40 km for men, 25 for women) in which a sprint is held every 10 laps, with points going to the top four finishers each time (5, 3, 2, 1). Lapping the main field is worth a big 20 points. Most points at the end of the race wins.

Scratch race: A mass-start (everyone begins from scratch, get it?) endurance event with a very simple format: first to the finish wins.

Individual pursuit: An endurance event in which two riders start on opposite sides of the track. In qualifying, the fastest overall times advance; in knockout rounds, the winner of each matchup advances. If a rider overtakes his opponent, he automatically moves on.

Team pursuit: Similar to the individual pursuit, except with teams of four riders. The team with the fastest No. 3 rider wins, so depth matters.

Sprint: Two riders start next to each other. First to the finish line advances.

Team sprint: Like the team pursuit, except with teams of three for men and two for women. At the end of the fist lap, the lead rider peels off. Ditto for the second, leaving the third rider to complete the final lap on his own. Fastest time wins.

Canadians to Watch

It wasn’t long ago that Tara Whitten was the queen of the omnium, winning the world title in both 2010 and ’11 (plus the silver in ’09) before finishing fourth this year. The versatile Edmontonian also picked up a bronze in the team pursuit at this year’s worlds along with Jasmin Glaesser and Gillian Carleton.

Zach Bell owns a pair of world championship silvers in the men’s omnium — the first in 2009 and another this year. "Mr. Consistency" hopes to contend in London, where the omnium makes its Olympic debut in place of the points race and the Madison. The Whitehorse native finished seventh and 12th, respectively, in those events in Beijing.

Catharine Pendrel heads to London as the world’s top-ranked women’s mountain biker and the reigning world champion. Another good sign: she won the Olympic test event held last July at Hadleigh Farm. Everything points to the native of tiny Harvey, N.B., stepping up from her fourth-place finish in Beijing, where she missed the podium by less than nine seconds. Fans seem to agree: Pendrel won our tournament to decide Canada's choice for Olympic flag bearer.

Canada’s answer to Bo Jackson, Clara Hughes won her first two Olympics medals in cycling way back at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. She then switched from road cycling to speedskating and won four more, including a gold in 2006 and a bronze in 2010. Now 39 and an outspoken advocate for mental-health awareness (she’s admitted to suffering from depression in the past), Hughes needs one more podium spot to become Canada’s most decorated Olympian ever.

Ryder Hesjedal became a superstar in his sport in May of this year when he won the prestigious Giro d’Italia, becoming the first Canadian to capture one of cycling’s three so-called grand tours, which also includes the Tour de France and the Vuelta a Espana.The 31-year-old will be Canada's lone men's entry in both the road race and the time trial in London, and he may not be 100 per cent physically. On July 7, Hesjedal pulled out of the Tour de France because of leg and hip injuries suffered in a pileup during Stage 6. But maybe that's a blessing in disguise: Had Hesjedal completed the Tour on July 22, he would have had only five rest days before his first Olympic race. This will be Hesjedal's third Olympic appearance. He competed in the mountain bike event in 2004, and in both road events in 2008.

International Athletes to Watch

Sir Chris Hoy (he was knighted by the Queen in 2009) won three gold medals in Beijing — the first Brit in a century to do so. The Scotsman will try to add a fifth career Olympic title (sixth medal overall) in London, where he’ll be both a fan favourite and the betting favourite to win the keirin (he’s the reigning Olympic and world champ), and also has a shot to defend his sprint and team sprint titles. With four gold medals and a silver already in his trophy case, Hoy might top rower Steve Redgrave's British record of six career Olympic medals.

Englishwoman Victoria Pendleton is the reigning Olympic and world champion in the women’s sprint. She’s also a podium threat in the keirin, which makes its women’s Olympic debut, and the team sprint.

Canada’s Medal Outlook

Bet on two or three medals, with Catharine Pendrel (women’s mountain bike) and Tara Whitten (women’s omnium) the most likely to reach the podium. Whitten could help add another medal in the women’s team pursuit (Canada is ranked fourth), and Zach Bell is a podium contender in the men’s omnium.

Temper your expectations for Ryder Hesjedal. Sure, he's among the world's best in the road race stages in the grand tours, but at the Olympics he'll be facing road race specialists instead of the jacks-of-all-trades he competes against in the Giro d'Italia and the Tour de France. Plus, his health could be an issue after the nasty crash that knocked him out of the Tour de France.