Home Sports EXPLAINER: Why track cycling records are falling at Olympics

EXPLAINER: Why track cycling records are falling at Olympics


IZU, Japan (AP) — Everybody expected records to fall when the track cycling program began at the Tokyo Olympics. Still, nobody expected the German women’s pursuit squad to shatter the mark held by the two-time defending gold medalists from Britain. Or the Chinese to lower their team sprint record. Or Denmark taking down the Olympic history in men’s team pursuit.

All on the first day of the competition. “We knew there would be world records broken this week. That’s the first thing,” explained Gary Sutton, the endurance coach for the world champion U.S. women’s pursuit team. “The track is quick.” Indeed, just as the track surface at Olympic Stadium in Tokyo is shaping up to be fast, so is the Siberian pinewood of the Izu Velodrome.

But this is not some new track built especially for the Olympics. It’s a decade-old velodrome in the wayward forested hills near Mt. Fuji. Nor is it located at high altitudes, like the historically fast velodrome in Aguascalientes, Mexico, where the thin air has produced many world records.

So why are records falling in Japan in seemingly every race? Well, it’s a combination of factors — a perfect storm, if you will — that has allowed riders, regardless of discipline to set their sights on some quick times.


Simply put, training methods continue to evolve and improve with each Olympic cycle, making athletes themselves even better. Yes, that includes more effective and productive workout plans. Still, it also means finely tuned recovery periods and the right nutrition to fuel the efforts, all customized for each athlete’s specific body composition.


And all of it is constantly monitored by an array of technology. Like in many other sports, they are aware of the specific output of watts in training, the quality of their sleep, and a complete breakdown of the food they consume.


It may seem counterintuitive, but those studying physics and chemistry know that humid air — like the air in a Japanese summer — is less dense than dry air. The velodrome sits about 1,000 feet above sea level, so riders aren’t benefitting from thin air. But they are getting a boost from the warm weather and the air density.

“The track is good,” Italy’s Elia Viviani said. “The temperature is perfect. But mainly, the density of the air will make a huge difference, so I think in the team pursuit, we’re going to see some speedy times.”


The American women have drivetrains on the left side rather than the right, which studies by bike manufacturer Felt have shown improves aerodynamics since riders only turn left. The British are riding bikes, with input from sports car maker Lotus, which have radically different geometry to enhance airflow.

Many teams are riding bikes that use proprietary carbon fiber that is lighter and stiffer than in previous Olympics. Others have experimented with 3-D printed components, revolutionary lubricants, and extensive wind-tunnel testing.

“The basic rules of aerodynamics haven’t changed – you can’t alter the laws of physics – but what we have learned over almost 30 years is to take a more holistic approach to every project,” said Rich Hill, the chief aerodynamicist for Lotus. “As far as track cycling goes, it’s man and machine in perfect harmony.”

It comes at a cost, too. The rules state any bike used in competition must be made available to the public, but the price tags could require a second mortgage on your house. National teams and their equipment partners pour millions into research and development, and bike companies can only hope Olympic success translates into increased retail sales.

The Hope x Lotus HB.T the Brits are riding will set you back about $20,000. The Felt TA FRD of the American team has a list price of $25,999. The most expensive bike, the Worx WX-R Vorteq ridden by Malaysia, comes in at $39,000.

“This is the best time of an Olympic cycle because all the shiny bits come out,” British sprinter Jason Kenny said. “We have our best bike, our best wheel, our best tire, our best kits on. This is it. An enjoyable time to be involved.” More AP Olympics: https://apnews.com/2020-tokyo-olympics and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports.


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