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A fixture in the Olympic programme since the first Games of the Modern Era, held in Athens in 1896, Cycling has gained strenght as a sport supported by constant modernization of bicycle design. According to historians, the first official race was held in 1868 at Parc de Saint Cloud, in the outskirts of Paris. The winner was Englishman James Moore.
In the Greek capital in 1896, cycling was represented by track events and one road race – totalling 87 kilometres from Athens to the city of Marathon and back again. Nowadays, four disciplines make up the Olympic Cycling programme: BMX, Road Cycling, Mountain Bike and Track Cycling.
While road and track cycling events have been held at the Olympic Games since 1896, it was only 100 years later that Mountain Bike joined the programme, in Atlanta, USA. BMX racing is even newer, debuting at the 2008 Games in Beijing, China.
Each discipline has its own type of bike, with specific characteristics related to weight, gears, brakes, and frame-type and size, according to the requirements of the International Cycling Union (known by French acronym UCI).
BMX is the newest discipline at the Olympic Games, debuting in Beijing in 2008. The sport arose in the late 1960s in California, following on the back of a wave of interest in motocross throughout the United States. Inspired by circuits featuring land ramps and many obstacles, children and teenagers built tracks in their backyards and on land near their homes, which gave birth to Bicycle Moto Cross, or BMX.
Due to its low cost, the sport soon became a hit. In the 1970s, the first federation to manage the sport was established in the USA. As races became more popular, the sport spread to other continents, and it took off in Europe in the early 1980s.
The International BMX Federation was created in 1981, and the following year saw the first world championships. In 1993, the sport came under the management of the International Cycling Federation (known by French acronym UCI). The bicycles have just one gear and one brake, 20-inch wheels, and a sturdy frame to cope with the rises, falls, ramps and obstacles found on tracks.
The only BMX event at the Olympic Games is the Supercross. Eight cyclists compete simultaneously, starting off from a ten-metre ramp and competing in various heats, each lasting approximately 40 seconds. The four best athletes go through to the next round until the final. The track for men is slightly longer than the women’s track (470 metres versus 430 metres).
Mountain Bike is another Cycling discipline that joined the Olympic programme recently. Since the Atlanta 1996 Games, men and women have been competing in Cross Country events, on courses featuring ups, downs, trails and rough tracks.
The sport originated in California. It was in this American state that, in the 1970s, some cyclists looking for something different from road races began making tracks on hills and along land tracks. Members of a club in the outskirts of San Francisco created a competition that ran from 1976 to 1979, near the Golden Gate Bridge, generating interest in the sport.
The first national mountain bike championships took place in the United States in 1983. Seven years later, spurred by growing popularity in Australia and Europe, the first world championships recognised by the International Cycling Union (known by French acronym UCI) were held.
Although both competitions take place in the open air, the bicycles used in mountain biking differ significantly from those used in road racing: the tyres are wider, there are rear and front shock absorbers to cope with impacts on circuits, and they are made from much sturdier materials, despite weighing just 8 to 9 kg.
Cross country events last longer – between 90 and 105 minutes – and the number of laps is calculated according to time per lap in the men’s and women’s categories. Participants need to complete a pre-established number of laps, and the first to finish is the winner.
One of the oldest disciplines in Cycling, Road Cycling was held for the first time at the 1896 Olympic Games, spanning 87 kilometres between Athens and Marathon, starting and ending in the Greek capital. The route was the same as in the Athletics race.
However, the sport was not included in the next three Games: Paris in 1900, St. Louis (USA) in 1904, and London in 1908. Despite this, Cycling gained popularity over the years, especially in Europe – countries such as Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Spain and Italy are among the world powers in the sport.
The bicycles used in Road Cycling are lighter than normal bikes – their frames are made from carbon fiber and other materials, meaning that their minimum weight is just 6.8 kg. The handlebars are low due to aerodynamic factors, so that riders can save energy and gain speed along the route. Current bikes have up to 20 gears, used for all types of stretches, such as mountain climbs, descents and straight lines.
The current Olympic programme in this discipline of Cycling is composed of four events (two for men and two for women). One of them is the road race, won by whoever is first to finish the course of approximately 250 kilometres for men and 140 kilometres for women - the women’s race entered the Olympic programme in 1984 in Los Angeles. All competitors start off together, and whoever crosses the finishing line first wins the gold medal.
At the Atlanta Games in 1996, men’s and women’s time trials joined the competition programme, in which each athlete has to cover a trajectory of around 46 kilometres for men or 32 kilometres for women in the shortest time possible. Each participant starts off alone every 90 seconds.
Cycling-Track has been on the Olympic Games since the 1896 edition, the first in the Modern Era, held in Athens, Greece. The discipline has been a fixture at all editions since then, apart from in Stockholm, Sweden in 1912, when only Road Cycling took place.
Since the first official competitions in 1870, cyclists have competed in velodromes mounted in indoor arenas. The indoor environment was chosen so that races would not suffer from weather restrictions, and race promoters were happy to be able to charge spectators to watch the races.
In Cycling-Track, the bicycles are designed to reach the maximum possible speed and, rather curiously, they have only one gear and no brakes, given that stopping suddenly during a race would pose a serious accident risk on the track.
Although Cycling-Track has been part of the Olympic programme for such a long time, women only started to participate in 1988, in Seoul, South Korea, in sprint events.
The sport’s Olympic programme features 5 events, equal for men women: Sprint, Team Sprint, Keirin, Team Pursuit, and Omnium.
The Omnium race, debuting at the London 2012 Olympics, is similar to the decathlon and heptathlon, and cyclists will compete in six events for one medal: flying lap, points race, elimination, individual pursuit, scratch and a time trial. The winner will be the rider with the lowest accumulated score.