UCI Track Cycling Champions League: Exploring the performance boom in track cycling

Yet another Olympic Games or major championships, another series of breathtaking performances. For the past ten years or so, track cycling has entered a new era: that of the quest for faultlessness. The breakneck pace of improvement is such that records rarely seem to last very long.

It is true that exceptional riders of the past, such as the British Chris Hoy or Florian Rousseau, Grégory Baugé and Félicia Balanger from France, dominated their respective disciplines and took the records to new heights that were apparently unattainable. But records, impressive as they are, are only made to be broken.

Some long-standing records hold up … but for how long? The trend is easy to identify.

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Among the best men’s track cycling performances of all time, listed by the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), only three took place before 2019: the legendary hour record of Chris Boardman (1996), the sprint on 500 m (Chris Hoy in 2007) and the kilometer time trial (François Pervis in 2013).

With these exceptions, the best benchmarks in all disciplines of men’s track cycling have been established over the past two years. It’s the same story for women. The hour record set by Jeannie Longo in 1996 still stands and the 5,000m team pursuit record, held by Great Britain since 2012, has so far proved insurmountable. However, all other world records are between 2016 and 2021.

This phenomenon is largely attributable to two closely related factors: the improvement of equipment and the adoption of specific training techniques.

“The first explanation for the improvement in performance levels is entirely linked to gear changes,” explains François Pervis. “We have moved towards much higher speeds.

The seven-time world champion could not be clearer on this point: “In the past, priority was given to higher pedaling rates, but in recent years we have realized that we are reaching a physical limit and that our legs are creating too many toxins. .

“Plus, your heart rate stays lower in the higher gears.”

As a result, cyclists and their coaches have evolved into training techniques based on pure power and strength, a trend that has gone hand in hand with the latest technological developments.

The obsession with weight / power ratios

Gone are the days of velodromes shaking under the weight of bikes. The UCI may have set a minimum weight limit, but the competition to develop the lightest equipment remains fiercer than ever.

Since the revolution of carbon frames initiated by Look in the 1980s, manufacturers have tried to improve the weight / power ratios of their machines.

Without their braking systems – in the name of saving even more precious ounces – the bikes used by track cyclists still have to be extremely tough. Because we, spectators, cannot begin to imagine the pressure exerted on these machines.

The power generated by the racers, the steepness of the curves and the resulting centrifugal force, the abrupt changes of direction and the lightning accelerations require an extremely robust kit.

Thus, in recent years, bicycle manufacturers have been working to equip their cyclists with real war machines.

“British motorcycles are impressive,” says François Pervis. He explains that “the front fork is located in front of the rider’s legs, and thus acts as a deflector and serves to reduce air resistance.”

While the frame of the bike may be the key element, nothing is left to chance when it comes to improving other aspects of cyclists’ gear. From the wheels – whether spoked or disc-type – to the helmet, not to mention the sharkskin-style suits designed to glide better through the air, everything is designed down to the smallest detail to maximize performance.

The UCI changes its position

New technological developments, and in particular wind tunnel testing, have allowed runners to take giant strides. But the technology would be lost without the specific and tailored training techniques adopted by track cyclists.

Following in the footsteps – or rather the pedaling – of the British team, which invested a lot in this area ahead of the London Olympics in 2012, the whole sport has shifted into high gear in terms of training.

Finally, another important factor that may partly explain the flurry of world records is a recent change in the cyclist’s position on the bike.

The rules have long stipulated that the forearms of the rider should be perpendicular to the handlebars. Now the UCI has changed its own position, so to speak, by allowing a 15 degree tilt between the wrist and the
elbow.

“From now on, the heads of the runners are entirely in their hands,” explains François Pervis. “The air no longer passes through the torso and there is
is no longer a parachute effect.

Relieved of this resistance, the records are now in free fall!

– – –

The UCI Track Champions League is coming and you can watch all the action live on the Eurosport app, eurosport.co.uk and discovery +. Experience the ‘breathtaking’ new era of track cycling, with the first event on November 6 in Mallorca.

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