Monday, March 2, 2020

A New Spin On Track Cycling

Berlin's velodrome is a stunning architectural achievement.

Last week I invested considerable time in the UCI Track Cycling World Championships, held in Berlin and available to me on NBC Sports Gold. It was a staggering amount of coverage—21 hours, 38 minutes, 18 seconds—starting on Wednesday and ending on Sunday. (I got off easy: for the fans in attendance at the velodrome, those were 8-hour days!) I watched all of the broadcasts … perhaps not with complete absorption, but certainly with a greater appreciation of track cycling than I could muster before. I had seen only a handful of World Cup events and had failed to achieve a full understanding of the structure of the competition. I get it now and, for the most part, it’s OK.

But it’s only OK. The points race and the Madison are a total mess, incomprehensible without an announcer and a scoreboard. With so many riders on the track, it’s impossible to watch everything. Who’s in the lead? Who’s a lap up or a lap down? Who’s actually racing and not just riding around? Who thought it was a good idea to invent races where the person who crosses the finish line first isn’t necessarily the winner? The pursuits, sprints, and elimination races do work. They’re short and exciting and easy to follow. If it were up to me, then I would build my tournament around those and throw out the longer events. I would drop the Keirin too, on the grounds that it’s just too goofy to start a 6-lap race on Lap 4 after being paced up to full speed by a bowlegged man on a Derny.

I’m not the only one who thinks track cycling could use a facelift. The UCI has announced sweeping changes to begin next season. Its partnership with Eurosport will result in track events that are condensed into a TV-friendly, 2-hour schedule. The Keirin is still in the plans, despite being a real race for less than half of the time it takes to complete. But team events are out. Traditionalists will hate that, but the UCI and Eurosport appear to believe it will be easier to create a narrative around a handful of individual stars to compel fans to watch the broadcasts. And that’s not a bad idea. You’ve heard of American swimmer Michael Phelps, right? With 28 medals, he’s the most decorated Olympian in history. Now, name any of the other three men with whom he won the 4x100 medley relay at the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro. Each one is a gold medalist, after all, and they did set an Olympic record on that occasion. Still drawing a blank? Exactly.

Having come through so many hours of track cycling in the last few days, I’m looking forward to a pared-down presentation when this year’s Olympics begin in Tokyo. It’s probably enough to see just the gold medal races and not the qualification runs or bronze medal matchups. Yesterday in Berlin, one of the races was run only to determine places 7-12; a separate race for the top 6 qualifiers determined the medals. Come on. It’s time to cut track events down to a size that modern audiences can swallow.

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