Star-studded Champions League aims to take track cycling to another level

The event will see 72 riders compete across five rounds in the coming weeks.

Ian Parker
Thursday 04 November 2021 17:00
The UCI Track Champions League will launch in Mallorca on Saturday (Tim Goode/PA)
The UCI Track Champions League will launch in Mallorca on Saturday (Tim Goode/PA)

The UCI Track Champions League launches on Saturday with genuine hopes it can change the face of track cycling for good.

“I’m not going to overstate it,” said six-time Olympic champion and event ambassador Sir Chris Hoy “I think it’s the most important step forward for track cycling in my lifetime.”

Starting in Mallorca and heading for a London doubleheader on December 3-4, the event will see 72 riders compete across five rounds in the coming weeks. There are sprint and endurance categories for men and women, with 18 riders in each, competing for equal prize money.

The made-for-TV format has been kept simple – a scratch and elimination race for endurance riders, a sprint and the keirin for sprinters – with significant prize money and UCI points, crucial for Olympic qualification, on offer.

The likes of Laura and Jason Kenny may be taking a post-Tokyo break, but the league has shown its pulling power in attracting a star-studded field.

Britain’s Olympic champion Katie Archibald leapt at the chance, praising the competition as an opportunity to realise her dream of being a full-time track rider, joined by Dutch stars Harrie Lavreysen, Jeffrey Hoogland and Kirsten Wild, Germany’s Emma Hinze and more.

Organisers hope a simplified format boiled down into a couple of hours per round can win over new fans in the way Twenty20 did for cricket, and that behind-the-scenes access can engage them with athletes as Netflix’s Drive To Survive series did for Formula One.

Britain’s Olympic champion Katie Archibald will race in the new series (Danny Lawson/PA)

If that works, it offers a pathway for track riders to make a better living in a sport which has long been a significantly poor relation to road racing.

Three-time Olympic champion Ed Clancy announced his retirement in Tokyo, but will have a last hurrah in the competition as one of the ‘founding riders’.

During his career the 36-year-old has seen former team-mates like Sir Bradley Wiggins and Geraint Thomas go on to earn millions on the road, opportunities not available to a track specialist like himself.

“When you see a lot of team-mates go off and ride the road, great, you’re super happy for them but it’s like, ‘Woah, I wish we had a Tour de France of track cycling’,” he said.

“When it comes to racing I don’t think there’s anything better than track. It’s short, punchy, a big atmosphere.

Ed Clancy will race in the new event before retirement (Alex Broadway/UCI handout)

“When I speak to Geraint he talks about the nerves of track cycling and says nothing compares to the Olympics, despite winning so many amazing things on the road. On the track you have to perform on the day under the lights. It’s great to see somebody giving it a push.”

Organisers attended NBA games to develop the in-velodrome experience, while an app will offer fans live data during races – though it will not be available until the second round in Lithuania on November 27.

Knowing it needed a media-friendly format, the UCI allowed broadcast partner Discovery to take the lead in developing the competition.

But event director James Pope, who previously founded the Revolution Series, said that did not come at the expense of sporting integrity.

“Since day one, sport was the primary objective,” he said. “It needed to be developed for the riders. It had to be a credible sporting event. All the bells and whistles that go with that are secondary.”

Ed Clancy and Sir Chris Hoy with the UCI Track Champions League trophy (James Cheadle/UCI handout)

The selected formats have not pleased everyone. Some riders with more lucrative road contracts have argued it requires too big of a deviation from normal winter training, while the absence of spectacles like the Madison has disappointed others.

Six rounds were planned but the Paris leg has been cancelled as the velodrome is used as a vaccination centre.

Teething problems, organisers hope, in a new chapter.

“As a sport there’s untapped potential and this is the first step,” Hoy said. “I think it will evolve and grow. I only wish I was still racing to be a part of it.”

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