The 2017 UCI Track Cycling World Championships are set to be held in Hong Kong this month. It's the first time the event has been held in Asia since 1990, when it took place in the Green Dome Maebashi in Japan, the home of Keirin. It has a long and rich history, being the oldest of the cycling World Championships, and this year’s event marks its 125th birthday. To honour the occasion we’ve unearthed some fascinating facts from World Championship’s long and illustrious history.
The World Championships have been around since the bicycle boom of the 1890s, with the first ever event being held in Chicago, USA, in 1893. They were run by the International Cycling Association before the UCI took over in 1900.
The event was held for the first time in the UK in 1897, when it took place at Celtic Park in Glasgow. The first time it was held in England was in 1904 at London's Crystal Palace. The UK has hosted it eight times in all so far, with the Manchester Velodrome - now the home of British cycling - being used three times.
In 1899, America’s Major Taylor became the first black rider to win a major track race when he won the one-mile event in Canada. Taylor went on to become a huge star in Europe.
In 1895, Jimmy Michael became the first British man ever to win a gold medal at the track cycling World Championships in Cologne. In 1959, Beryl Burton replicated the feat for the women, the first of five golds for the greatest woman rider of all time. The Brits have been winning ever since.
In its 124-year history, the event has visited 24 different countries all over the world, including Europe, Asia and South America. France has hosted the most World Championships, running the event 15 times.
The World Champion wins an exclusive Rainbow Jersey that they can then wear for a year in the event in which they are champion. After that, they’re entitled to wear a set of Rainbow bands on the cuffs of their jersey for the rest of their career.
Frenchman Arnaud Tournant has the biggest ever medal tally, earning 14 golds, three silver and two bronze medals between 1997 and 2008. Second in the table is Sir Chris Hoy with 25 medals, including 11 golds.
Women didn’t compete until 1958, when there were two events for women – now there are nine. Australia’s Anna Meares has the most medals overall with 23, including 10 golds, followed by French rider Félicia Ballanger, who also won 10 golds in her career and Britain's Victoria Pendleton with 16 medals between 2007 and 2012.
France are the top nation in the event's history with a grand total of 138 golds, followed by Great Britain (100 golds) and the Netherlands (83 golds).
Track cycling takes place on an oval track with steeply banked sides which can be 133m, 250m, 333.3m or 500m in length. The standard length for international competition is 250m. Although outdoor tracks can have a variety of surfaces, including cinders and cement, indoor tracks are always made of wood - usually Siberian Pine.
The Hong Kong velodrome has a 250m track and seating for 3,000 spectators. The design of its roof was inspired by the shape of a cycling helmet.
Every velodrome has a series of specific markings on the track: first, there’s the transitional blue band, known as the ‘Cote d’Azur’, which is not part of the track proper, and riders who use it to pass the competition are disqualified. 20cm above that is a black line that measures the distance of the track. 90cm higher up is the Sprinter’s Line - during a sprint event, any rider who is in the zone between the red and the black line cannot be passed on the inside. The Stayer's Line is marked in blue, one third of the width of the track from the bottom, and is used in events like the Madison and the Keirin.
Unlike a road bike, the bikes used for track events only have one fixed gear. They may be fitted with one or two disc wheels to minimise drag and have no brakes at all.
Men and women compete in exactly the same events, though the women compete over shorter distances. These are split into sprint events: individual and team sprints, the kilometre (500m for women) and the Keirin; and endurance events - individual and team pursuit, points race, scratch race and Madison. There’s also a combined event, the Omnium, which has six events and takes place over two days - like the decathlon of track cycling.
The Madison is named after Madison Square Garden, where the event was invented during the 6 Day races of the 1890s. Such was the concern about the riders' health that laws were passed to prevent them riding to exhaustion. To get around the law and keep the excitement going, the organisers created the Madison, which was ridden by two-man teams, meaning that one rider could race while the other took a breather. Nowadays riders swap over with a distinctive handsling, almost throwing their teammate into the thick of the action.
The Keirin is one of the most bizarre events in track cycling. Hugely popular in Japan, where there are special schools for riders and events attract thousands of spectators who bet millions of yen on the outcome of a race, it’s best known for the presence on the track of a small moped or derny which is used to pace the riders before the all-out hurly-burly of the sprint.
World Championships Trivia
The Worlds have taken place every year since 1893 except for 1915-1919 (World War I) and 1940-1945 (World War II). The 1939 Worlds were held at the famous Vigorelli velodrome in Milan, which was later bombed during the war – It didn’t stop the famous Italian champion Fausto Coppi from setting the world hour record there in 1942, even though it was being used to house Italian troops at the time.
The 1934 World Championships were held in Leipzig, in Nazi-controlled Germany. The greatest German sprinter of the era, Albert Richter, was an outspoken critic of the Nazis and loyal to his Jewish coach. He refused to wear a national team jersey with a swastika or give the Nazi salute, despite continuing to win races in his home country. In 1939, he boarded a train to Switzerland in an attempt to leave the country. When the train stopped at the border, he was dragged from his carriage by the Gestapo and never seen alive again.
The 2016 event at the ‘Pringle’ in London’s Olympic Park was the biggest-selling UCI ticketed event ever, with over 50,000 tickets sold for the five days of competition. Every single event sold out.
In 1968 for the first time the amateur and professional events were held in two different venues. The amateurs raced in Uruguay, while the professionals raced at the Olympic Velodrome in Rome. The foundations of the velodrome were found to be crumbling and the Worlds were the last cycling event to be held there. In 2006 it was demolished by implosion. The experiment was repeated the next year with events in Antwerp and Brno, but since then all events have taken place in one host country. In 1992, the UCI got rid of the distinction between amateur and professional riders altogether.
The Velódromo Alcides Nieto Patiño in Cali, Colombia, is the highest altitude at which the Worlds have been held, at 998m. It’s not the highest track in the world - that title belongs to the Velodromo Agustín Melgar which hosted the 1968 Olympics in Mexico and saw Eddy Merckx smash the hour record in 1972.
The smallest country ever to win a track cycling Worlds medal is Lichtenstein. Six-day specialist Roman Hermann took a bronze in the points race in Leicester, UK, in 1982.
48 different countries, including Greece, Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago and Bohemia, have won medals at the UCI track cycling World Championships.
When 20-year-old Indian Deborah Herrold qualified for the Worlds in London in 2016, it was an extraordinary achievement, as the rider had spent over a week stuck in a tree as a result of the devastating 2004 tsunami.
In 2016, 309 riders from 45 nations competed for the 19 Rainbow Jerseys on offer. In Hong Kong, China will be hoping that Tianshi Zhong and Lin Junhong can repeat their gold and silver success in the women’s sprint. The Chinese duo are well known for the extraordinary masks painted on their helmets.
If you think Sir Chris Hoy is the greatest sprinter ever, think again: Japanese rider Koichi Nakano won the event an incredible ten times in a row from 1977 to 1986.