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The case for the individual pursuit

  • By John Wilcockson
  • Published Nov. 23, 2009
  • Updated Nov. 24, 2009 at 11:42 AM EDT

A week ago, I wrote an open letter to the Union Cycliste Internationale and International Olympic Committee regarding potential changes in the track-racing schedule at the 2012 Olympic Games in London — especially the proposed elimination of the individual pursuit.

UCI Track Commission
The president of the UCI’s Track Commission is Australian Mike Turtur, whose full-time job is organizing the Santos Tour Down Under, a race that has developed into one of the UCI ProTour’s most popular events. He is a former Commonwealth Games gold medalist in the individual pursuit, and he won an Olympic gold in the team pursuit in 1984 at Los Angeles with his compatriots Dean Woods, Mike Grenda and Kevin Nichols.
The commission’s senior member is Belgium’s Patrick Sercu, who won Olympic gold in the kilo at the 1964 Games, two world pro sprint titles, a record 88 six-day races, and more than 100 road races including six Tour de France stages (and the Tour’s green jersey). He is now Europe’s six-day impresario and the organizer of Belgium’s two six-day races in Ghent and Hasselt.
The other three members are Denmark’s Peder Pedersen, who was a world champion sprinter and kilometer racer in Sercu’s era; Japan’s Yoshinori Kuramasu, a senior member of the Japan Cycling Federation and a protagonist for the keirin event (which made its debut only three Olympiads ago at the 2000 Games in Melbourne); and Italy’s Enrico Della Casa, who is also the president of the European track commission. The coordinator is a full-time UCI official from Switzerland, Gilles Peruzzi.

An Internet petition has since been set in motion, but what else can be done to change the UCI’s mind? Time is at a premium because the decision is due to be ratified in early December when the UCI next meets with the IOC.

The process to make changes in the track program was begun earlier this year when the IOC asked cycling’s governing body to make all their Olympic events “gender neutral.” This was already the case in road cycling, mountain biking and BMX — which debuted in Beijing thanks to the elimination of track cycling’s kilometer time trial (for men) and 500-meter TT (for women). But at the 2008 Games, there were still seven track races for men and only three for women.

There has been no argument that there should be a 50-50 split at the next Olympics, but the current proposal is highly unpopular, especially with the athletes. The task of deciding which two men’s events to eliminate (and which two to add to the women’s program) was given to the UCI’s Track Commission, which has a president, four members and a coordinator (see box).

The commission has proposed the same five events for men and women: individual sprint, team sprint, keirin, team pursuit — and the omnium.  But no individual pursuit, even though (along with the match sprint) it is track cycling’s marquee event with a history stretching over five decades.

In contrast, the omnium did not become a world championship event until two years ago and it has engendered little interest among the athletes. And how many of you know what constitutes an omnium? Well, it is a series of five races that take place one after the other on the same day. It starts with a 200-meter flying start time trial, which is followed by a 5,000-meter scratch race, a 3,000-meter pursuit and a 60-lap points race, and concludes with a 1,000-meter TT (sometimes called the kilo). The event is scored by a points system, with the winner of each event being awarded one point, the runner-up two points, etc., and the overall champion being the one with the lowest points score over the five events.

Taylor Phinney in pursuit

With the omnium having three races for sprinters (the two time trials and scratch race) and two for endurance riders (pursuit and points race), it is biased toward fast-twitch athletes. But when VeloNews spoke with UCI track commission president Mike Turtur he insisted that the omnium would be like the decathlon in track-and-field athletics, an event that does favor the endurance athlete.

Clearly, there is a disconnect between cycling’s administrators and the riders, because as the Olympic proposal stands, the endurance athletes have only one event, the team pursuit, whereas the sprinters have three medal events (sprint, keirin and team sprint), and four if the omnium is included. The obvious solution is to eliminate the team sprint, an event that is of little public interest and favors the very few nations with sprinting depth (Great Britain, France and Australia) and reinstate the individual pursuit.

This would give two events for sprinters (sprint and keirin), two for endurance athletes (pursuit and team pursuit), and the omnium (which in theory favors sprinters although Turtur regards it as an endurance event).

The UCI says it is looking for television-friendly track races. Well, let’s keep the one event that the public understands and can attract stars of both track and road: the individual pursuit. What more could a TV director ask for than the potential London 2012 lineup matching the “older” generation of Bradley Wiggins, Hayden Roulston and Dominique Cornu versus young guns Taylor Phinney, Jack Bobridge, Jesse Sergent and Geraint Thomas. And even Swiss superstar Fabian Cancellara has expressed an interest in the pursuit as a steppingstone to a world hour record attempt.

So why does the UCI still prefer the omnium, a marginal and largely unpopular event?

Who are the world omnium champions?
Did you know that the first three winners of the world men’s omnium title were Alois Kankowsky of the Czech Republic (2007), Hayden Godfrey of New Zealand (2008) and Leigh Howard of Australia (2009), and that the first world women’s omnium champion was Josephine Tomic of Australia (2009)? Probably not. Also, it’s doubtful that even rabid followers of cycling in Canada know that their compatriots Zachary Bell and Tara Whitten took the silver medals in the omnium events at this year’s worlds.

The simple answer is the UCI track commission is pushing its own agenda. The commission’s senior member, Patrick Sercu, has fond memories of the event because he was the European omnium champion 11 times during a racing career in the 1960s and ’70s at a time when indoor track racing was highly popular and the event was contested by the top six-day riders — who included many of the era’s road stars.

Sercu’s cohort on the UCI track commission, Enrico Della Casa, is the president of the European Track Commission that promotes four omnium events in its annual European track championships: a sprinters omnium (made up of four short races) and an endurance athletes’ omnium (with four mid-distance races) for both men and women.

As for the other two members of the UCI Track Commission, Danish official Peder Pedersen is likely pleased that the team pursuit is retained (Denmark is the current world champion), while Japan’s Yoshinori Kuramasu would not want see his country’s signature event, the keirin, dropped from the Olympics.

That leaves just commission president Michael Turtur — a former individual and team pursuit rider — who told VeloNews he was not involved in the decision-making process (he has recently taken over from the longtime commission president, his countryman Ray Godkin).

“But I fully endorse the decision,” he said. “Some are disappointed with the choice of events, but others are overjoyed.”

Great Britain, with its dominant contingent of sprinters, is an obvious nation to embrace the current proposals; but according to USA Cycling’s director of athletics Jim Miller, it was the British that brought up the subject for discussion at a team managers’ meeting during the recent track World Cup meet in Manchester, England.

While the decision is not set in stone, changing the UCI’s mind will need riders, fans and officials from many countries to demand a re-think. The easiest plan is to remove the limited-interest team sprint and reinstate the individual pursuit; it seems that it will be more difficult to change the UCI’s support of the omnium.

Now is the time for action!

You can follow John on twitter.com/johnwilcockson

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