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Tokyo Olympics: What is the Team Pursuit

Winners Denmarks Lasse Norman Hansen Julius Johansen Frederik Rodenberg Madsen and Rasmus Pedersen pose with their medals on the podium after the mens Team Pursuit Finals at the UCI track cycling World Championship at the velodrome in Berlin on February 27 2020 Photo by Odd ANDERSEN AFP Photo by ODD ANDERSENAFP via Getty Images
Denmark wins 2020 men's team pursuit at World Championships (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

Track cycling is one of the original sports contested in the modern Olympic Games, when they were restored in 1896 at Athens, Greece. Track cycling was one of 43 total events contested by 280 athletes, all men, from 13 nations and its multiple disciplines have appeared in all but one Olympic Games since, with the exception of Stockholm 1912 when only a time trial was held.

The Team Pursuit is considered an endurance event, even though the times are around four minutes for women and have dipped below the four-minute mark for men for the 4,000-metre race. It’s about clockwork precision in addition to high speed.

The Team Pursuit was first an Olympic event for men in 1908 with the women added to the programme in 2012.

In the first appearance, women raced with three-rider teams over a 3,000-metre distance, but starting in 2016 in Rio, both men's and women's events used four-rider teams competing over 4,000 metres.

The best time for both men and women in the Olympics are held by Great Britain, who set records at the 2016 Rio Games, both for the women's event with a 4:10.236 (also a World Record), and for the men with 3:50.265.

Olympic Team Pursuit Records
Date SetTimeLocationTeam
MenAugust 12, 20163:50.265Rio de JaneiroGreat Britain
Women - 3000mAugust 4, 20123:14.051LondonGreat Britain
Women - 4000mAugust 13, 20164:10.236LondonGreat Britain

Basics of Team Pursuit

Each team is composed of four riders who race together across 16 laps (4,000 kilometres), each taking turns pulling with the others drafting in a straight line.

Each round is contested by two teams starting on opposite sides of the track to cover the 4,000. The time is taken as the third rider's front wheel crosses the finish line.

One of the most graceful cycling events, the lead rider powers the team into a turn then pulls off high on the banking and dives down to rejoin in the draft of the last rider. The better a rider is at pulling off an effective exchange, the more efficient they are at saving energy and thus the faster they can travel.

The event combines technical skill, equipment innovation for maximum aerodynamics as well as pacing and strategy. Stronger riders might take longer pulls or save their strength for late in the race. Weaker riders might bury themselves for as long as possible before being dropped. Riders must know each other's abilities well and ensure that at least three riders stay together to the finish.

Teams are allowed to enter five riders and combine in different ways into teams of four for each round.

If a team makes the final, they will have endured three rounds: the first is a qualifying round where each team is on the track alone, aiming to set their fastest possible time. Only the top four teams have an opportunity to race for the gold medal, while the next four fastest may only at best earn bronze.

On the next round (called the first round), the teams face off according to their ranking in qualifying: 6th vs 7th, 5th vs 8th, 2nd vs 3rd and 1st vs 4th. The winners of the last two heats will compete for the gold medal in the final.

The times of losers of the last two heats are grouped together with the first two heats, and the two fastest teams of those six will make the bronze medal final.

The medals are then awarded in another head-to-head round where the fastest team wins. If a team gets within one metre of catching their opponent, they win automatically.

Contenders

Members of the US team compete to win Gold in the Womens Team Pursuit Finals at the UCI track cycling World Championship at the velodrome in Berlin on February 27 2020 Photo by Odd ANDERSEN AFP Photo by ODD ANDERSENAFP via Getty Images

Members of the US team compete to win Gold in the Women's Team Pursuit Finals at the UCI track cycling World Championship 2020 (Image credit: Getty Images)

The Team Pursuit in the Olympic Games on the men's side has traditionally been dominated by Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand. Great Britain set new world records progressively each quadrennial from 2008, 2012, and the 2016 Olympic Games. Then Australia brought the World Record under 3:50 for the first time at the 2018 Commonwealth Games and bettered their own time at the 2019 World Championships.

The Danish men’s squad lowered the time by nearly 10 seconds at the 2020 Worlds in Germany. The foursome of Lasse Norman Hansen, Julius Johansen, Frederik Madsen, Rasmus Pedersen set the World Record in a new best time of 3:44.672 for a gold medal. The next four best teams - New Zealand, France, Australia and Italy – also finished with times that were better than the world standard from 2019. Team Denmark will be the team to mark for the gold as it brings the same foursome from the Worlds.

On the women’s side Great Britain and Team USA should be in a rematch from last year’s World Championships. Team USA won the gold medal with a national record of 4:11.229, which was a second slower than Team Great Britain’s 2016 world record. The Brits took silver last February, just half a second back, followed by Canada, New Zealand and Australia. 

In Tokyo, the USA is expected to line up with its gold-medal Worlds foursome of Chloe Dygert, Emma White, Lily Williams and Jennifer Valente. Team Great Britain expects to contend with Olympic veterans Katie Archibald and Elinor Barker, plus Neah Evans and Josie Knight.

Schedule

Team pursuit qualifying rounds for women and men begin on the first day of Olympic Track Cycling at Izu Velodrome on August 2, with first first rounds on August 3. The women’s final and victory ceremony will also be held on August 3, with the men’s final and victory ceremony held on August 4.

Refer to the Tokyo Olympic Games cycling schedule for more details.

World records

Australia set the women's World Record at the 2015 World Championships, in a time of 4:13.683, which was broken at the 2016 Rio Games, twice. First Team USA set the best world mark, then Great Britain took the World Record when it won the gold medal in a time of 4:10.236.

Denmark set the current men’s World Record at the World Championships in Berlin in 2020, recording a time of 3:44.672. The Danes broke the men’s team pursuit three times in two days in Berlin, recording times of 3 minutes 46.579 seconds and 3 minutes 46.203 seconds (during qualifications and the first round respectively) on 26 February before going even faster in the final against New Zealand.

Great Britain holds the current men's Olympic Record, set at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games in a time of 3:50.265.