UCI Track Champions League: a fight to revive velodrome
November 28, 2021
Track cycling has been around since at least 1870 and although it is popular in Europe, notably Belgium, France, Germany and the United Kingdom, it’s main purpose nowadays is for road racers to use it as off-season training. Imagine being a sport, which keeps losing its identity and becoming a mere practice ground for another sport. Sounds a bit gloomy, doesn’t it? Well, the UCI Track Champions League is here to revive this cycling discipline. On 26th of November, round two of Track Champions League was held in Panevezys, Lithuania and I went there to witness a possible rebirth of a 150 years old sport.
A brief history of track cycling popularity
When it was in its infancy, track cycling was held on velodromes similar to the ones used today. One appeal of indoor track racing was that spectators could be easily charged, making track racing a lucrative sport. Early track races attracted crowds of up to 2000 people and enabled year-round cycling for the first time in the history.
In the United States, track racing reached a peak of popularity in the 1930s when six-day races were held in Madison Square Garden in New York. As republicworld portrays it:
There was a time in America when thousands of fans would don their best suits and shirtwaists, their bowler hats and finest jewelry, and descend on Madison Square Garden in New York to watch the world’s best cyclists.
The word “Madison” is still used as the name for a type of race.
Glass-plate negative by Bain News Service. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division
Nowadays, except for off-season training and occasional events, track cycling is not very popular among masses. In the United States, for example, there are only 27 tracks spread across the country, but sadly only 3 of them are indoors and only a single one meets international standards. On the other hand, there is Japan, which has a long history of Keirin being a multi-billion dollar industry, with private army-like schools preparing athletes, but that is a single example in a modern world and a story for another time.
This is where UCI Track Champions League is trying to make a dent into this apathy towards track cycling. Their mission on about page states:
The UCI Track Champions League has been designed to reinvent track cycling creating an innovative new format to engage fans globally.
Reinventing is a strong word, especially when talking about sport, so how does UCI aim to achieve that? First of all, what does innovation mean in the UCI Track Championships League and how does that help to engage fans?
Innovation in UCI Track Champions League
Track cycling can be confusing. There are numerous events that have different rules, so it is usually hard to keep track of everything happening and know who is in the lead. This is where technology comes in. Throughout velodrome there are screens and other visual tools indicating crucial race information, making it easier to keep tabs on everything that is happening.
Instead of being a bleak, cold environment that is typically present in track cycling, UCI Track Champions League decided to attract spectators with bright lights and futuristic environment. As a tech person myself, I cannot say that this doesn’t work, it definitely creates an exciting atmosphere, which can feel like a video game. Constant switches of light, sound effects give a modern vibe to a cycling race, which is usually regarded as being boring by the masses, no matter the discipline.
Sprint warmup session before main festivities
On the other hand, I was not particularly drawn to the app provided. Upon installing and opening it, you are presented with heaps of information, which in my opinion, is not very useful to a race that you are witnessing. Reading twitter news on it or staring at the screen trying to find what watts are being pushed at the moment, instead of enjoying action in front of your eyes seems strange to me. I really hoped that there would be big screens in the velodrome displaying riders’ data real-time, where you could quickly glance and get the idea, but that was not the case, you were left choosing between staring at your device’s screen or witnessing event itself, which in my opinion is a no brainer.
When talking about professional cycling, fans usually point to usual suspects- road races and an occasional mountain bike events, but once off-season kicks in, hardcore admirers of world’s toughest sport start to have cravings. Some of us fill that gap with cyclocross, others turn into other sports, but nothing really scratches the itch for a same caliber emotional experience. An occasional track cycling event might do a job, but once a couple hours contentment is done, both you and velodrome go into hibernation once again and in velodrome’s case, it just stands there gathering dust. This is where UCI Track Champions League tries to fill this gap and revolutionize track cycling by having a general classification consisting of 5 stages all around the globe, which makes it exciting and interesting to follow. Instead of witnessing a one time event, general ranking provides an opportunity to maximise fan engagement across, offering a regular and consistent race schedule.
One thing that I really liked about the event is how beginner friendly it is. Every event of track cycling was presented multiple times on the big screen, so you always knew what to expect from an upcoming event. Commentators and experts were keeping everyone up to date with what was happening, so people with no cycling background quickly got the idea and were able to enjoy the spectacle. On top of that, events were fast paced, rotation of them did not introduce any boredom or a sense of being tired. If you are thinking about visiting such event or any other profesional race, I have written an article on how to get most out of it as a spectator, give it a read.
Warmup session before main festivities
Is Lithuania a good choice for such an event?
Let’s be frank, Lithuania is not really a cycling country. Especially not when it comes to the professional side of a sport. For this reason I didn’t expect this amount of spectators in Panevezys. We have huge sold-outs arenas during basketball games, but definitely not a velodrome in the 5th largest city in the country. During the past month or so, I noticed a lot of marketing campaigns and ads for UCI Track Champions League both in media and in person. I loved how energetic and vibrant those ads were, conveying, in my opinion, one of the biggest values of the event- modernization of 150 years old sport.
Spectators made posters to support our local heroes- Olivija Baleišytė, Simona Krupeckaitė and Vasilijus Lendel. Everytime one of these athletes would stand in a start position for an upcoming event, the whole velodrome would go crazy, cheering and supporting riders even if they were not successful in securing a top place by the end of Keirin or Scratch race. Although Lithuanians have a long history of booing competition during sport events, it was really heart-warming to see that no matter if a local athlete didn’t win, everyone in the velodrome was congratulating the competition who became victorious.
While leaving a velodrome, I couldn’t help but notice how many people were excited, some of them were already scheming about trying out track cycling for themselves. Who knows, maybe Lithuania will become a cycling country after all?
UCI Track Champions League is what modern track cycling needs
Although there is some room for improvement, the UCI Track Champions League is definitely a breath of fresh air. It utilizes both technology and traditions in order to create something spectacular and memorable. As George Bernard Shaw once said:
“Those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.”
It is not a secret that over the past years, UCI has made some questionable decisions in the world of cycling and although it sometimes seems that this organization would better collapse than implement some changes to traditions, UCI Track Champions League is definitely a big step towards reinventing track cycling and attracting new talent into it.
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