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The Team Pursuit is the fastest event on the track. Men are covering the 4,000m in a record time of 3:48:012 (63.2 kph), while the women are covering the distance in 4:10:236 (57.6 kph). While it may seem like no big deal to stick on someone’s wheel at these speeds on the open road, it’s a completely different experience on a 250m, banked velodrome, where teams are winning by razor-thin margins.
VeloNews asked Kim Geist, a two-time world champion in the Team Pursuit, to offer her insight into what’s going during the race, and what to look for when watching. Kim, who retired at the end of 2019, boasts an impressive palmares that includes two world championships and world cup titles alongside Chloe Dygert and Jennifer Valente, multiple Pan American Games wins, and a UCI number one ranking in the Madison. Geist retired at the end of 2019, but is still very active in the cycling community as a mentor and coach.
VeloNews: What should we be looking for, when watching the Team Pursuit?
Kim Geist: You should be looking at fluidity of the team. That is, the team should fall into formation from the standing start, without gaps between riders. Teams should track the black line throughout the race, and follow each other smoothly from the black line in the turns, to the red lines in the straightaways as a unit. Riders having completed a turn at the front should fall back directly onto the last wheel in line from a smooth arc. Lap times after the first lap should also only have small increases or decreases [in speed].
VN: What makes one team faster than another team—separating first place from second? Raw power? Technical points?
KG: A lot of what goes into making one team faster than another is raw power. But the skills of the team also play a large factor, and can overcome pure horsepower. For instance, being able to sit in the draft of teammates to maximal efficiency means a rider can have all that much more in the tank to contribute to the speed of the team when [they move] on [to] the front. Equipment and overall aerodynamics of individuals and the team can also make a difference when the races are close.
A great example of overcoming a lack of horsepower would be myself—my raw power numbers were never highly impressive, but my skills and efficiency in team-pursuiting were, so I could contribute well to a winning team.
VN: What’s the most challenging aspect of the team pursuit?
KG: The most challenging aspect of the team pursuit is getting all the details right. Not mentioning the ability to get every physical ounce of available effort out of each individual rider on the day.
Team pursuit is such a detail-oriented event. Absolutely everything matters during the race: how quickly and efficiently you get off the line, how well you rest on the wheel in front of you, how you track the black line or your teammates, how well-timed your exchanges are, how you communicate and adjust the plan, how aerodynamic and relaxed your body position remains throughout, how smoothly you achieve a finishing formation at the very end.
VN: How does one train for the team pursuit—are you practicing going as fast as possible on the straights? What about taking the turns while holding wheels, or other aspects?
KG: The technical training for team pursuit focuses on being able to perform a start quickly and with good form, being efficient in line, performing exchanges well, and getting to know and communicate well with teammates. There can be an array of training efforts to accomplish this, from under race speed to over race speed, and as a solo team or with assistance from a motorcycle draft.
VN: How close are you to the wheel of the rider ahead of you?
KG: Ideally a rider follows the wheel ahead as closely as possible so long proximity to the wheel in front does not cause fluctuations in power. Every fluctuation in power takes a hard physical toll on the rider.
VN: When are exchanges made? Are they always made at the same interval?
KG: Exchanges are made with the purpose of keeping the speed of the team as high as possible. Exchanges are typically made in the turns, so that riders take advantage of the banking and essentially have a helpful downhill ride to join onto the back of the team. There have been some teams, however, who have experimented with exchanges at different locations on the track this season, so we may see some different styles at the World Championships.
Exchanges are not always made at the same interval. Riders who are contributing more at different times in the ride may take longer pulls on the front, or visa versa. Stronger riders may also take longer pulls than weaker riders.
VN: How is the lineup decided? Does one rider—or someone with a specific attribute or ability—always anchor or lead off a pursuit team?
KG: The line-up can come from analyzing a lot of different data points. For instance, one rider may receive more of a draft behind another, one rider may be better equipped to follow another who is more or less smooth in line, one rider may be a great finisher, and needs to be a certain place in line to reach the front at the appropriate time.
The one thing that is consistent, though, is that the starter must have a certain amount of skill in getting the team up to speed efficiently and quickly enough, have a good sense of pacing, and have the physical ability to dig deep early on in the ride.
VN: How long or far does each rider spend on the front? Do some riders take longer pulls?
KG: Riders who are contributing more at different times in the ride may take longer pulls on the front, or visa versa. Stronger riders may also take longer pulls than weaker riders. Pulls can sometimes be as short as 1/2 lap, or 125 meters, or as long as 6 laps, or 1.5 kilometers.
VN: Do all four riders needs to finish with each other, or can a rider (or two) be sacrificed, like a sprint train leadout on the road?
KG: The rule for Team Pursuit is that three of the four starting riders must finish the race. The rider who is not finishing may pull out at any time. Ideally, teams will utilize the abilities of one rider to the maximum earlier in the ride, finishing with only three riders and contributing to the fastest team finish.
VN: Are there race plans which are followed, and how are changes to the plan made, if ever?
KG: A team pursuit team will go into a race with a plan. This includes a plan for length of the pulls for each rider and the goal lap splits. Changes to the plan while on the fly typically come from the riders’ decisions. These can be the result of an unexpected event happening within the race or unexpectedly good—or bad—legs.
VN: What kind of communication is going on during the pursuit? Is there a team captain who makes the calls, or can anyone call an audible if things need to be changed up mid ride?
KG: The coach will communicate during the race from the apron next to the track as to how the team is progressing on the goal lap splits, [at] each lap. This can come from a verbal or a visual signal.
Teammates will communicate with one another, typically through a short list of commands. The way changes to the plan are handled will vary depending upon the team, but usually everyone on the team has the responsibility to communicate when a change needs to be made. After a lot of experience riding with one another, teammates can also anticipate changes based upon things like differences in body language or habits.
VN: How do those who are part of a team pursuit balance training and racing other events? Is there a prioritization for the TP, since it’s been so successful?
KG: In the USA, team pursuit has taken a prioritization because it has been a successful event. But there has been some ebb and flow depending upon perceived or actual success in other events. Training and racing time to the different events is allocated accordingly.
VN: What questions are we not asking, which need to be asked and answered?
KG: Perhaps…How do teams choose their gearing? Do all riders ride the same gear?
Conditions within the velodrome are analyzed. Air density has a big impact on the speed a team can achieve. Each rider has a cadence range that is most efficient, so once a speed is estimated, a gear ratio [and chainring and rear cog size] is selected to achieve that cadence. Rider’s preferred cadence ranges differ, so riders will race on different gears within the same team.
VN: What most do you miss about racing in the TP? What about other events?
KG: There is not much I miss because I feel I mastered the knowledge, skills, and physical abilities in all the events in which I competed. The exception is with the Madison, which was still a skills-learning process since it was introduced as an international event for women just this quadrennial.
I miss improving my abilities in that race. And racing alongside some awesome teammates.