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The “Tokyo” Omnium format – does it work?

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A month ago we reported on the changes to the track regulations for the next Olympic cycle and, in particular, the changes to the Omnium format – the removal of the technical, timed events, the move to a single day of competition and the addition of the Tempo race. We weren’t entirely convinced but, unlike some parts of the internet, we were, at least, prepared to give it a chance.

Not everybody was opposed to the changes – Mark Elliott, Performance Director at Cycling New Zealand was enthusiastic, saying that the “UCI are trying to make the track racing more of a spectacle, with more high intensity races which will provide more entertainment. We are fully supportive of that.”

“At first glance we are also pleased with the omnium changes because our traditional strength has been in bunch racing. We have a number of riders who have junior and senior world championship success in points racing and Madison.”

“It is likely to require a change in our planning and coaching approach with our more traditional focus on the Teams Pursuit. If the overall number of riders for an Olympics does not change, then riders for the omnium will need come out of team pursuit.

“We would then need to determine the priorities accordingly. And we will need to look for more top class international competition opportunities for our riders.”

Le Velodrome National, Saint Quentin-en-Yvelines Day 3
Mark Stewart was the first GB rider to compete in the new format at the European Track Championships

British endurance coach Heiko Salzwedel was even more enthusiastic, telling Cycling Weekly that “I welcome this very much. It has taken all the boring parts of the omnium out, the timing events – who wants to see 250 metres [flying lap], who wants to see kilometre time trial, who wants to see four kilometres [individual pursuit], these events have been taken out.”

A month on and we’ve seen three Omniums in the new format a Men’s and Women’s at the European Championships and a Women’s race at the World Cup in Glasgow.  We know what we think about the changes, but what do the people who actually know what they’re talking about say – now they’ve seen it?

We caught up with Salzwedel and his Irish counterpart Brian Nugent after the two races in Paris – and with Katy Archibald – who won the European Omnium title in the new format – a couple of weeks later in Glasgow.

Has Salzwedel changed his mind? “No – absolutely not. It’s a welcome – really welcome – move in the right direction. As I said before, if these new rules would be already in place last year, I wouldn’t need to waste so much time with Mark Cavendish on doing timed events – exercises in the 250m again and again and again, and training pace judgement for the 4km. It’s an event nobody wants to see anyway.

“Yesterday we have seen an exciting race – a little bit chaotic, the Tempo Race still needs to be sorted out. I would rather see points every second lap – just to be consistent with the Elimination race – where this is also every second lap an elimination – I would like to see the points in the Tempo race every second lap. And maybe two and one points, like it used to be in the 70s, back in Europe. “

The Tempo race is a common theme in all the conversations – some people more or less enthusiastic about it, but everybody agreeing that it would benefit from a few tweaks after the first three races were dominated by riders who broke away and sat off the back of the bunch, racking up points. Not quite the barnstorming, sprint-every-lap race we’d been promised.

We asked Salzwedel what else he thought could be considered. Extra points on the final sprint? “Like the Points Race? To be consistent – it’s all about consistency across the board. If you have double points for the final sprint in the Madison, if you have double points in the Points Race then also do it in the Tempo Race.

People saying it’s more or less the same of the same [as the other races in the Omnium] – I think the insiders would say that they really dispute this – it’s a completely different race, with different tactics. In the Tempo Race, for example, it’s a completely different reward for gaining a lap – it’s not as big any more – but there still should be… cycling lives from sprinting, lives from attacking – this is what people like. Not just a bunch cruising around and crating chaos – like it was here a little bit. Nobody really knew what was happening.”

Le Velodrome National, Saint Quentin-en-Yvelines Day 3
Albert Torres of Spain won the first Omnium Tempo race in a solo breakaway – hanging off the back of the bunch and taking 8 ‘sprints’ before taking a lap

Or maybe it will just sort itself out. Did he think that the bunch will continue to simply let people ride away? “No, probably not – it’s an inferior tactic. For me, personally, it was a benefit to have the Spanish guy away, picking up all the points – so less other opponents get points – this is a tactical thing and this will sort out itself. As I said, if only one guy gets one point per lap it’s not really an incentive.

“But if you get two and one points, for instance, you get pairs breaking away – catching and trying to get these points – it gives more incentive to be more dynamic in the race. I would like to see more dynamic in the race than just to have a couple of fast laps here.”

Even so, we suggested, it’s never going to be the same instant – and unexpected – success that the Elimination race was. “No, probably not – but it’s still a part of cycling – also, remember, back in the 70s Tempo Races were a normal thing and when we talk about tradition you have to look at Patrick Sercu – who own the Omnium European Championship seven times back in the 70s and it was very similar to the program that we have now.

“So from that point of view, everything that has to do with bringing tradition back to the rules I welcome. And also, I would like to see the Madison back in to the Olympic programme – because of exactly the same reason.

“The Madison is one of the most popular events and it’s probably the only financially viable option for a track cyclist [in the 6 Day races] – and to take that out of the Olympic programme is, for me, a crime.”

Nugent is more positive about the Tempo race, but thinks that part of the challenge is the interpretation of the rules for taking a lap – “Yes – but for us, the Elimination, at the beginning – I can’t lie – coming from the old format, which was very much time based – before the Elimination came in we had pursuits, kilos – everybody was saying ‘Why the Eilimination?’… It seemed ridiculous. But it’s now a crowd favourite – even the regulars like it. Everybody’s adapted well.

“But for the Tempo, some people are confused about it. They’re not sure how it’s going to work. But I don’t know… I like it. And I think they’ll make a few tweaks – like they seem to be telling the riders once they’re ten… fifteen metres off the back ‘You’re in the group now – get in the group’.

“But there’s no written rule there. Once they state ‘as soon as you’re within ten metres of the back – or whatever the commissaires want to say – as soon as that’s established, then I think it will be a success because it makes it aggressive, because you have to go early.”

He concedes that it might need to be tweaked a little, but he’s reticent about changing too much “It will have to change a bit. They will have to make the rules a bit more clear – but at the moment the smarter riders are winning the points – it makes it a bit more tactical – and that’s what I like about it.

“A lot of the old Omnium events – a lot of the Olympic events – are power-based – the way they’ve structured it now you have to be tactical – you have to think. And you have to be smart.

“And I like that – it doesn’t cost any money to be smart. “

What about Heiko’s suggestion of points every other lap? “That’s an interesting one. That would make it more aggressive, for sure. It would be stop-start, stop-start – and there’d be no incentive to stay out there every lap. That’s not a bad suggestion.”

Le Velodrome National, Saint Quentin-en-Yvelines Day 4
Katie Archibald of Great Britain wins the European Omnium Championship

That’s what the coaches think – what about Archibald? She’s ridden, one after all. Was it what she was expecting? “Well, it’s meant to be in the name. I believed that it was going to be this really high tempo, hard race and ours got completely neutralised because you end up with riders hanging off the back, thinking ‘Well, I’m not going to take the lap – it’s four points, it’s not worth it’ so whether the UCI will change the rules and give you a larger incentive to take a lap – I don’t know – but certainly from the one-off experience that I have, I regret taking the lap because myself and the Italian were off early doors and had it in prime position and…”

And then Kirsten basically one it by doing the same thing, but at the end of the race… “And the other thing – in our race only six people – maybe seven people – scored, so for eighth onwards it was a scratch race – which is my least favourite of all events! I don’t want anything decided by a Scratch race!”

So does Archibald think it will ever be the race we were promised with Sprints every lap? “I guess that’s the question of whether it’s the disparity between performance of people in the field – so when you have riders like Torres that are able to open up a gap, whether it ruins that intended format.

“So the things that we’ve been discussing would be whether more points for getting a lap or – and this is a stupid, wild one that I’m not sure I agree with – that you’re not allowed to take a lap. So it would kind of like the Devil – if you go half a lap you go out.”

What about Points race-style points for the final sprint? “Yeah – well, as GB I think we’re fans of the double points!” Archibald had just won the first World Cup Women’s Madison with a win in the double points final sprint – although, in fact, she would have won with single points – tied on points with France but ahead at the finish…

Enough about the Tempo race. How does the change of format affect the riders? We thought four events in one day might be a bit intense, but the riders seemed to find it less tiring – less stressful – and felt better going into the Final points race.

Salzwedel again “I expected the same and I think it’s really welcome – they don’t have a sleepless night before the next day, thinking about what could be happening and so on – they get it done in one day and then move on with the business end.

“Also, before the Omnium was so demanding, every other discipline was virtually blocked off – these are specialists on their own, they’ve been in their own group. But now they can combine the Omnium with the Madison, for instance – the same guy who does the Madison does the Omnium – and so on – and he’s still competitive. It doesn’t drain too much out of him.”

We spoke to Felix English of Ireland before the Men’s race and he said much the same. “Yeah – and it was the same with Lydia [Boylan], “ Nugent confirmed. “Going in to the race she said she had good legs all day. One of the big things out of it is that over one day you can get your head around it a lot quicker. Lydia said that she knew she had good legs, but she just enjoyed the whole day – so she went in to the Points Race feeling confident.

“For her – for Lydia and Felix – they like a shorter race because they can commit more to that – because they’re more ‘sprinty’ – it’s the same for both of them, they’re really committed to go for the points, to try to take a lap.

“It worked out well for us. Maybe it was just that we got a good start but we were confident going into it. The guys were motivated and enjoyed the format and got a lot out of it – both were in the top seven – and what’s good for the public – and it’s good for track cycling – is that you get the winner at the end of the day one.

Everybody watches it all day – it’s not as confusing and you can see what’s going on. There’s lots of action and at the end of Day 1 everyone goes home with a winner. I think it’s really good.”

Le Velodrome National, Saint Quentin-en-Yvelines Day 4
Brian Nugent with Lydia Boylan before the start of the Omnium Points Race at the European Championships

So the Irish are happy? “I’m very pleased – I don’t know why, but I’ve been really pleased all week with all the changes. It kind of makes – for us – the events more competitive. In the past you needed tohave two bikes for the Omnium, you had to have specialist coaches for each discipline – which for a country with our budget, that’s a problem straight away. So, from our point of view, the event runs one bike, one coach, one format… Our riders are excited about it because they can train for it, they can train for it much more effectively and they can actually enjoy it.”

What about the criticism that it’s moved away from the decathlon-like ethos – that it’s no longer an all-rounders event? Nugent again “What I do like about is that for me it’s more of an endurance-sprinter type of event – in the old format, if you were really good at sprinting then you could pick up a lot of points – the specialist sprinters – this is a more endurance event in my mind.

“You have to be tactical, you have to know what you’re doing, you have to think about it – you have to plan it. Maybe it’s just the style of rider we have at the moment, but it really suits the type of rider I have – and with our programme we’ve adapted well to that.

“And with the Madison in as well, that’s made life a lot easier because we’ve been doing a lot of work on bunch events over the last few years – and David [Muntaner] is a specialist Madison coach – if you’re good at the Madison, you’re going to be good at the Points and the Scratch. Personally, I just like the bunch format more.”

Does Salzwedel feel the same way? “Yes, I agree, but I see nothing wrong. The parity between endurance events and sprint events was too much towards the sprint events anyway, so to have another endurance event – I see nothing wrong with that.

“And that will probably attract more riders like Mark Cavendish or Elia Viviani – to come back, even if they pursue a career on the road. They can always hop on a track bike and show their class.”

Because they don’t have to do the technical training for the timed events? “Right. From that point of view, it’s a good thing. It’s a good thing that more road sprinters have an appearance on the track.

“What I’m trying to say is – it sounds maybe a little negative, but – track cycling and road cycling there is still a big difference and the big money’s still on road cycling – so accordingly, all the best talents are going towards road cycling, but if you find the possibilities to bring them back into track cycling – for instance, with this new Omnium format – make it easier for them to come back to where a lot of riders started their cycling career – to come back to their roots.

“This is an interaction between the endurance guys on the road and the track endurance guys – that gives a stimulus for the whole world of cycling.

“As I said, six events was too much and it was too much dominating and it was too much exhausting for one rider because he had only this one opportunity. Whilst now, if you only have four events you can also do other events and that stimulates the whole thing. With the same riders you can make more medals.”

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Felix English of Ireland rode the Omnium with very little track specific training after a long road season

And what about the suggestion that it will make it easier for the nations with less well developed track programmes or smaller budgets to be more competitive? Nugent and Elliott think so – what’s the ‘large nation’ view? “I absolutely agree – especially the Asian nations. We talk about cycling as a world sport – that gives a huge advantage to them, I agree with my colleagues from Ireland and New Zealand and – as I said – I 100%, completely welcome the moves and it’s a step in the right direction.”

And, as if to prove his point, Yumi Kjihara of Japan won the first three events of the first Women’s World Cup Omnium. Sadly, in the final Points race she slipped down the order and just missed out on a medal, but the potential is definitely there.

How does Archibald feel about the changes and how they’ll affect the riders? “I guess the kind of discussions that are happening amongst riders at the moment seem to be about whether it will suit more the road racers – so I guess a lot of the European nations, they’ll be focused on their road teams for financial reasons, because that’s where their funding comes from – compared to us in Britain where you can be track focused, so that will be an interesting dynamic where you probably can do a lot of road work off the back of it and just have a little bit of track fine-tuning coming into it.

“That’s one theory. Mine is that it’s still a really fast, fast race – and you’re not going to get through without top-end speed. Sure, it’s four events in one day, but they’re short and they’re snappy and it’ll be a case of trying to fatigue people through the day – but I guess it’s going to be a season of learning and see how that goes.”

“And what about the idea that riders will have more scope to ride other events? “I guess there’s that as well. And it opens the bigger conversation – and for British Cycling, everything’s about the Olympics – so if we’re going to have this new Omnium format in the Olympics, is there also going to be a Madison? Will there be a Team Pursuit? Myself and Joanna Rowsell-Shand are really hoping there will be an Individual Pursuit if you’ve taken it out of the Omnium – but we’re probably getting a bit greedy then. So it raises some interesting questions about how programmes can work in that way.

“We’ll see in the World Championships in Hong Kong – when that programme comes out – we’ll see what riders can tackle and I guess you’ll get a good idea then of the crossover – whether a rider can train for Team Pursuit – peak for Team Pursuit – and still have a successful Omnium rider – or whether they are now so distant because the timed events are taken out.”

What’s our view? It’s a difficult one. Most of the suggested tweaks would change the nature of the Tempo race – and that’s what most people want to see happen. But some of the tweaks – like a bigger incentive to take a lap – would, perhaps, change it in a different way. We quite like the suggestion that – as with many track league elimination races – if you take more than half a lap, you remain on the lead lap but become the back of the bunch.

Coupled with Salzwedel’s suggestion of two and one points per lap – with double points on the last lap to keep the result alive to the end – we might get the race we were promised. On the other hand, it’s already proved a challenge to get the results out in a timely fashion under the current, simple rule set.

And that brings us to our other, more fundamental problem with the Omnium. Yes, the first eight heat of the time events held little interest – although occasionally they did allow someone to haul themselves back in to contention – but it did make it more of an all-rounders event and that, in our view, is the point of it. In an ideal world, we’d like to see the Omnium in an Olympic programme with a full range of sprint and endurance events, rather than trying to fill the gap left by the decimation of the track programme.

And we liked the two day format. Three events per day – events simple enough to be scored quickly and accurately – meant that you went into each event knowing where the riders stood and what they need to do to move up the leaderboard. The Elimination Race was a brilliant climax to a day’s racing – the problem was that the first two races of Day 2 weren’t exactly a riveting start. We also felt that the old format was heavily biased towards the Points Race – you could have an up and down competition and still be within a lap gain or two – which, on the one hand, slightly defeated the object of a six event format but on the other hand made the Points race a thrilling finale.

Now, it’s four bunch races – and, while Salzwedel’s right that they are different in character, they’re not so different that they’re suited to different types of riders, so we expect to see some very dominant performances – notwithstanding the fact that there’s always the risk of disaster in a bunch race. The top six going in to the finale is now even closer (although if the Tempo race result still isn’t available it’s hard to know how close…) which effectively makes the first three events a warm-up for the Points race…

We do think it allows the smaller nations to be more competitive and we agree – although we’re not 100% convinced that it’s A Good Thing – that that it allows road racers to be competitive with little track specific training.

On balance, then, we think the jury’s still out.

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