Compared to many sports, cycling has quite a long and rich history which can be traced fairly easily. As bicycles became more and more affordable in the mid 1800s, cycling began to be taken up by the masses, first recreationally and soon after as a competitive sport. It is one of the few sports that can claim to be in every single modern Olympic Games. Despite being such a long established Olympic event, in the early days there was never really a consistent Olympic cycling programme, with events changing from year to year. With Rio 2016 upon us, we take a look back in time at the history of cycling at the Olympics and reflect on some of the key cycling moments that have happened in Olympic years gone by, and look at how they have shaped the sport of cycling.
Athens played host to the first modern Olympic Games. After more than 1,500 years since the original Olympic Games, 60,000 spectators witnessed 14 nations compete in nine separate events. Some tourists visiting the area on holiday were even allowed to sign up for some events! The schedule for this Olympics included swimming, track and field, gymnastics, wrestling, weightlifting, fencing, shooting, tennis and cycling. The cycling featured both road and track disciplines. Five nations competed in the cycling events which included: Austria; France; Germany; Great Britain and Greece, but it was the French who dominated these events with Leon Flameng and Paul Masson winning 6 medals between them. Their medal haul included 4 gold on the track, a silver in the 10km and bronze in the sprint event. The bikes they were riding were fixed gear with Flameng’s bikes sporting a rather nice double top tube frame design.
The 1908 Olympics were originally scheduled to take place in Rome, however, during preparations for the Games Mount Vesuvius erupted, devastating the city of Naples. The Italian government had to divert all it’s resources and funds to the reconstruction of Naples and forfeited the Games. London stepped in with only 2 years to prepare. A deal was made with the Franco British Exhibition which would be held along side the Olympic Games. The cycling events to be included were seven track events altogether with only men allowed to compete. These events were split into both metric and imperial distances, possibly an influence from the Franco British Exhibition, and included the 660 yards, 5000m, 20km, 100km, Sprint, Tandem and Team Pursuit. Tandem was a new event introduced for the first time at this Olympics and received a popular reception. This Olympic games was the longest Games ever held, running from the end of April until late October. In the video below you can see cyclists at 2.26 racing round the outside of the White City Stadium in which held the majority of the events during the Olympics.
At the 1912 Summer Olympics in Stockholm, only one cycling event was contested. This was one too many for the Swedish Olympic Authorities who attempted to eliminate cycling entirely from the Games. The main reason for this was the fact that the only velodrome in Sweden had been raised to the ground to make way for the new Olympic stadium. This is the only Olympic Games not to feature any track cycling. When Sweden also announced that the road race would also be scrapped due to the condition of the country’s roads, the British Olympic Committee were outraged and insisted that a competition of at least 100km should be held. Eventually the Swedes came around and organised a team and individual 315km time trial, with the first riders setting off at 2am in the morning! Footage of the event can be seen at 1.53 in the video below.
The Munich Games will be forever associated with the horrible acts of terror carried out by terrorist group Black September. For the world of cycling this Olympics would be the last time that a tandem event would feature at an Olympic Games. The Games featured two road cycling events and five track events, again competition was only open to male riders.
Los Angeles 1984
1984 saw the biggest shake up in Olympic cycling for many years, for both positive and negative reasons. The Olympic Games that year was held in Los Angeles, and for the first time there was a women’s event organised. This came in the form of the women’s individual road race which was eventually won by Connie Carpenter, cementing the American rider’s place in the history books as the first woman to win an Olympic road race gold medal. Connie married fellow Olympian Davis Phinney with whom she had a child several years later called Taylor, who currently rides for BMC Racing (It’s a small world cycling!). Another momentous occasion was when Alexi Grewal won gold in the men’s individual road race becoming the first non white American road cyclists to win a medal since the 1912 Games in Stockholm.
Americans seemed to dominate the cycling events winning 9 medals altogether, although it was later revealed that one third of the American cycling team received blood transfusions before the Games. Blood doping was banned the following year by the International Olympic Committee.
For French cycling legend, Jeannie Longo, competed in her first Olympic Games in 1984 and has competed in every Olympic Games since.Now 53, Longo is expected to compete in her eighth Olympic Games in London!
Soviet Russia and East Germany dominated the 1988 Seoul Olympic cycling events claiming almost half the medals on offer. Athlete’s from these countries benefited from state funding which helped competitors take advantage of the best facilities and concentrate solely on training. Also noticeable was the track bikes some teams were using. The one that stuck out the most was the West German’s FES bike which featured a smaller front wheel to help the rider’s aerodynamic position. One of the most remarkable stories was that of German cyclist Christa Luding-Rothenburger, who was also a speed skater. Christa earned a silver medal on the track having already won two medals at the Calgary Olympic Games held earlier in the year. She is the only athlete in the history of the Olympics to win medals at both the Summer and Winter Olympics in the same year.
The Barcelona Olympics saw Chris Boardman take Britain’s first gold medal in cycling for 72 years, setting a new 4,000m track record along the way. The 23 year old carpenter from the Wirral caught the imagination of the Olympic viewers with his new aged bike design, an extraordinary looking machine (for the time) called the Lotus Superbike. Made by an eccentric self-taught engineer in Norfolk, the Lotus car company provided their engineering expertise to help hone the most aerodynamic pedal powered machine the world had ever seen.
The Atlanta 1996 Games saw the first ever Olympic mountain biking competition to be held, with a men’s and women’s cross country being included in the schedule. This new discipline of cycling had been around for several years and was included in the Olympic scheduling by the IOC in 1993. The sport has come a long way since the 1970s, when races were held on a hillside in Marin County. Although considered an alternative sport by many at the time, the inclusion of mountain biking by the Olympic committee showed a step towards attracting a wider, younger audience to the Games.
BMX dates back to the 1980s, having been fashioned on the motorized version of the sport motocross. But it wasn’t until 2005 that the IOC decided to consider BMX as an Olympic sport. This fast paced, adrenaline fuelled discipline of cycling is very spectator friendly and it was only a matter of time until it was included on the Olympic roster. BMX has only been contested at the Olympics once but looks to have a rich future ahead.
London has hosted the games twice before, once in 1908 and in 1948. With a whopping 7 million tickets sold in total, all eyes were on London four years ago where history in a number of sports was made.
2012 was a big year for women in sport. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Brunei entered female athletes for the first time, so that every currently eligible country has sent a female competitor to at least one Olympic Games. Things like women’s boxing was included for the first time ever making the London games the first host to have a female compete in every sport, and a female representing every country!
Michael Phelps became the most decorated Olympic athlete of all time, winning his 22nd medal and Team GB topped the medal table for their success in cycling. Weirdly the medals are not worth a huge amount of money and when you look at the bronze medal it costs not much more than a cup of coffee! The medal itself however is invaluable to the athlete. The value of the materials in the gold medal is about £410 (US $644), the silver about £210 (US $330), and the bronze about £3 (US $4.71) as of 30 July 2012.
One of the most successful Olympians to date is Sir Chris Hoy, making track cycling one of the most popular sports for Great Britain.
So there you have it. A brief look at the history of cycling at the Olympic Games. From the first road race in 1896 which lasted for 12 hours and was rode on fixed gear bikes to the final tandem track race in 1972, cycling has come a long way. Bikes have become lighter, aerodynamics have improved and science has helped develop training methods. Despite this, London 2012 sees the first time that the number of men’s and women’s track cycling events will be equal in the Olympic’s history. As the world’s elite athletes descend on Rio what are you looking forward to the most? Have you got tickets to any events? Let us know in the comments section below.