Omnium Cycling: The Ultimate Olympians’ Test

Known as the “Decathlon of Track Cycling”, omnium cycling is a thrilling test of endurance and tactical track-craft.

However, the complexity of omnium cycling’s rules and points systems can make it mystifying to newcomers. And to add to the confusion, the event’s structure has had yet another overhaul in the last few years.

Fear not!

To help get you up to speed on this firm fans’ favorite, we’ll be covering:

  • The History of Omnium Olympics Cycling
  • Events and Rules of the Olympic Omnium
  • The Strengths and Weaknesses of Different Riding Styles in Omnium Cycling

Ready for the lowdown on this pulsating Olympic event?

Let’s dive in!

Omnium Cycling: Title Image

The History of Omnium Olympics Cycling

In the early 2000s, the IOC decided that the total number of track cycling events should be reduced so that there was a more even spread of medals between different Olympic sports.

Their solution: the omnium.

Omnium Olympic cycling was introduced at the London Games in 2012. The new event condensed the Individual Pursuit, Points Race, and Time Trial into the singular Olympic omnium discipline.

The omnium had already been introduced into the UCL World Championships in 2007, before being reformed in 2010.  It was this reformed format of omnium cycling that was introduced at the 2012 Olympics. This version took place across two days, with six events:

  1. Scratch Race (15 km for men, 10 km for women)
  2. Individual Pursuit
  3. Elimination Race
  4. Time Trial
  5. Flying Lap
  6. Points Race (40 km for men, 25 km for women)

However after the 2016 Rio Olympics, the omnium was reformed again; shortened to a single day as the Individual Pursuit, Time Trial and Flying Lap were all removed and replaced by a Tempo Race. This created a four-race Olympic Omnium:

  1. Scratch Race
  2. Tempo Race
  3. Elimination Race
  4. Points Race

In announcing the changes, UCI president Brian Cookson highlighted the need to change with the times to keep attracting young athletes to track cycling.

These revisions removed the sprint-based races and focused the event around endurance. 

Meanwhile, the remaining race distances were decreased. For example, the Scratch Race was slashed to 10 km and 7.5 km for men and women respectively, while the Points Race was cut to 25 km for men and 20 km for women.

As of 2022, this format of omnium cycling continues to be in use today.

Three cyclists in blue jerseys ride around the banked corner of the velodrome.

Events and rules of the Olympic Omnium

An Omnium cycling event consists of four races over a single day. 

Eighteen competitors – one per nation in the Olympics – compete individually for points. The points won in the first three races are carried into the fourth and final event: the Points Race.

The rider with the most points at the end of the final Points Race wins the entire omnium event.

#1. Scratch Race

The first event is the Scratch Race, which is 10km (40 laps around the velodrome) for men, and 7.5 km (30 laps) for women.  Riders begin together and race for places at the end of the final lap – points are awarded based on finishing position.  

If a rider is overtaken by all 17 of their competitors they are disqualified; disqualification from this race means automatically placing last in the event, so riders must make sure to compete with the field.

A common tactic is for riders to lap their competitors in the bunch. Whilst this does not offer any point advantage, a successful rider cannot be beaten by the now-lapped group.

#2. Tempo Race

The Tempo Race is the same distance as the Scratch Race: 10km (40 laps) for men, and 7.5km (30 laps) for women.

The key difference is that riders compete to win points throughout the race. One point is awarded to the first finisher of each lap after the 5th.

There is another dimension to winning points in the Tempo Race: if a rider laps the entire field of their 17 competitors they gain 20 points. Riders must constantly defend against their competitors’ bids to lap the field.

Furthermore, if a rider is lapped by the entire field they lose another 20 points. Endurance is required for riders to compete with the group and defend their respective point shares.

#3. Elimination Race

In the Elimination Race, every third lap is a ‘sprint lap’ in which the final cyclist across the finish line is eliminated.

The last rider standing wins the race. 

Like the Scratch Race, points are awarded based on finishing position according to a point scale.

This race – sometimes called ‘Devil Take the Hindmost’ – is one of tactical track-craft which favors riders with the nerve and control to hang at the back of the field before racing to secure safe spots on elimination laps.

#4. The Points Race

The final and longest race, and also probably the most complex in terms of rules and points system. The Points Race extends to 25 km for men, and 20 km for women.  

Points from the first three events are carried into the Points Race, making it the culmination of the entire omnium competition. 

In the rare event of a tie in the final scores, the finishing order of the Points Race is the decider.  The high stakes and tactics involved in competing in the Points Race make it a firm fan favorite; it’s all to play for and the entire competition can be turned on its head in this final event.

Every 10th lap is a ‘sprint lap’ for points, with the first four riders over the line taking 5, 3, 2, and 1 point respectively. On the final sprint lap of the race, points are doubled to 10, 6, 4, and 2 points for the leading riders.

As in the Tempo Race, riders may gain an additional 20 points by lapping the entire field and will lose 20 points if lapped by the field.

A large train of cyclists speed around the corner of the velodrome.

The Strengths and Weaknesses of different riding styles in Omnium Cycling

Endurance Cyclists

The Omnium is by no means a sprinter’s game exclusively.

An endurance cyclist has a strong chance of leading the pack and winning races, provided they understand and manage their advantages and disadvantages.

The ability to maintain a constant pace means a cyclist with an endurance background is less likely to be lapped in the Scratch Race, Tempo Race, or Points Race.

However, they might struggle to compete with specialist sprinters to make a quick break and claim points for themselves!

In the Elimination Race, cyclists who favor endurance are likely to be better able to maintain a consistent speed to stay clear of danger and allow them to position themselves in an ideal position towards the front of the group (though still tucked into the leader’s slipstream).

Two cyclists sprint for the line, riding out of the saddle.

Sprint Cyclists

The current format of the omnium has removed three sprint-based races, swinging the balance away from specialist sprinters and toward endurance riders.

However, this doesn’t mean there isn’t space for sprinters to compete and win in the omnium’s remaining four races!

Sprint specialists tend to fare well in the Elimination Race and Points Race, as both feature intermittent sprint laps.

During the Elimination Race, a sprinter is in the precarious position of having to compete through either tactical mastery at the tail of the bunch, or by keeping pace with endurance cyclists to avoid elimination.

If a sprinter is able to reach the later stages of the Elimination Race, they’ll be placed advantageously to outpace their competitors in the final laps in short stretches of sprinting.

Three cyclists in black follow each other around the velodrome.

Now you know all about Omnium cycling…

It’s time to put the new knowledge to use!

Whether you’re just wanting to better understand the omnium from the comfort of your sofa, or you’re feeling inspired to head to the velodrome and take part for yourself, you should now have a much clearer idea of what omnium Olympics cycling is all about!

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Riley Nicholas

Riley Nicholas

One of BikeTips' content creators, Riley spends most of his time on a bike battling the hills of the Chilterns or winds of North Cornwall. Off the bike you're likely to find him writing about cycling or reading about everything else.

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