May is National Bike Month. For Team USA athletes and staff, however, their bikes are an everyday focus.
“We spend years doing this,” said Jim Miller, the vice president of athletics at USA Cycling. “We spend an entire quad preparing materials and equipment and working towards the Olympics.”
With the addition of BMX to the Olympic program in 2008, the Olympic Games now feature four primary cycling disciplines. Within those disciplines are 18 medal events — and each one needs a specialized bike to help athletes perform their best. The race tactics, course and conditions all factor into deciding the best bike for the job.
In honor of National Bike Month, we take a look at each discipline, and what makes its bikes unique.
Road Cycling Bikes
Road bikes are used in the road race and individual time trial events on paved roads. The men’s road race is 250 kilometers (155.3 miles) while the women’s road race is 141K (87.6 miles).
These bikes feature light and strong frames with smooth 700c tires (roughly 29-inch diameter) that are between 23 and 25 millimeters wide. They have standard brakes. With two chainrings in the front and up to 11 speeds on the rear gear cluster, these bikes have 22 gear options.
Road cycling includes specialty roles, such as climbers, sprinters and time trialists, and each requires special setup on the bike. A climber likely has a lighter bike, while a sprinter’s bike is more aerodynamic.
“One rider might ride all three of those bikes given whatever the profile of terrain or tactics may dictate,” Miller said. “They have a lot of bikes in their quiver to play with.”
Research into the course and average wind is considered as athletes prepare. The course at the Olympic Games Rio 2016 included a long climb toward the end of the race, so many cyclists used climbing bikes. Miller said the course at the Tokyo Games in 2020 would likely be more of a sprinter’s course.
Athletes are much more concerned with negating air resistance during the road time trial event, so these bikes feature extended handlebars that support racers’ arms in their lower riding position.
Track Cycling Bikes
Track bikes are used in five men’s and five women’s events in the velodrome. Each event has a different distance and objective, so bikes are customized to fit the need.
Speed and aerodynamics are top priorities in the velodrome. These bikes are stripped down to only the essentials to help athletes gain top speeds. They don’t have brakes or multiple gears. The single fixed-gear mechanism features one chainring in front and one gear in back. The pedals can only move forward and the rider must continue to pedal to keep the back wheel spinning.
These bikes often feature a five-spoke carbon fiber wheel in the front and a carbon fiber disc wheel in the back. They use the 700c tires but are only 19-22mm wide.
The track bikes are customized to fit the athlete and event. A male sprinter will have a stiffer frame able to handle the power produced, while a female endurance rider will use a lighter bike, for example. Some races will feature the aerodynamic handlebars — similar to road time trials — that allow the rider to get in a lower position.
The U.S. women’s team made news during the 2016 Rio Games by moving their bikes’ drivechains to the left side to minimize drag. The women came away with two silver medals.
“It was a very specialized bike,” said Miller, who worked on that project. “It was an aerodynamical advantage. The bike lived up to its billing.”
Mountain bikes are used for men’s and women’s cross-country mountain biking at the Olympics. The course (up to 28 miles for men and 22 miles for women) features rough terrain and elevation changes, so these off-road bikes are built to handle these conditions.
The bikes have wide, knobby tires that measure either 29 inches or 27.5 inches in diameter, giving riders traction over the off-road terrain.
Riders can customize the suspension — using dual suspension or just front suspension — depending on the course. Dual suspension is typically used on more extreme terrain. A bike that only has front suspension is called a hardtail.
“(Hardtail) keeps the bike relatively light and just has enough suspension that you don’t get beat up,” Miller said.
Mountain bikes can have a triple chainring, giving riders up to 30 gears to choose for climbing and steep grades. These bikes also feature disc brakes, which provide better stopping power than padded brakes. The disc brakes work better in the dirty, muddy and sometimes wet conditions.
The newest Olympic cycling discipline, BMX involves a sprint race around a short dirt track that features ramps and sharp turns.
Olympic BMX competitors use wide, knobby 20-inch tires on a single-speed bike. The small frames are light but durable to survive the high-speed race. They are the smallest of the bikes used in international competition.
“BMX is BMX,” Miller said. “Amazingly that bike hasn’t changed from when we were kids. They are meant to take a lot of abuse.
“They look like they’re made for kids.”
The single gear is set before the race to give athletes a fast start and maximum speed. The back wheel is free, so the pedals can move backwards or the rider can cruise without pedaling. The bikes have rear padded brakes.
There are some similarities in the variety of bikes used at Olympic competitions. UCI — the international governing body — has a minimum weight limit of 6.8 kilograms (15 pounds). Bikes across the four disciplines also have clipless pedals, and helmets are required for each race. In BMX, riders wear full-face helmets.
Almost all bikes also have power meters, which give riders real-time data including power, speed, cadence and other fitness scores.
Tom Glave has written for TeamUSA.org since 2011 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc. He covered prep and college sports for newspapers in Missouri and Arkansas for nine years and now works part time in the Houston area.