The Fastest Sprinter Who Can’t Win

Scan the start list of the men’s road race for the Olympic Games and you’ll spot several sprinters and fast finishers. Mark Cavendish, André Greipel and Peter Sagan for example. Who is the fastest?

The answer is obvious, it’s rider number 42: Mickaël Bourgain of France. He’s four times world champion in the team sprint event. On the track.

So what’s he doing in the road race? No, this is not a Theo Bos style career change from the track to the road. Instead a ruling says that any rider doing the keirin race on the track must ride another event in the games. Normally it’s meant to imply the keirin rider will try something else in the velodrome, like the sprint or team sprint but the French and German squads had already made up their minds before noting the rule. As a result, the only option was to place a rider elsewhere, to the frustration of French road selector Laurent Jalabert. He accepted the decision but not without annoyance, seeing his team of road riders shrunk from four to three.

Note the rules don’t just state Bourgain has to be entered for the road race, he must actually start the race. As Jalabert said, “he will not go far“, in part because Bourgain is an expert in efforts that last less than a minute and so he’ll find the road race – the longest event across all sports at the games – totally unsuitable. But there’s point in trying, any energy wasted in the bunch will be to the detriment of his keirin sprinting abilities. Under the rules Bourgain must only start the race so I suspect he will sit up minutes after crossing the start line.

Fast Man Farce
It’s a farce. The Olympics are supposed to be a special event and seeing the French road team cut to fit in a track rider is like something out of a Kafka novel. Back in reality and it means a road rider now can’t go to the games, missing out on the experience of a lifetime because of a bungle over the rules. When the rules were drafted nobody intended a track specialist to do the road race.

But it’s a clear sign the French see greater chances of a medal on the track than the road, wanting to take Bourgain for the keirin and keep Grégory Baugé for the men’s sprint and Kévin Sireau, Mickaël d’Almeida and Baugé in the team sprint.

Hopefully the rule can be tidied up for Rio in 2016 as if there’s a limit on how many riders can do the track, it’s pointless making riders start an event where they will sit up after five minutes, it mocks the spirit of taking part. Perhaps in the “Olympic spirit” if a track rider is down for a road race then they should be pulled out and the place given to a more deserving rider from a developing nation?

  • It’s not just France. Germany have placed human hulk Robert Förstemann in the mountain bike race. A specialist in the track sprint events, he will ride off-road for five minutes in order to book his place in the track although the MTB race comes after the track.

62 thoughts on “The Fastest Sprinter Who Can’t Win”

  1. It’s not just France. Germany have placed human hulk Robert Förstemann in the mountain bike race. A specialist in the track sprint events, he will ride off-road for five minutes in order to book his place in the track although the MTB race comes after the track.

    How are they going to even enforce that though? What happens if he wins the gold medal on the track, stands on the podium, enjoys his moment in the sun, and then gets ‘injured’ in the build up to the mountain bike race and withdraws. Are they going to then strip him of his earlier medal? As you say it’s pretty farcical

  2. The Keirin is a fascinating race this year with only 1 rider from each country making it even more special. Bourgain is 2nd favourite to take Gold but there’s a host of promising riders in every heat.

    What a waste it will be if he doesn’t perform well in the riskiest competition there is, Keirin riders face disqualification more often than in any other track event.

    Bourgain’s a talent though. But for me I’ve him only 4th of 5th in my list of medal hopes in the Keirin so it’ s shambles bringing him at all!

  3. It’s completely insane. Because the UCI has prioritised number of countries in the race over the best riders in the world, the women’s road race, which only starts with *67* riders (that’s not a peloton, that’s the selection after a windy 50km) then has all kinds of riders who are from countries that have qualified (because of the UCI heavily weighting races in “non-traditional” cycling countries/parts of the world in the qualification process) and there must be around 15-20 riders who will be riding, who are in London primarily for the track or MTB – but including people who are track sprinters etc. This wouldn’t bother me so much, but because the teams are so limited – only 5 countries get 4 riders – it means you have riders like Adrie Visser, who’s 18th best in the UCI rankings, but the 5th best Dutch rider, not able to race, while track sprinters will be there!

    • To be fair, that’s the nature of the Olympics – the organizers want participants from as many nations as possible even at the expense of the quality of the competition, and it occurs in a whole range of other sports.

      For instance, there’s a selection controversy in Australia with regards to our entry in the women’s equestrian dressage event – where Australia’s highest-ranked rider (ranked roughly 100th in the world) was passed over for the next-best, ranked 200th in the world.

    • How many countries are represented by that 67?
      If it was me, I’d make the Mens and Womens races identical length (women swim the full 10km, run the full 26 and a bit miles and do the same distance triathlon after all) and whilst I appreciate the accomodation issues, make the fields much larger- 200 would be OK wouldn’t it? Allow 40 countries to qualify, and allow them five riders each.

      I can understand heavily restricting competitor numbers in sailing, rowing or equestrian, where every extra boat/boat/horse requires a considerable extra space for storage (among other space requirements). Cycling, not so much.

  4. Aaaaaaaaaaah!

    One rider per nation per event was bad enough. But why this rule? Even if they’d worded it right so that the Kieren entrant had to ride another track, sprint discipline. Why??!

    Also why does the rider doing the Omnium have to come from the Pursuit squad. As if the Omnium isn’t hard enough! Why all these weird rules? Who’s making them up?

    And if you’re going to drop the Individual Pursuit (which is a tragedy) and triumphantly hail it as a step towards equality by bringing in more womens events (which I agreee with), why not make it ACTUAL equality by making the Womens sprint 3 riders and 3 laps and the Team Pursuit 4 riders and 4k?

    Inconsistency, Incomprehensibility, Incompetence

    • Can you imagine if they tried this in athletics? One athlete per country and if you throw the hammer you must do the javelin and shot put too? Or if you run the 400m, you should must run something else too.

      • Similarly, why restrict the number of entries in track events to one per nation? Hoy finished third in the sprint at this year’s world champs but is not allowed to compete. Surely the Olympics should be a contest between the best athletes in any given discipline, imagine if either Yohan Blake or Usain Bolt could not run in the 100m because they’re both Jamaican. Utterly farcical.

    • You have to ask yourself why the UCI were so willing to accomodate this type of cull. I mean look at swimming – the programme is so bloated, one man can win EIGHT gold medals – there must be something driving it. Perhaps old Hein is eyeing a spot on the IOC gravy train?

      • I often thought the same about swimming. Other sports have been culled about the number of participants and medals (rowing, cycling, sailing) yet swimming hasn’t suffered the same fate. In all other sports you can’t usually win more than 1 gold medal as you have to specialise so much to win that, maybe in athletics you might get 3 from the 100m/200m/100m relay if you are superhuman compared to the rest of the competition.

      • TV Ratings! Swimming, Gymnastics and Track & Field events are the most popular. That is why (at least in the US) they broadcast exhibition gymnastics (after the competition) in stead of medal competitions in lesser known sports.

        The UCI bowed to the pressure. One has to remember that housing & feeding athletes is not an insignificant cost and logistical challenge. And the IOC & local organizing committee have to feed the TV beast in order to keep the Olympics going, therefore they back the best events from a revenue perspective.

      • To be fair 1 man cannot usually win or even qualify in 8 events. It is a very odd situation.
        It would be if, lets say, Bolt decided to chase medals. He could enter
        100 M
        Long Jump
        Triple Jump

        Which is 7 medals. And too say he cannot win all those is accuate. But pre phelps, to say one man could win the 100 fly, 4×100 free and a 400IM is insane.
        It is like saying this frenchy could beat cav at the end of the road race.

  5. I always thought that the Olympics were for Amateurs? ie those that don’t get paid for racing. I know athletes get “sponosered” but can only collect that money AFTER they stop so why now other sports? What would happen if the French track cyclists was to crash on start line and not be able to compete in “his” chosen event, could he sue either the IOC or UCI or his own federation?

    • the Olympics as a whole started to allow pros from the 70s; from the ’92 games onwards pros were allowed in any sport subject to the sport’s Governing Body- only boxing and wrestling hold out as (sort of) amateur. Track and field athletes as well as sponserhsip get prize money at a lot of their events.
      Tennis has all the big stars, football allows pros (though for men, only three over the age of 23)- in all the big sports within the olympics, you’ll find people making big money.

  6. This strikes as yet another example of the shoddy way that cycling is treated by the Olympic movement.

    I can never understand why such a meagre number of events are held, especially given the drama and excitement that can be generated on the track. Compare it to swimming, where you have the crazy spectical of a single individual winning more medals that are available across the entire track cycling programme.

    It just doesn’t make sense to me.

  7. Is this rule a backlash to when the UCI chose to withdraw the Kilo in 2004 to make way for BMX? (since removing the Kilo made no difference to the number of track cycling athletes the IOC had to accommodate at the games).

  8. It’s also a silly rule to restrict the TT riders to having to ride the road race. Why not just pick the best riders to represent your country in each discipline?

  9. Athletics and swimming are considered the backbone of the Olympics and get special treatment. Most other sports get heavily restricted, not just cycling. As has been pointed out above, sailing is one. Also big noise over the Taekwondo selection for GB. Sometimes cycling gets a raw deal in the world, and we grow a bit paranoid, but in this case we are just being treated the same as a horde of other sports. At least we get a shiny new velodrome out of the deal every 4 years.

    • This is why it drives me crazy – having to spend all that cash to build a new velodrome for such a small number of events. When you look at the weird way they’re dragging out the sprint competitions, to make it look like there’s more racing, it’s farcical. I think if you HAVE to build something from scratch, they should give us a proper programme of events.

      (And re the velodrome being great for cycling in the south east, given that it’s apparently shut to the public for at least 18 months after the Games, it’s hardly going to allow people inspired by the Olympics to take up the sport… They should just have held them in Manchester…)

  10. I’m pretty sure this bending of the rules will be stamped out just in time to have the replacement regulations ‘flexed’ at the Rio games.

    It is a shame that some sports are restricted and others have a bloated program (swimming in particular stands out), however the Olympics exposure benefits all sports and a is case of “half a loaf is better than no bread”.

    I get the feeling, to their professionalised history and popularity, the Olympics are just not as important for some sports and Road Cycling is one of them (I’d also list Football, Tennis and Golf). I can’t actually remember who won the Road events at any Games (OK there will be howls at that – but seriously the TdF, Giro and Vuelta are fare more important and at least the World Championships take place every year – the Olympics are too widely spaced and too much of a lottery to really have the same credibility) For Track cycling it is a very different story and the Olympiad is vital for exposure and funding.

    Personally it is difficult to lay much value on the Olympic road cycling events purely because only a few of the best riders in the world take place.

    Now a rant and gripe! I hate is the mixing of “Sports” and “Games”, no matter how you define them. Although the Gymnastics, Diving et. al. can be fascinating, ultimately I can’t take them seriously because they are judged not “won”. They aren’t so much Citius, Altius, Fortius as Elegans, Belle, Verisimile?

    Perhaps there should be a Summer Sports (for Sports – i.e. competitive activities that have a basis in something useful) Summer Games (activities that have their roots in entertainment – e.g all ball sports). Summer Display (activities that are won by adjudicated decisions not direct competition) and the Winter Sports and Winter Display.

    An Olympics every year on a 5 year cycle. Naaaah it would never catch on would it…

    • A friend of mine in Madrid once asked me if football was a sport. He did this via email while in a taxi cab. I responded that it was a sport, not a game. He said the taxi driver didn’t like my response! We concluded that football was really a form of theater with moments of spectacular performance that fit the definition of sport. I think of road cycling in this way too. Theater punctuated with moments of athletic achievment is a pretty good definition of all sports. Backgammon and roulette are games.

    • Interesting point. For swimmers, track athletes, and gymnasts, there is no greater achievement than Olympic Gold. The successful athletes in those events become world-famous.

      Cycling, with its robust collection of important races, televised spectacles, and individual achievements, does not have that kind of Olympic significance. The Olympics are important, especially for track cyclists, but they aren’t the pinnacle of the sport (and haven’t even featured many of the best cyclists ever, due to the old amateurism rules).

      If you were to try to name the best two or three road cyclists over the past four years, you could come up with any number of names that would be valid. And none of them would be Olympic Gold Medalist Sammy Sanchez. His win was great and is a permanent burnish on his legacy, but dozens of riders have had a better four-year stretch than him. And consider that one of those “great cyclists of the last four years” may be Fabien Cancellara, whose two-medal performance in Beijing is nice but any cyclist worth his salt would trade in for his Flanders-Roubaix double in 2010.

      This is a common theme in Olympic sports; the Olympics-first sports get more attention during the Olympics, while those sports that have significant achievements outside of the games have to chafe a bit. The Olympic men’s soccer tournament might not be in the top ten of accomplishments in soccer (World Cup, Euro championships, Champions League, at least a half dozen national league titles, the FA Cup, etc) and is consequently few people remember anything about it. The Olympic Baseball tournament was so insignificant in the sport that it was dropped, which would never happen if Americans really cared about it.

      Cycling gets a big road race to lead off the games, an enjoyable time trial, and a decent collection of track, mountain, and BMX events drawing a substantial quantity of men and women who get to call themselves “Olympians.” It’s not the biggest race of the year, but it’s big enough. I’m fine with that.

      • @ trounder – Football HAS to be a game not a sport. All ball-games are by definition games because you play them, you don’t play a race – physical effort has little to do with being a sport. My personal logic is that a “Sport” is an everyday activity that has it’s roots in something useful such as a form of transport (that’s cycling covered then) or a method of hunting or combat that, with time has become a leisure activity or is seen as pleasurable (I don’t condone mindless violence but traditionally, finding food and defending yourself were handy life-skills).

        @ Duluth Baptist Clydesdale – Not surprised that Baseball was dropped, I imagine that interest worldwide is pretty low because (like NFL) it is seen as pretty much an America niche game. I’d guess Cricket probably has twice as many fans (and players) as American football and Baseball combined but frankly its probably just as boring and about as difficult to follow.

        @ ChrisO – Good point about the Under 23s, I like that idea but I doubt it’ll ever catch on, the IOC and UCI would have too much to loose.

        • My view has always been that if you can smoke whilst playing it then it’s a game (snooker, pool, darts, etc) but if you can’t (cricket if you aren’t fielding, cycling at any speed, football when not in goal) then it’s a sport.

          • But if football is a sport how can you have a game of soccer? Surely if you have a game of something it IS by definition a, well… Game.
            An old club-mate used to smoke his pipe whilst training and he could still get within a few seconds of one hour for 25 miles in a Time Trial when he was 70 years old! Does that make Cycling a game (I believe Jacques Anquetil used to smoke whilst riding to do some headwork on his opponents too).

        • Always had a laugh out of Americans calling whoever won the major leagues the “World Champions” of the “World Series”. Even though it’s only Cuba and Japan who’d give a shit.

  11. The Olympic qualification process for cycling has always been a mess since it was introduced in the 1990s (before that anyone could sign up for anything), and it’s only been getting worse.

    How come Canada only gets one spot in the men’s road race in the year Ryder Hesjedal wins the Giro? Ridiculous.

    Not so long ago — 1992 — there were just two disciplines, road and track. Then they added mountain biking for ’96 and BMX for 2008 and capped the number of athletes. The changes in 2012 are all about balancing the number of track medals between men and women without raising the total number of athletes (despite adding two team events for women: team sprint and team pursuit. That’s why we lost the Madison, points race and individual pursuit in favor of the omnium).

    It’s all horse trading and I’ve heard — though don’t quote me on this — that cycling’s sacrifices will be rewarded in the next Olympic cycle, either with more room for athletes or perhaps a new medal event. Team time trial, anyone?

    Having said that, it’s been long rumored that the IOC is eying skateboarding or freestyle BMX for the Games, both of which would fall under the UCI umbrella. If that happens then you can possibly kiss mountain biking goodbye …

    As for having a judged cycling sport at the Games, it makes my stomach turn.

  12. @Duluth Baptist Clydesdale … agree with all that.

    I can never again think of the Olympic road events without recalling Brian Holm’s comment, when Cavendish was still with HTC and there was much speculation about him going to Sky to further his Olympic ambitions.

    Holm made the same point about the relative prestige of the race and said something to the effect of “I suppose winning the Olympic road race would be nice though… like winning Ghent-Wevelgem.” Ouch.

    Maybe the UCI should tell them where to shove their rules and make it for U23s like the soccer teams (where the Olympics is also relatively low-prestige compared to the World Cup). It would preserve the primacy of the Grand Tours and Classics, but make it harder for the UCI to suck at the teat of the Olympic cow… so that’ll never happen.

    • No point – the trackies would (legitimately) go nuts if they lost out as a result.

      But it would be better if the entry to the Olympics was more like the UCI road worlds.

  13. INRNG has suggested here that the French and German track cycling teams didn’t know about the ‘kieran ruling’ until after their teams were chosen. That they are somehow *victims* of an unfair ruling. The press I’ve read elsewhere seems to suggest they had their eyes wide open.

    A article [ ] about this says the French and German teams are able to “take advantage of a rule that allows athletes to cross disciplines.” And Hoy is quoted [ ] as saying, “Obviously the Germans and the French have found ways around the one rider per country rule to get an extra rider into their squad, so they can substitute people in and out, which has kind of made a bit of a mockery of the UCI rulings.”

    I’ve read in other INRNG posts that rules are rules and everyone should be responsible for knowing them and everyone should abide by them. Not sure how this is any different.

  14. A question on Olympic fundamentals as I am too lazy to research on my own during a work telecon, and to benefit from the shared wisdom here in INRNGville….

    Is the prevailing consensus that professional athletes are allowed to participate in the Olympics as a benefit to the “business end” of the games, versus the “sporting tradition?” E.g., professional athletes will BOOST: television viewership, viewer ratings, advertising dollars, corporate sponsorship, etc..

    If so, is another prevailing consensus that the implied BOOST in potential revenue assists in providing support for potential Olympic athletes world wide? E.g., “the rising tide that lifts all boats.

    Appreciation for considerate feedback/discussion!

    • I’d say it is because it was just getting too hard to find any genuine amateurs … in anything. Back in the day, I used to sail, and was in the selection trials for the Australian olympic squad for the LA games. There was a world championship event in Tallin in Russia the month before. Pretty much all the teams were real amateurs (we certainly were – we were self-funded, bunked in the shipping container our boats were packed in) although a number of crews made a living as boatbuilders or sailmakers etc. The Russian team however turned up with team doctors, tactitians, coaches, fitness instructors, meteorologists, cooks, support crews and rubber dinghy drivers. They were all in the Navy. No other countries had a dinghy, let alone support people. Needless to say we had our floors wiped – and that was the end of amateur Olympic class sailing.

  15. Stupid rule but let’s face it, better chances for medals on the track. Also the Olympics are huge in track and no so much in road racing (except to USA & UK). The rule offends but France and Germany’s choice is a hard one but reasonable.

  16. So who were the two unlucky sods to miss out on representing their country at the Olympic Games? Was there a likely French roadie and German MTB rider that are at home feeling very let down/disheartened?

    Fancy being told your place at the Olympics is being given to someone that doesn’t even compete in your sport.

    The real lunacy is making competition for one Olympic medal subject to participation in a competition for a different Olympic medal. That makes no sense whatsoever.

  17. What a joke!! Thats like saying Usain Bolt must enter more than just the 100m, so they enter him in the marathon!!

    This is quite simple – The IOC should treat Road Racing and Track Racing as 2 seperate sports….

    • But damn it would be good to watch Bolt tearing the field to piece for the first 500m of the marathon before dropping out dont you think?

  18. re amateur versus pro sports people, not always clear cut. Look into fell running/mountain running history in the UK and you’ll see that the pros were really the amateurs and the amateurs the pros for a long time. The pros were paid to race but they normally earned a living in full time work and needed the extra cash the races gave them, which often didn’t cover their costs anyway. The amateurs could afford to race for no fee but got prizes (non cash) and other gifts worth loads.

  19. This is just so ridiculous, it’s like poor Will Clarke not representing us in the triathlon! Total joke! Imagine working for 4 years towards the Olympic MTB race to find out you can’t go and a track rider will be taking your spot, total and complete failure. The Olympics is not about participation fair play and allowing the best athletes on earth to compete, it’s about money money and money!

  20. What if Robert Förstemann gets the holeshot in the MTB race, crashes and takes out all the top contenders. Waiting for YouTube fun.

  21. Just as a follow-up to this, I see from the Men’s MTB race results :

    DNS Robert Forstermann (Germany)

    What a surprise. Maybe he broke his mountain bike by sitting on it (or maybe he didn’t even have one).

    • In fact, looking closer at the results, there are 3 Did Not Start names:

      DNS Robert Forstermann (Germany)
      DNS Michael Vingerling (Netherlands)
      DNS Sam Bewley (New Zealand)

      A cursory google shows that all three are track cyclists.

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