Para Sport 101: Road Vs Track Cycling At The Paralympics

by Paul D. Bowker

Jennifer Schuble competes in the women's 500 meters time trial (LC1-2/CP4) during the Track Cycling event at the Paralympic Games on September 8, 2008 in Beijing, China.


When Jennifer Schuble made her Paralympic debut back in 2008, she took home a gold medal in the time trial. She also won a silver medal in another time trial. 

What gives? 

In Paralympic cycling, athletes have a time trial both on a road course and on a track. Schuble, a U.S. Military Academy graduate who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and began cycling in 2007, won the gold medal — while setting a world record — in the track time trial, a 500-meter race in an indoor velodrome. Her silver medal came racing on Beijing’s road course, which was 20 times longer. 

Schuble, who went on to compete at the 2012 and ’16 Paralympics and is now a hopeful for Tokyo in 2021, is among a growing number of U.S. Paralympic cyclists who are competing in both the road and track disciplines, opportunities that have existed since track cycling joined the Paralympic program in 1996 in Atlanta. 

Here’s a look at the two disciplines, and the events on each side. 


Road Vs. Track: What’s The Difference? 

The simple difference between road and track cycling is the setting. In road cycling, athletes race on a road layout where they must battle the elements over distances that can reach into the dozens of miles. Track cycling, meanwhile, takes place on a 250-meter banked oval track inside a velodrome. Races are shorter, and athletes must navigate banked turns that angle as steep as 45 degrees. 


The Road Events 

Road cycling traditionally includes the road race and the time trial. The Paralympic Games Tokyo 2021 will also feature a mixed team relay.  

Road Race: Athletes begin with a mass start and then they battle both the elements and each other in a race to see who can cross the finish line first. The concept is similar to what is seen during Tour de France except the Paralympic road race is a single-day, individual contest, whereas the big pro races are team competitions held over multiple stages. While Paralympic road cyclists can’t rely on teammates to help them navigate the course, competitors still play off each other to reduce wind resistance. In Tokyo, there will be 14 road races, each held at the Fuji Speedway with the famous Mount Fuji in the background. 

Race distances differ by classes, which range from T1 and T2 riders (athletes with impairment in the trunk, such as paralysis) competing on tricycles to the H1 to H5 riders competing on hand cycles. Two types of three-wheeled hand cycles are used: H1-H4 classes for a reclined position and H5 for a kneeling position in which athletes pedal while leading forward. 

Also competing in road events are athletes in C and B classes. C class is for athletes riding two-wheeled bikes. The B class is for visually impaired athletes riding in tandem with guides. 

Time Trial: In a time trial, athletes start at regular intervals and race against the clock. The rider with the fastest time at the end is the winner. Without having to bother with other riders, time trialists put an extra emphasis on aerodynamics in order to maximize pure speed. In Tokyo there will be 19 time trial events, each held on an 8-kilometer course. Race distances differ by the 13 classes (T1-2, H1-5, C1-5, B). 

Mixed Team Relay: The mixed team relay involves teams of three cyclists from a given country who each complete three laps around a 2.7K course. Each team does a total of nine laps. Because these are athletes in the H classes, riders do not need to touch at the end of their three-lap segments. Instead, the next rider begins when the previous rider crosses the finishing line. 


The Track Events 

The track events in Tokyo will consist of three events for athletes in the C and B tandem classes. Whereas Olympic track cycling has five events, some with fancy names such as kierin and omnium, Paralympic track cycling includes time trial, mixed team sprint and individual pursuit.

Time Trial: Just as in the road time trials, riders race against the clock with the fastest finisher winning the gold medal. Cyclists can reach around 40 miles per hour and medal times may be decided by a split second. Men in the C class compete over 1,000 meters while the women go 500 meters. All tandem teams in class B race for 1,000 meters. 

Team Sprint: The mixed team sprint consists of three cyclists going 750 meters, or three laps around the 250-meter track. After each lap, the lead rider peels away for the rest of the team to sprint to the finish line. Riders are allocated points depending on gender and impairment; teams can have up to 10 points. 

Individual Pursuit: In the exciting world of individual pursuit, riders begin on opposite sides of the track and race to either catch their opponent or reach the finish line first. After preliminary rounds, the medals are determined in head-to-head showdowns for gold and bronze. In the men’s C4-5 and B classes, the competition is held over 4K. All other races (women’s and men’s C and B) are held over 3K. 

Paul D. Bowker has been writing about Olympic and Paralympic sports since 1996, when he was an assistant bureau chief in Atlanta. He is a freelance contributor to on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.