Competitive cycling, past and present

The sport’s boom in the late 19th century made cycling a natural choice for the first modern Olympic Games in 1896. The event was a road race 87km in length. Today, BMX, MTB and Track have joined Road Cycling as Olympic disciplines, and the time trial was introduced as an event in 1996. Cyclists have competed at local and national level for 150 years, and international competitions have been around for over a century.

Key dates in the history of competitive cycling

  1. 1868 – First road cycling race is held near Paris.
  2. 1895 – First Track World Championships.
  3. 1896 – Cycling included as an event at the first modern Olympic Games.
  4. 1900 – Foundation of the International Cycling Union.
  5. 1903 – First Tour de France.
  6. 1924 – First international cycling race “Le Critérium International”.
  7. 1927 – First Road World Championships.
  8. 1950 – First Cyclo-Cross World Championships.
  9. 1956 – First Indoor Cycling World Championships.
  10. 1958 – First Cycle Speedway World Championships.
  11. 1984 – First Trials World Championships.
  12. 1990 – First MTB World Championships.
  13. 1993 – First BMX World Championships.
  14. 1996 – MTB becomes an Olympic cycling event.
  15. 2002 – First 4-cross and Trials World Championships.
  16. 2008 – BMX included in the Beijing Olympics.

What are the major cycling competitions?

The Olympic Games are held every four years. As of 2008, there are events for men and women in four disciplines; Road, BMX, MTB and Track. For details of the competition format at the Games, see the official website.

The following World Championships and World Cups are held annually:


  • UCI Road World Championships (including Road Race and Time Trial events)
  • UCI B Road World Championships (for athletes from National Federations which have failed to qualify for the Elite World Championships)
  • UCI Juniors World Championships
  • UCI Road World Cup


  • UCI BMX Supercross World Cup
  • UCI BMX World Championships
  • The X-Games, an annual multi-sport event that includes Freestyle BMX.


  • UCI Mountain Bike World Cup
  • UCI Mountain Bike World Championships
  • UCI Mountain Bike Marathon World Championships
  • UCI Mountain Bike Masters World Championships
  • UCI Trials World Cup
  • UCI Trials World Championships


  • UCI Cyclo-cross World Cup
  • UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships
  • UCI Cyclo-cross Masters World Championships
  • The Three Peaks Race is a famous event in the UK Cycle-Cross calendar. This punishing race takes place annually, in September, with riders climbing Yorkshire’s three renowned mountains – Ingleborough, Pen-y-gent and Wernside.

Cycle Speedway

  • World Championships (biannual)
  • European Championships (biannual)
  • “The Ashes” series, contested by England and Australia.


  • UCI Track Cycling World Championships
  • UCI Track Cycling World Cup Classics (including Individual Pursuit, Keirin, Kilo, Madison, Points Race, Scratch Race, Team Pursuit and Team Sprint). Distances vary for women in some events, for details and an explanation of the format of these events, see the 2007 UCI Track World Cup website.
  • UCI B World Championships
  • UCI Track Cycling Masters World Championships
  • UCI Juniors Track World Championships

The Grand Tour

Possibly the most well-known competitive cycling events are the great road races – the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España. Known to the faithful as Le Tour, Giro and La Vuelta, these are the three big events in the road calendar, collectively known as the Grand Tour. Attracting millions of spectators and worth a huge amount of money to advertisers and sponsors, Le Tour and the Giro were originally conceived by press men as a means of boosting the circulation of their newspaper! The tours are held in France, Italy and Spain respectively and are multi-stage races of around three weeks duration, which includes a couple of rest days when no riding takes place.

The riders are all members of different teams, and complete long daily distances of 100-200km, with a mass start at the beginning of every day. Some stages favour sprinters, while others involve punishing climbs through mountain ranges that include the Alps and Pyrenees. Individual and team time trials are also included, with riders completing a course of perhaps 30km. The overall winner of the race is the rider who has the lowest time at the end of the competition, when all stages have been completed. These tours are an amazing test of strength, stamina and tactics, and rely both on the ability of the individual and the strength of the team they ride for.

The tours have a cult following and have attracted huge crowds since the inaugural Tour de France, held between the 1st and the 19th July 1903. If you’re going to watch these races live or on TV, check out this great A-Z of tour jargon from the BBC and get yourself clued up!

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