After a dazzling debut in 2021, the UCI Track Champions League returns on Saturday, November 12 for its second series.
Starting, as it did last year, on the Balearic island of Mallorca, the league promises some of the fastest, most furious track racing you’ll have seen all season.
Each night of competition takes place over just three hours, which means the bare minimum of time to recover between bouts.
How much will it take out of them? How deep will they go? And who are the riders to watch?
The Male Sprinters
Harrie Lavreysen – Netherlands
Harrie Lavreysen is the undisputed fastest man on two wheels. In Paris last month the 25-year-old collected his fourth consecutive set of sprint rainbows, and became a three-time keirin world champion. Though it’s still more than 18 months away, until results indicate otherwise, he will be the favourite to retain the Olympic sprint title.
Lavreysen dominated last year’s UCI Track Champions League, winning five out of the eight separate events – including all four sprints. That he was top of the standings only once in the keirin tells us he is at least beatable in that discipline. That doesn’t make it a likely outcome, however, and he’s going to be pushed harder this time round.
Matthew Richardson – Australia
The rider Lavreysen will be keeping the closest eye on over the next month is new kid on the block Matthew Richardson. Making his debut at the UCI Track Champions League, Kent-born, Australia-raised Richardson is getting faster with every race. At just 23 years old Richardson took the gold medal at the Commonwealth Games in August.
Former gymnast Richardson might have lost to Lavreysen in straight matches in the solo sprint final in Saint Quentin last month, but the Australian was less than a tenth of second away from taking it to a decider. He believes with every fast twitch fibre of his colossal thighs that he can beat the Dutchman – he wouldn’t be here if he didn’t.
“All year I’ve been itching for it,” he said last week. “I’m going to go the deepest I’ve ever gone in my life.”
This competition could come down to the wire.
Stefan Botticher – Germany
Stefan Botticher finished second in the Track Champions League series in 2021, and was the only male sprinter other than Lavreysen to win an event. The German’s three keirin victories tells you that, even if he’s not got the leg speed to match his Dutch rival, he is a master of that particular craft.
In the overall standings, just 14 points separated Botticher and Lavreysen last year. An early score could put the favourite under pressure while Botticher has little to lose – and everything to gain.
Kevin Quintero – Colombia
Kevin Quintero is another rider who’s on his way up. Not literally, though. Colombia might be better known for riders who can climb for days, but Quintero is that rare example of one aiming to go as hard as he can for as short a time as he can, as close to sea level as possible.
Another racer likely to produce his best results in the keirin, in Saint Quentin 23-year-old Quintero came from the back over three laps to pip France’s Sebastian Vigier to the bronze medal. Over three rounds of the 2022 UCI Nations Cup he was the best of them all, thanks largely to a first-place result in Milton, Canada, where he out-elbowed the aforementioned Richardson and Botticher to first place.
Azizulhasni Awang – Malaysia
At 34, Azizulhasni Awang is the old man of this competition. The Malaysian is perhaps still best known for a crash at the 2011 Track World Cup in Manchester which saw him finish the race with a 20cm splinter pierced all the way through his right calf.
Awang might be one of the veterans of the competition but you wouldn’t know it from the results of the last few years. At the Tokyo Olympics last year he was the best of the rest behind Jason Kenny, winning one of Malaysia’s only two medals from the games. Similar form could see him put his younger rivals to the sword.
Mikhail Iakovlev – Israel
The name might be familiar, even if the nationality is not. Since last year’s Track Champions league, in which he finished in third place overall, Mikhail Iakovlev has been forced to switch his nationality from Russia to Israel in order to continue competing, due to the invasion of Ukraine. Whether the disruption has affected his form is still an unknown due to a lack of racing.
As a rider, he is undoubtedly a talent, but tends to get inside his own head and can be inconsistent. Second and third place in the first and final events of the series respectively showed what Iakovlev is capable of. Can he keep the demons at bay and produce a solid run of results starting in Mallorca on Saturday?
The Female Sprinters
Lea Friedrich – Germany
After a long hard season, the reigning sprint champion Emma Hinze has opted not to defend her Track Champions League title. That makes her German team-mate and close friend Lea Friedrich a reasonably firm favourite for this competition.
As a double world champion in the discipline, Friedrich is the queen of the keirin. She also won two of the four rounds behind the derny at last year’s Track Champions League, ensuring she finished the sprint competition comfortably in second place.
For the first time in the Champions League this year the competition heads to Berlin, which means Friedrich will be racing with the roar of a home crowd behind her. Could that prove the difference between glory and disappointment?
Mathilde Gros – France
One reason Friedrich won’t be anticipating a coronation in London in a month’s time is because of a Frenchwoman called Mathilde Gros.
The 23 year-old was impressive but mostly consistent when she made her debut at the Track Champions League last year. Never all that close to the top of the results page, sixth place in the overall standings was her reward for rarely finishing far down the order. Nonetheless, no sprinter – male or female – has made more progress in 12 months since than Gros has.
Her home world championships last month in Saint Quentin showed exactly how far she’s come. Gros led from the front to beat Friedrich in straight rounds to take her first rainbow jersey. In the keirin she held her position at the bottom of the track and kept her speed high to add a bronze medal to her collection.
Gros only turned 23 in late October. There’s no reason to think her legs can’t still go faster.
Kelsey Mitchell – Canada
The Olympic sprint champion and world record holder should have more to show for her season. At the Commonwealth Games she was unbeaten before the final, where she was outsmarted by Ellesse Andrews of New Zealand. The Canadian will be hungry to make up for that disappointment and deliver her best form in the opening round this Saturday.
The Mallorcan track is one that will inspire happy memories for Kelsey Mitchell. She won the opening Track Champions League match-up in the keirin there last year and will be planning – rather than hoping – for history to repeat itself.
Two second-place finishes in the final round in London in 2021 carried Mitchell to third place in the sprint competition overall, and she will have her eyes on the top step of the podium this time round.
Olena Starikova – Ukraine
In case we needed it, this year has reminded us that there are more important things than sport. It has also, however, demonstrated the power of sport to provide comfort in dark times, to bring people together and inspire.
Of the 25 nationalities represented at the UCI Track Champions League, Olena Starikova is the only athlete who will be wearing the famous yellow and blue flag of Ukraine. Starikova is from the city of Kharkiv, in the east of the country and currently on the frontline in the ongoing war with Russia.
Olympic sprint silver medalist Starikova put on a strong showing at last year’s Track Champions League. Victory in the keirin in the final round in London enabled her to leap up the leaderboard to a fifth place overall finish. Will the renewed support from the fans carry her even further this time round?
Sophie Capewell – Great Britain
Sophie Capewell is one of two British sprinters competing at the Track Champions League this year on the women’s side, the other being Emma Finucane. Capewell, 24, has had a very good year on the track, taking home a bronze from the team sprint in Saint Quentin in October. As an individual this season has also seen her take her first major medals: a silver in the Commonwealth Games keirin and a bronze in the 500m time trial.
Capewell finished someway down the order in her first appearance in the Champions League last time, generally getting knocked out in the early rounds. This time she will be hoping to contest a few more of the later races and maybe even make the top step in London.
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After a great debut season, the UCI Track Champions League is back for season two, with Laura Kenny joining the party. You can watch it all live and on demand on discovery+. We will have extensive coverage across eurosport.com and the first race is in Mallorca on Saturday Nov 12, with the action starting at 5:30pm UK time.