Racing a crit is much more than just going around in circles…

Easily the most intimidating road racing discipline is the criterium. With the high speeds, proximity to other riders, and frequent corners, many experienced road racers get squeamish just thinking about it. About the only solace I can offer is that at least you’re not on the road with motor vehicles and inattentive drivers.

What’s a crit?

Criteriums are actually circuit races done on a short course. The course can be anywhere from a half mile to a mile and a half long. It can be a simple four-corner rectangular course, or it can be a more technical venue with as many as eight turns per lap. (I’ve even seen a few figure eight criteriums, which is plain lunacy.) Some crit courses manage to have an uphill stretch, just to inflict even more agony. Crits are run on closed city streets, industrial parks, or as is the case in St. George, on the runway of the old airport. Because criteriums tend to be shorter events; usually 30 to 90 minutes; speeds are consistently high. The size of the field can vary from less than a dozen riders to almost 200. All these variables need to be considered in how you approach each race.

Basic criterium do’s and don’ts

Stay near the front

Because the pace is often frenetic, it’s essential that you concentrate on what’s going on around you at all times. You need to look, listen, anticipate, and be predictable. Crashes are not as common in crits as you might think because most riders are paying very focused attention. As in a paceline, inexperienced riders who are unknowingly putting other riders at risk can expect to be given “strong verbal and/or physical suggestions” by the more experienced riders. As in all disciplines of bicycle racing, there is protocol, and you must abide by it.
To stay safe, it is wise to ride near the front of the pack. (“Near,” not “at.”) If there are crashes, the odds are they’ll be behind you. Crashes behind you = okay. Crashes in front of you = not okay. You’ll have to bust your hump and fight for your position in order to stay near the front. And if there’s a breakaway, you’ll see it and be able to react to it immediately.
Try not to lose position in corners, especially. Having to reel in and pass the three riders who slip by you in every corner is very tiring, and you can only do it for a few laps. Another reason to stay near the front is the rubberband effect, where gaps open up in the corner. If you’re at the tail end of the group, you may have to make up 100’ per lap in these cumulative gaps.