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.
Hold a straight line on the straight sections and avoid meandering and weaving. Don’t overlap wheels with other riders. If you enter a corner from six feet from the curb, don’t cut the apex and dive to the curb. You run the risk of taking yourself and other riders down. Make a smooth arc in the corners, and don’t recalibrate your corner while in the middle of it. Avoid using your brakes, especially in corners. You should be adept enough to take a high-speed corner without grabbing the hooks. If you aren’t, practice your cornering. Be relaxed, put your weight on the outside pedal, making sure the outside pedal is down. If the inside pedal is down in a tight corner, you can scrape your pedal and wipe out. I’ve seen experienced racers dig a pedal in a corner when they’re pedaling through the turn. It can be done, but not while leaning the bike over 45 degrees. Some bicycles are better for crits due to a higher bottom bracket, and some pedals have more clearance.
Communicate with other riders. “On your left.” If you’re approaching someone from the right before entering a right turn, tell them “Inside” or “On your right.” They may ignore you because Crits are War, but at least you tried.
You usually have time to ride a few laps on the course before the race. Pay attention to the corners, ruts, road hazards, sewer caps, etc. Know the course.
Avoid riding near “that one guy.” He’s the guy who rocks from side to side, weaves, and is generally a hazard. He might even be wearing earbuds. Stay away from him; preferably in front of him. And don’t BE that guy…
Strategy is the “what,” and tactics is the “how”
I probably raced 100 crits during my now-extinct racing career, and although I’ve always had a good sprint, I’ve never been much of a bike handler (think “butcher.”) That deficiency changed my tactics. I would make my moves depending upon where the corners were; either before or after the corner, never in the corner. Your riding strengths and weaknesses will dictate how and when you can make a move. Your strategy might be staying near the front and ultimately winning, but a crit is all about tactics and adjustments.
If you can get a racer list before the race, Google all the riders’ race results. Some are climbers, some are time trial specialists, and some are sprinters. Know your competition. If you race a crit with a strong time trial rider, expect him to try to ride off the front early and stay away. The sprinters tend to be the shameless opportunists who never take a pull (perfectly acceptable in a race) and then they explode in the last 300 meters. Don’t complain that you did so much work, and they came around you at the end, and that’s just not fair! It’s the inexperienced racers who pull the pack around lap after lap.
When to chase
You can identify the rider who’s going to go flat out on the first lap. He’s the one who shows up to the starting line just before the race goes off, breathing hard and sweating profusely. Watch this guy and be prepared to stay with him. Usually when a rabbit goes off at 30 mph from the gun, it lasts for a few laps, and then things calm down. Make sure you endure the initial attack, and make sure you get an intense warmup, too. The shorter the event; the more intense the warmup.
Some riders will test the waters and go off the front early. They rarely win the race, unless they’re very strong. Allow other riders to initiate the chase, and jump into their draft. Conserve energy. This changes around the halfway point of the race, where you have to chase every break. At any point in the race, even early, if three or four riders escape off the front, the pack needs to chase them down. If a rider in the pack has a teammate up the road in the break, he won’t help chase him down. Never chase down a teammate, unless you are inherently a despicable human being.
It’s pronounced “preem.” A prime is a mid-race sprint to the finish line, usually for a crappy prize like a half-dozen bagels (which I once won), a tee shirt, a leaky water bottle, a tube of scary chamois cream, or small amounts of cash. A crit can have several primes. If you can sprint and you feel good, you can certainly go for a prime. Instead of sitting up after the sprint, you and a small group of riders can keep the speed up and use the opportunity as your escape to the finish. Also be cautious that if the prime is within the last few laps of the race, riders laying back can counterattack if you let up after the sprint. Crits are often won and lost depending upon what riders do at the last prime. Be vigilant.
The last laps and the final sprint
If the pace hasn’t already picked up, it certainly will with two or three laps to go. Dig deep to maintain contact with the pack. You should have fought to stay near (but not at) the front. Position yourself wisely. Expect many attacks at the bell lap, which signals one lap to go. If there’s no actual bell, pay attention to the race official or the lap counter so you know when you’re on the last lap. I’ve seen good riders lose a crit because they lost track of the last lap. They usually lament, “I thought there was one more lap…”
Expect the last two corners to be absolute mayhem; fast and crazy. Again, stay near the front, if you are able. If the straightaway to the finish is short from the final corner, you may want to sprint to the front before the corner, enter the corner first and blast to the finish. If the finish is several hundred yards after the final corner, you may want to use other riders, staying in the draft. As with a road race sprint, you want to keep your speed high, stay on a wheel, and make sure you don’t drag along the riders behind you so they come around you at the line. You may want to come around the lead rider(s) with 100 meters to go, or if the pace is at Ludicrous Speed, you may want to make your final move at 50 meters to go, or even less. And the closer to the line you make your sprint, the shorter the gear you should be in. If you come off someone’s wheel at 30 mph with 100 meters to the line, and you’re in your huge, ponderous 53 x 11, you are likely to be caught by someone accelerating faster in their 53 x 15, while you’re laboriously cranking it up. I’ve seen poor gear choice lose a lot of sprints. Been that; done there…
As you approach the line, remember to sprint through the line, not letting up. There is a technique called “throwing your bike,” and it is not literal. Right as you approach the line, and out of the saddle, you thrust your arms (and the bars) forward, with your head down. This technique can be good for gaining almost a foot at the line. Sometimes that’s enough to win.
Here’s a YouTube of a typical pro sprint finish.
Race smart, stay alert, stay composed, and have fun. Criteriums are a blast!
Written by Paul Scarpelli.