How To Race A Criterium

Posted: May 22, 2002

In many parts of the country, Memorial Day weekend is packed with downtown criteriums. When I was racing fulltime in the mid 80`s and early 90`s we had a steady diet of criteriums in the Northeast. The money was great and I often found myself skipping harder road races to make a quick buck in a 30 mile criterium. While the criterium circuit did little for my development it did teach me some valuable skills. Criterium racing is a unique discipline that can take some time to master. The races are shorter, faster, more dangerous and traditional road race tactics are thrown out the window. It`s almost like you have one set of rules for criterium racing and one set of rules for road racing and the two never overlap. Here are some things you should remember every time you do a criterium: 1. Ride the course before the race. It`s almost impossible to ride a road race course before the race but a 1KM criterium course is easy to inspect. You definitely don`t want the first lap to be a surprise. In 1987 I was a last year junior and I was riding the Tour of Somerville. There were 125 juniors (the field limit) for a 15 mile race. It was a recipe for disaster. I knew I had to stay up front the entire race to stay out of trouble. On the very first lap Bobby Julich attacked on the backstretch and I jumped on his wheel. As we headed for the always dangerous third turn, I thought Bobby was carrying way too much speed but I figured he knew what he was doing. Sure enough Bobby crashed and took me out with him. After the race I asked Bobby why he was going so fast and he told me he arrived to the race late, did not have time to check out the course and had no idea the third turn was that sharp. Like I said, always check out the course before your race. 2. Get to the start line early. Scratch that. Get to the start line VERY EARLY. Let`s say you are racing a Category 3 20 mile criterium that has the 100 rider field limit. The course is a 1KM circuit with 6 corners. If you start on the last row do you think you will ever see the front? Probably not. And if you did start on the last row and you were able to move up to the front how much energy do you think you wasted. To move up you probably spent the last 19 miles diving into a corner, jamming on your brakes, passing 3 or 4 riders, sprinting out of the corner, diving into the next corner, jamming on your brakes, passing 3 or 4 riders and so on. If you are not physically fried you`re mentally fried and you`ll have nightmares about the 200 or so corners you negotiated at warp speed. So here`s the plan: check out the schedule and find out exactly when your race starts and find out what race comes before yours. Let`s say you are doing the Cat. 3 race and the Masters are before you. At 5 laps to go in the Masters race start hanging around the Start/Finish. Stake out your position and find the closest, fastest approach to the start line. As the Masters race finishes start inching your way up even before your race is called to the line. You may hear an ear full from an official but hold your ground. As soon as you see others going to the line you have to go to. If you have to bump a little to get there then do it. You have to start on the first row or two if you want to be competitive that day. Fight for it. In bike racing the expression `nice guys finish last` should be changed to `nice guys start last`. 3. Basic race tactics. A) Don`t go too hard too early. Unlike road races where an early break can sometimes work the early break in the criterium is almost always doomed. Try to ease into the race. I usually use the early part of the race to get a feel for the pace and how fast the turns can be taken. B) Stay up front. When the race starts go right to the top 20 and stay there. It`s not going to be easy and you will have to constantly move up to hold your position. It`s very easy to let two guys pass you on this corner and three guys on that corner and the next thing you know you`re 40 riders back. C) Cornering. You always want to stay on the outside of the field so you can whip around the corners. If the race has left turns you want to stay on the outside of the field on the far right. If the course has right turns you will want to stay on the outside of the field on the far left. If you go inside on the corners you will have to do more braking as the riders dive into the turn. D) Breakaways. Criteriums are not just fieldpsprints and breakaways can and do work. In a road race a 10 second break is a joke. In a criterium a 10 second break can be out of sight. Use the tactics you use for other breakaways (see my article `I`m in a breakaway. Now what?`). E) Where to attack. A downtown flat criterium with no wind and no hills does not leave many opportunities to attack. A good place to attack is between two close corners. For example, let`s say the course is a rectangle 1KM circuit with 4 corners. The homestretch and backstretch are long while the distance between corners 1 and 2 and between 3 and 4 are short. A good place to attack would be right before turns 1 and 3. You want to attack hard immediately before the turn, take the turn at full speed, sprint the short distance to the next turn and take that turn at full speed. Unless the field was right on you when you attacked you will most likely have a gap. Another classic move is to attack after a prime. When I am planning to attack after a prime I will fake going for the prime and stay in the top five with the sprinters and then attack after the line. The `attack after the prime` move is usually anticipated so wait for a prime that you know will get a good reaction from the field. F) Fieldsprinting. Criterium fieldspinting takes nerves of steel. I am not going to give advice on how to snake through the middle of the field on the last lap or how to throw your weight around and use your elbows. Why? Because I have no idea how it`s done. I have never used intimidation to place in a fieldpsrint and I don`t believe a race should be decided by how crazy you are. In my opinion, no race is worth crashing. So what do you do if you`re a strong rider who is not crazy and the race is coming down to a fieldspint? There is still hope for you but you have to have a single focus. I approach a fieldspint like this: I have to stay away from trouble and in the wind. It goes against all logic to stay in the wind but I am not talking about dragging the field around. In the final five laps I start to move up. The sprinters are usually starting to make their moves and I know the theatrics will start soon. With five laps to go I will try to stay in the top five and then start my zen focus. It`s quite simple, I just say to myself `For the next three laps you are going to go with every single attack and not leave the top 3-5 places`. Crazy, right? Not really. If you are a strong road rider or time trialist you mean to tell me you can`t sustain a high effort for 3KM? That`s what you are doing. Let me give an example. It`s three laps to go and I`m in third place. I have one focus – go with the next inevitable attack. Bang! A rider attacks and I don`t even think, I just get right on his wheel. This rider will surely die and swing off but I will not pull through. I will wait for the next attack. Bang! Another rider goes and I am right on him. Again I will not pull through. Most likely riders will keep attacking right up until the finish. The whole time I am at the front and out of trouble. Is it hard to do this? Hell yeah! It hurts like hell. But it lasts less than four minutes and because I am so focused I don`t even feel most of the pain. Will you win the race? Almost never. Will you get a place? Most of the time. Before you know it`s one lap to go, you`re in the top five and that`s half the battle. For sure a sprinter that`s been sitting in will come flying by you at the finish but you will most likely stay in the top 10. For me taking this approach is my best shot. When I was younger I would finish so many criteriums out of the money but not even tired. I was not crazy enough to contest a traditional fieldsprint and it would be a long drive home realizing I had not given it my all. If I used the approach I just described at least I know I gave it my best shot. There is one thing I would like to add. If you are racing Pro/Cat. 1 races the fieldpsprint will be totally different as top teams like Mercury (setting up for Gord Fraser) and Prime Alliance (setting up Jonas Carney) will take control of the final laps with their respective leadout trains. To penetrate a team`s leadout train takes another completely different set of tactics that I will not write about here. This article is meant for local criterium racers and as an introduction for new riders. Criteriums are a great way to increase your speed and sharpen your bike-handing skills. You may find that criteriums will be your best event and it's refreshing to not have to climb a mountain each weekend. Just remember to be safe.....and pray it doesn't rain.