Criteriums are a unique beast. While a road race relies heavily on fitness (especially aerobic fitness) and drafting, criteriums rely on cornering and bursts of speed. In addition you can expect non-stop action. There’s very little “sitting in” and you’re constantly having to fight for position and sprint out of corners.
It’s very common to hear from racers that they hate crits, and that they’re “crash-fests”. Often these views come about because the few crits they’ve done involved some combination of getting dropped and crashing. With that in mind I’d like to give you my guide to surviving, thriving, and enjoying criterium racing.
Why Race Crits?: Racing a crit can feel like being in an action movie. You’re carrying high speeds through corners, rubbing elbows with other racers and sprinting for the finish line. For the fun factor alone I highly encourage anyone to give crits a try. But besides the entertainment, racing crits can reap huge benefits in your bike handling, situational awareness and ability to stay calm while racing.
Bike Position: Your position on the bike between time trials and road races is drastically different. The same is true between road races and criteriums. In a criterium the primary factors are cornering speed and the ability to put out short bursts of power after each corner. For both of these things your best position is in the drops. In the drops you have better leverage on the bars and a lower center of gravity, so cornering is easier and more precise. In a 30 minute crit I’ll often spend 25+ minutes in the drops. I recommend getting into the drops after you’re off and clipped in, and then make that your default position. If the pace slows drastically, or you’ve got a long straight where you can draft, then feel free to move up to the hoods for a bit to open up your breathing. But once the fireworks start again, it’s back to the drops.
Some corners you can pedal through, some you can’t. This is what warmup laps are for. Take at least one warmup lap at nearly race-pace, and see how tight the corners are. For corners that you can’t pedal through, you should always have your inside leg up at 12 o’clock.
Look at the picture above. The rider has his inside leg up, he’s on the drops, he’s looking through the corner, and he’s relaxed. This is what you should aim for.
Your First Crit: I like to enter every race with certain goals in mind. Even if I believe I’m going to get dropped, I’ll still have a goal like hanging on the first few laps, or practicing my pack movement. In your first crit your goal should be to not crash.
Look at the first photo above. That corner was a 30 mph corner for me as a Cat 4, so you can only imagine how fast the Pro/1/2 guys in that picture are taking it. Yet look at how close everyone is. My point is not to scare new racers, but to give you an idea why first-time crit racers tend to crash a lot. Imagine that you were the guy in blue on the inside. If this was your first crit it’s very possible that you would panic and either hit the curb, grab the brakes, or go wide and hit another rider. If you jump head-first into your first crit guns-a-blazing, and don’t have the proper mindset, then crashing is very likely.
In your first crit I recommend taking the first couple laps as safe as possible. In practical terms this means taking a line through the corners that gives you extra space. Don’t take the tightest line through the corner, and try not to put yourself in a position that you’re riding up the inside of anyone. If you do find yourself in this position, try your best to stay relaxed. Hundreds of people will be doing that exact corner on that exact day, and 99% of them will not crash there. There’s no reason that you will crash there. Look through to where you want to go, keep your hands on the drops, stay relaxed, and stay off the brakes.
If you make it through the first few laps without getting dropped, then I congratulate you! At this point you should be starting to gain some confidence. Each lap you do you should try to hone your cornering skills. One of the absolute best things about crits is that you get to practice the same course over and over. What better way to learn cornering than to take a corner 20-30 times? Now, repeat that for every corner on the course. In my last crit I did 26 laps. Each lap had 6 corners. Thus not counting warmup and cooldown laps, I rode 156 corners at speed in 30 minutes. There is simply nowhere else you can safely get this much practice. So make the most of it!
Okay, now to the harsh truth. You will probably get dropped after a couple laps. I’ll talk about this more in the “Your Second Crit” section, but being near the front is key in a crit. But for a first time crit racer being near the front can be dangerous (at least for the first few laps). So getting dropped is a very real possibility. If you are dropped, continue to ride hard and use this as a chance to practice your cornering. With no one around you can take corners faster and see just how fast you can take them.
Before we leave, allow me a short story. My first crit was also my second race ever. I took the corners cautiously, and within a few laps I was dropped. At first I was pretty down, because I had just come off a block of winter training. But in taking the corners on my own, I soon realized just how fun this was! All the corners were swept clean and there were no cars around! I had my own little race course all to myself! By the end of the race I was sad about getting dropped so easily, but I also knew that crits were fun. Keep a positive mindset and enjoy your first crit, no matter what happens (but don’t crash, okay?)
Your Second Crit: Okay, here’s where things get fun. If you finished your first race crash-free, then you’ve probably built up some confidence cornering and riding with others. Doing well in a crit is largely about one thing: cornering. If you can take the corner faster than the people behind you, then they will have to sprint to catch up with you. As I said above, my last crit involved taking corners 156 times. If the person behind you has to sprint to catch up even 10% of the time, then they’ll be sprinting over 15 times. By the same token, if you can’t stick with the guy in front of you, you’ll end up wasting a lot of energy sprinting up to him to close the gap. In a criterium, cornering is everything.
The corollary here is that the more people that are in front of you, the higher chance that one of them will be slow through the corner. Sure, you may be glued to the wheel of the guy in front of you, but the train of people in front of you will be sprinting to close up to the leaders, which means you’ll have to as well. This means that to maximize your energy savings you need to be near the front. I find that 3rd to 5th wheel is typically perfect. You get all the savings from drafting, but very few people to worry about.
So you’re at the start line and the whistle blows. Get clipped in fast, and then race to that first corner. The first lap is not a time to worry about saving energy. The start will be hectic and everyone is fighting for position. It’s okay to be out of the draft for a couple corners, because position is more important than anything else. But once you’ve got into a good position, get on someones wheel. After a lap or so the pack will typically be strung out due to a high pace. That means if you’ve not on a wheel quickly you’ll end up riding next to that string, rather than in it. The fortunate thing is that the amount of cornering in a crit means that the pack rarely stays perfectly formed. Gaps will open, people will drift around, and you will end up with an opening.
I won’t say too much here about strategy, since that depends heavily on your strengths and weaknesses. But in a few words, if you know you are a strong sprinter then simply conserve energy throughout the race. This is where being near the front helps greatly, because you’re conserving energy by cornering quickly, and everyone behind you is burning it by closing up gaps. If you can’t sprint then be on the lookout for people taking a flyer. It’s almost always better to go off the front with someone else. The brutal truth is that you’re probably not stronger than the combined abilities and strengths of all the other riders, so solo breakaways very rarely work.
Your goal in this second crit should be to boost your confidence even more and hopefully not get dropped. You want to leave it feeling like you can corner better than you could before the whistle blew, and that you feel more comfortable riding fast near other people. Have fun, race hard, and learn!
Third Crit (Extra Credit): I want to throw in a few tips and tricks that I’ve learned. You should only use these once you feel comfortable with the basics of cornering fast and riding near others.
- Speak up. If you’re coming up on someone before a corner and you’re not sure if they see you, say something like “left side” or “inside, inside!”. Don’t be an idiot and dive-bomb corners and think that shouting out where you are will make everything okay. But being vocal helps keep everyone safe.
- Fight for wheels. Imagine that you fell back a few spots and need to move up. You ride up to third wheel, but the draft is already taken by another rider. Don’t simply ride in the wind. Instead, try to take the third wheel from the other rider. Don’t do anything dangerous like bumping into them or overlapping wheels, but simply scoot over a bit. Some riders are very uncomfortable riding near others, and they’ll just move over and let you have it. Others will fight you, but the thing is, the rider in second place probably has no idea what’s going on behind them. At some point they’ll probably move over your direction a bit. When they do, take the wheel and maybe even scoot over a bit more to put the previous third wheel rider in the wind a bit. The more others ride in the wind, the better the advantage you have.
- Give up wheels. This may seem silly after the previous point, but there are times you want to willingly give up a wheel. Suppose you’re sitting third and the guy in second puts in a huge jump. You could chase him down, but that’s a lot of effort. Undoubtedly someone behind you will jump to grab onto that guy’s wheel. This means that there’s now someone else you can use to draft off of. When that’s the case, I’ll tell that person (by name if I know them) to come on in. They’re often grateful for it because it means they’re no longer in the wind. Also, you got out of it less effort and more drafting. Done properly you may only lose one spot, which means you went from 3rd to 4th. That’s something you can easily make up later when the pace slows.
- Relax your body through bumpy corners. In reality you should try to always be relaxed, but it’s especially important while cornering, and even more-so in bumpy corners. Keep your hands in the drops, but allow your butt to float out of the saddle a bit. You’re not taking it like a mountain biker, but you want to allow the bike to bounce freely without jarring you.
Go have some fun, and good luck!