Rubber Side Down: Criterium Racing Do’s and Don’ts

So you’re interested in racing your first criterium (crit for short) but you have no idea what to expect. That and, if you’re like me, a paralyzing fear grips your very soul, begging you to reconsider sacrificing your finely tuned body for the sake of sport. I can assure you, this over-exaggerated fear is equally misguided. You just have to tell your mind to shut up for about an hour and then hold on for dear life. After all, what good is a finely tuned body if you can’t pump some adrenaline through it every once in awhile? The three main things I learned from my first crit race are as follows:

A) Crits are the roller coasters of bicycle racing. They are blisteringly fast paced, incredibly exhilarating and they are over before you know it. The best part is that you get to control this roller coaster.

B) No one died. No one even crashed. If you’re smart and can handle your bike, you will be fine. And you will be hooked.

C) I had a lot to learn about crit racing. Luckily there were plenty of experienced racers handing out plenty of experienced advice. Read on for a little more about crit racing and some essential criterium racing tips.

What exactly is a criterium? 

A crit is held on a very short course, approximately one mile, that has a number of sharp corners that create a loop. Riders complete multiple laps of this loop until a specified time limit is reached and then they usually complete a few additional laps before crossing the finish line. For example, the criterium that I raced was 45 minutes long + three laps. It is up to the riders how fast or slow that 45 minutes is raced, but it usually ends up being raced at ludicrous speed. A criterium differs from a road race, in which you race from point A to point B in however the heck long that takes you.

“Lightspeed is too slow. We’re going to have to go right to… ludicrous speed.”

So what do you need to know before throwing yourself in the blender that is criterium racing? Here are some basic tips that should serve you well in your first criterium and beyond. I have split them into four categories for your easy viewing pleasure.

Safety 

  • Close Quarters. Criteriums are notoriously dangerous because of their fast pace and close quarters. Contact with other riders is common so prepare yourself mentally for this possibility. Practice knocking elbows with a buddy in a grassy field to gain some stability on the bike.
  • Your Front Wheel. Always be mindful of your front wheel and never let it overlap with the rider in front of you. If they change their position, it’s up to you to get out of the way.
  • Look Before You Move. You can quickly and easily look under your arm to the right or left for other riders. This should become instinct when you’re thinking about moving forward in the pack and help you avoid collisions.
  • Flat Hand Outstretched to the Side. Who knows what this hand signal means? It’s an important one. It means I’m going to spit in that direction.
  • Sprinting. More often than not, the the final sprint is to the last corner rather than the finish line. If you aren’t in position after the final turn, it might not be worth it, or even safe, to go for an all out sprint.

Rider Form

In the drops, arms slightly bent, head up, eyes forward, fingers on the brake

  • Ride in the Drops. Riding with your hands in this lower position gives you a lot more control over the bike, puts you in a more aerodynamic position and helps you hold your line at fast speeds.
  • Bend Your Arms. Your arms are one of your best forms of suspension on a road bike. A slight bend will help your body absorb road shocks and reduce fatigue. Bent arms will also help you absorb contact from other riders without forcing you to drastically change your line.
  • Finger on the Brake. Keep at least one finger on each brake lever. Even if you don’t think you will need to brake, you should always be ready to.
  • Head Up. Always look ahead and use your peripherals to watch the racers around you, even while sprinting. Especially while sprinting.

Straight Aways 

  • Stay Close. The draft zone is your friend. Maintain a close following distance to the rider in front of you so that they block the wind and you conserve energy.
  • Pace line. The pace line takes on a more cluttered form in a criterium than during a road race but it works the same way. A pace line is particularly useful during a break and is really the only way that a smaller group can stay away from the pack.
  • Flick the Elbow. This little move indicates that you have finished your pull at the front and hopefully another rider will move up to take a turn. Don’t be surprised if they don’t jump at the chance. That being said, don’t pull if you don’t have to. It is a great way to use up all your energy.
  • Positioning. Maintain a position that you can easily move up from. Don’t get boxed in by other riders because you might not get a chance to escape.

Cornering

  • High-Low-High. Enter each turn high and then move low to hit the apex of the turn before exiting the turn high again. This will help you carry speed through the turn.
  • Hold Your Line. This may take some practice but it is very important to hold your line through a turn to avoid moving into the path of other riders.
  • Look Through the Turn. Look ahead on the path that you want your bike to follow and not directly at your front wheel. Looking forward and not down will help you hold your chosen line.
  • Don’t Brake in the Corners. If you stay in the draft zone of the rider in front of you, you should be able to carry speed and complete the turn without grabbing your brake. If necessary, you can always move slightly out of the draft to increase drag and slow down. Remember to still keep a finger on the brakes in case of emergency.
  • Conserve Energy. In a 45 minute criterium you might complete 20 laps. If each lap has three or four sharp corners, you are completing approximately 60 to 80 sharp turns. This is why it is so important to hold your speed through the turn instead of always braking as you enter and sprinting as you exit. This will help you conserve your energy for the final effort and become a crit champion! Fingers crossed.
Remember: Criteriums are as safe as the riders racing so practice your skills and keep alert. Crits are an amazing challenge and the level of competition is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. You won’t regret trying one out for yourself.

If you show up to a Crit and the field looks like this… you might want to watch from the sidelines.

Rubber Side Down is a weekly column dedicated to the fledgling cyclist in all of us. Art’s Cyclery Web Content Editor Jerald Westendorf is not a professional cyclist, and doesn’t try to masquerade as one either, but he does love to ride bikes. Whether you are clipping in for the first time or counting down the days until your first race, read on, learn from his mistakes, and keep the rubber side down.

2014-06-20T10:13:14-08:00