The dynamics of a crit race widely vary from course to course and with different categories of racing. In general, I believe the lower category races use less team strategies and in some cases may have no strategy at all, except for get to the finish first. What I do find in those races, are that skills are learned, racers get fit, and sometimes you take your lumps so to speak. For instance in the first crit I ever raced, the official rang the bell, I went off the front. I stayed up there for a few laps and quickly found myself barely hanging on. It was a tough 15th place finish after the 30 minute race, but my eyes were so wide open with all that had just happened. It didn’t take long to figure out how to win races at a cat 4/5 level. The races only got faster and longer as I moved up through the ranks. In cat 3 races I began to see team strategies being used effectively. The fitness level was a bit higher, but mainly everyone was a whole lot smarter. The only other races I have experienced are cat 2/3 combined, and pro 1, 2, 3 combined. For me, on some days it was hang on for dear life, and other days I was holding my own in those races. Some of the tactics used amazed me, and I really felt that if a road race is compared to a chess match, then crit racing is like playing Chinese checkers with one hand and chess with your other hand. The good news is once your fitness level is up to par, and your cycling cognitive ability is on the same level as the other race teams, it becomes a just play the game mentality.
A crit race starts with your preparation, as all other races truly do. You want to warm up before most any crit race. A designed warm-up based on the course and time spent racing is ideal. If you are racing alone, it can be a blessing or it can be a nightmare. If you’re unknown to the normal riders in that peloton, you may be able to poker face your abilities and either break away or sit in unnoticed until the sprint. Breaking away is maybe the hardest way to win any bike race. In some cases it works if a medium sized group, of 6 or 7 riders, gets away on a course with tight corners. I also suggest, no demand you race from the front of the race! It is so hard to race bikes in that back of the group alone. This can be a bit easier to do on a big “wide open” course, but you still need to have fitness to move “freely” throughout the group. In other words, enough so that it doesn’t take all your energy to get to the front. Racing in the front of any type of race helps prevent getting caught behind wrecks, or stuck behind a “half wheel” riding racer with less fitness. Another thing to keep in mind is to race your own race. Only talk to teammates, and don’t listen to anyone that isn’t a teammate. Sometimes even just talking to another rider will let them know where you are physically and mentally. My approach is to keep my mouth shut, as one of my first coaches told me so elegantly.
If you are racing with your team it is imperative to use your numbers to win the race. When you have numbers, you can send riders on “fake attacks” or half heartened one. Sometimes those stick because no one really took it serious until it was too late. You can counter attack. Once breaks are caught and after a hard effort send one of your teammates off immediately before the peloton recovers. Know that if you feel the group slowing as you catch the break, it’s time to jump. If it is in the late laps of a race you may catch the group napping. You can move the entire team to the front, and pop a team mate off the front. This is sort of blocking, which is illegal, but hard to prove if done right. You can move your team to the front towards the end of a race and start a lead out train for the sprint. My only real suggestion is to ride together and to race as a team when you have numbers to do it with. These few scenarios happen in the blink of an eye. Split second decisions are made and really are only subconsciously thought about, because on the highest levels they have been practiced. This type of racing becomes second nature. It’s like playing a video game that you know well, but the board is constantly changing. Your physical fitness allows you to play the game how you want to. Your fitness allows you to make moves at your leisure.
Some last minute crit skills to practice are judging speed through corners and determining if you can pedal through them or not. Try bump drills with a friend or team mate. Practice riding in close proximity to other racers. Practice proper race lines around a course. Know when to make good safe maneuvers. Know when to let other racers work for you. If you have a local practice crit that all the racers go to, use that as real race practice. Test different methods of getting you or a team mate to the line first.
Lead Pack Cycling