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The criterium bike race is one of the most exciting formats of bike racing. I believe American crit races are unique and can really help any bike racer with bike racing skills. Although they do race “crits” in Europe, they are more of a race for points. Crits aren’t for the faint at heart and some courses can be just a bit dangerous, if not raced properly. The speeds are fast, the cornering can be tight, and the racing is shoulder to shoulder. The format is good for spectators to watch, because it is a closed course and the peloton passes by several times. American crits have races within the race, called primes. Prime laps are a way for the promoter to make the race a bit more interesting, and to add to the drama on the road. Criterium racing has its own set of dynamics that can be, but not always, the same as in a point A to point B road racing.
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
First things first, there isn’t an easy way to race a crit. The dynamics are completely different than a road race. Sure many of the same tactics apply, but the attacks come often. I compare a good criterium to chess. While a road race is a chess match, a crit is like playing chess master on the hardest level. The numbers game is played; you can divide the race into segments where you do or do not use specific moves. I would like to give a few pointers I have picked up on and studied from various sources over the years.
First rule of thumb starts before the whistle is even blown. Warm up on a stationary trainer. You may be able to get away without warming up as a cat 4, but I can’t see it happening as you go beyond cat 3. Get to the line early. You want to have good position before the race starts. Unless you are a pro tour racer then starting from the back isn’t the best idea. You want to practice clipping in on the fly. You may say I know how to clip in and out, but when in a crit the speed you need to do it is amplified.
So now we are under way and here is where it is hard to coach exactly what to do. You start running into, if this happens in this minute and if this guy does this, then you do that. So we will start with riding solo or without a team. Your best option when riding solo is to sit in the pack for most all of the race. Then hope and pray it stays together and sprint at the end. Maybe sit in the race until 30-40 minutes have passed and then go with the “late” break. I should it is not easy to break away in any race and stay away for 30 minutes. You need to judge how many laps you can go all out, and how long you will need to pull up before another hard effort. If you know the race should stay together, than sit in and go for the win.
Now your team is with you! What do you do now? First, a team meeting should be held. I know a good plan is better than anything and it really equates to your team’s fitness. If you have a full “squad” of guys/gals, and all of you are in top form then send folks after all the breaks. Be represented in everything, that tactic tells the other teams that you mean business. Save your guy that you want to win for the last 20 minute segment of the race. If your team misses a late break or is out matched in a break, still move to the front and wait to see how the break pans out. You can block and pretend at this point. As soon as guys start to go around you, send someone on their wheel. Remember the odds may change in the break at that point. There is nothing worse than to have a guy in the break and then getting caught sleeping on a big move by a strong team. Let’s say that the break is getting reeled in; be at the front to attack as soon as the break is pulled in. Ah ha, you thought we were done, but no, we have another one. Eventually, someone might give up and let your team control the race. The last 5 last are a no holds bar, slug out, drag out, war. The team should be organized and packed in together near the front. No riders should be sitting in the middle of the pack waiting. A certain number of riders are assigned to reel in any late breaks that may go up the road, or to create your own late break, if that is the plan. If your team has numbers, then a little train can be set up on opposite side of the road as the last turn. Let’s say it ends in a right hand turn to a sprint, than set up more left. Each rider needs to pull for the predetermined, specified amount of time. 1 lap, 2 laps, 5k, or whatever, just know how it is set up and really should be practiced millions of times over. All of that should predetermined or at least talked about. All that really is being said here is to not get the team trapped in the last corner and have numbers at the front to pull your guy to the line. That all riders sacrifice a bit from time to time, no one rider can just do whatever, and everyone must be on the same page of the same book.
Head Coach –The Lead Pack Cycling Group
I see so many cyclists in and around my category, not “specializing” their training. They endurance train when all they have is crits on their plans, or the speed train when the big race is a 80 mile road race. USA cycling has even set crit racing aside as a “special” format that “takes an entirely different skill set”. So why not train with these skill sets? If you are a cyclist that is planning a two peak season here is how I would plan for it.
Let’s say your first A priority race is the criterium championships and the second part of your season is based on the road racing championship. We know crits are based on speed, muscular endurance, cornering, and power technical riding. We also know that road racing is based on endurance, short burst of power, and speed over long amounts of time. With these facts being stated, coming out of your base training you would start to focus on speed intervals and power work outs. This is all assuming your limiters are truly limiting factors. You would still have an endurance day or two in your plan, but you wouldn’t need a crazy amount of endurance training. Later, after your transition phase, you would start with more endurance training 3-4 days, but adding micro intervals of your limiting factors in at times during some of the workouts. An endurance workout during that phase might look like 40 minutes top of zone 3 followed by 5-10 minutes at middle of 4 up to 5, and followed by 20 minutes back to the top of 3.
Keeping this all in mind there is always a balance between speed and endurance training. Both types of racing need both factors, but you just need more of one during each type of racing. Have a coach plan or plan your seasons so that you’re in peak form for the type of race you want to win. Don’t get caught in a criterium with plenty of bike time and no “pop”, or in a road race with tons of speed and little endurance.
The Lead Pack Cycling Group