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Criteriums. They’re a staple of the local racing scene in Australia, the U.S., the UK and in many other places around the world. These frenetic races of roughly an hour are raced on the road but racing a ‘crit’ is very different to taking part in a road race.
The style of racing is different, the fitness requirements are different, and the tactics are different. The races are shorter, faster, more technical and, depending on who you ask, a lot more fun.
Here are a few things to keep in mind when you line up for your next crit:
The first 20 minutes of the race will be fast and furious with plenty of attacks and breakaway attempts. Rarely does the winning move come in these opening 20 minutes. In most cases the race doesn’t truly begin until the last half.
While everyone else is blowing themselves to bits in the first half of the race, sit in, conserve your energy, and wait for the action to really heat up.
Attack like you mean it. Sometimes a “soft attack” will work in road racing, but there’s rarely such a thing in crit racing. Since the pace is fast, you need to attack even faster. Don’t attack from 30 places down. By the time you hit the front of the peloton you’ll be tired out.
Never attack from the very front either — you want to be jumping from somewhere within the top 10 positions. And when you do make your move, see if you can enlist someone to come with you.
Avoid overlapping wheels
You are responsible for your front wheel. If someone in front of you changes their line and clips your front wheel, that’s your fault, not theirs.
When it comes time to corner — and you’ll be doing this a lot — hold your line and follow the wheel in front. Don’t let that wheel go — you can burn a lot of energy by accelerating out of corners to try and catch back on. And when the race involves more than a hundred corners, that’s a lot of wasted energy.
Get down low, weight the front wheel to get more traction, and glide through the corner in the slipstream.
Never, ever try to overtake through the corners on the inside! Always remember the motto: “Inside suicide”. Overtaking on the inside isn’t just unsafe, it will make you thoroughly unpopular in the bunch in no time at all.
Conserve your energy
In criteriums, as in all road racing events, energy conservation is the name of the game. Get to the closing kilometres with plenty in the tank and you’ll improve your chances of a great result.
Move up through the bunch or attack during the lulls. There’s no sense trying to gain places when the bunch is strung out at 50km/h. There’s further to go to move up and it takes more energy to do so.
Never take a pull at the front unless there’s good reason to do so. Sometimes there is (you’re in the race-winning breakaway); sometimes there isn’t (you’re just feeling strong – attack or wait for the sprint instead!)
Read the race
When you’re deciding whether to bridge up to a break, take a good look at who’s in it. Do those riders have a reputation for making a break stick? How many seconds ahead are they? Are the right combination of teams represented in the break (if you’re racing in a teams event)? How far into the race is the break? What is the body language of the rest of the peloton? Are the same riders doing all the work? Are they getting tired?
One of the biggest parts of reading a race is knowing your competitors.
Take a lap out
Remember, if you have a legitimate mechanical, crash, or puncture you’re allowed to make your way to the pit, get it fixed, and join back in. Often your first instinct is to chase back on. It’s within the rules to take a lap out. The commissaires have seen all the tricks, so make sure it’s legit or you’ll be forced to chase.
Stay at the front, but not on the front. In a hotdog crit, you want to be in the top 20. The further back you are on a tight circuit, the more pronounced the concertina effect is at the rear of the pack. In a fast flowing crit it’s good to stay in the top third of the bunch. Remember, if you’re not constantly moving forwards, you’re moving backwards.
Bear in mind that it’s easy to get boxed in when you’re hiding from the wind. Place yourself at the edges of the group so you can move up easily at the opportune time (preferably the downwind side). Placing yourself at the edges also allows you to catch a free ride as riders come past and move up in the bunch.
So you’ve been on the attack all day and you’ve finally made the move that’s stuck. Now what? It’s not a matter of going as hard as you can. You have to know how to manage the gap, if you need to attack again, when to put in a soft attack, when to counter-attack, when to sit in, when to take a pull, and when to give up.
To learn more, take a look at these breakaway strategies.
Quite often the final sprint isn’t to the finish line — it’s to the final corner. Most crits will have a corner roughly 200-300m from the finish line. If you don’t come into that corner positioned properly you’ll have no chance of winning the sprint.
The optimal position depends on the distance from the corner to the finish line – the closer the corner to the finish, the closer you should be to the front. It could be top 3-5 (e.g. Port Melbourne where the corner is 150m from the finish); it could be top 15 (e.g. Sandown, 250m).
Crashes rarely come from the top 10 riders entering the final corner. They almost always come from the riders in 25th wheel who think they still have a chance at winning.
So there we are — the golden rules when it comes to crit racing. Now get out there, get racing, and enjoy yourself!