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French and Italian racing favours the mountain goats while Belgians worship the conquerors of foul-weather and rough roads. But what about cycling in the United States? Perhaps it’s most fitting to characterise it as the land of criteriums. Entertainment, showmanship, danger and bravado in bite-size blocks of just an hour at a time; the American cycling fans love it and so do the racers. There are teams that exclusively race criteriums and riders can make a decent career as a crit racer.
One such racer is 31-year-old Erica Allar. Since starting on the track as a 15-year-old, Allar has long established herself as one of the top sprinters on the domestic circuit, winning two U23 national criterium jerseys and the National Criterium Calendar overall titles several times. Yet despite her lengthy racing career and matching palmares, the title of ‘best criterium racer in the country’ kept eluding her.
But in July, in the midst of perhaps her best season yet, Allar finally claimed that USA Cycling national criterium title, which is her third national title of the year. In April, Allar also won two collegiate national road titles while riding for Piedmont College, where she is working toward her graduate degree.
“This is my first elite national title and one that I’ve been trying to win for so many years now,” Allar told Ella CyclingTips. “I’ve been really close a few times but it’s never quite come together like it did this year. It’s definitely at the top of the list for career highlight. I will be so proud to wear that kit in every criterium for the next year. What an honour!”
A race to remember
The 2017 USA Cycling National Criterium Championship is one that Allar will relive for years to come.
Allar spent much of the race in a breakaway with Lauren Stephens (TIBCO-Silicon Valley Bank). The duo built a 40-second lead over the 55-rider field behind them, but a late crash opened up the door for an attack by Irena Ossola (SAS-MACOGEP), who quickly gained on the leaders.
— FloCycling (@flocyclingtv) July 2, 2017
“The entire race was a bit chaotic. Lauren is such a strong competitor, and I knew I would have to play the end perfect to beat her. I grew up racing the track and knew I have a pretty good jump. I ended up on the front for the last lap which wasn’t ideal but knew if I treated it like a track race I would have a great chance to win. I also expected Lauren to attack me and was watching for that,” Allar recounted.
But the duo’s cat-and-mouse game allowed for Ossola to make contact.
“In the final lap we went a bit too slow, honestly. We were rather close to getting caught by the field and when Irena came by. I was able to use Irena as a temporary teammate and when Lauren didn’t attack me or initiate the sprint, I knew I just needed to get the jump on them. I jumped into the second to last turn and opened up a decent gap right away and held on for the win.”
Becoming a crit specialist
Allar got her racing start on the track as a teenager. Her dad had started cycling to lose weight and then became interested in cycling as a sport. He passed that interest onto Allar.
Racing at the famous Trexlertown “T-town” Velodrome in Pennsylvania was fast, fun and world-class. And after a win or two, Allar was hooked. She won two U23 national criterium championships and multiple collegiate national track titles while attending Penn State University, and was the first person in her family to finish a four-year college degree.
Till this day, Allar attributes all her racing tactics and skills to her foundation in track cycling, but the road to becoming a professional cyclist in the US is, well, on the road.
“I became a sprint and crit specialist because I was good at it but it was almost out of necessity,” said Allar, who made her professional road racing debut in 2008.
“The US Crit scene has always been really great in offering lots of events and great prize money. They’re affordable — few travel days, relatively low entry fees — and since [Pro Road Tour crits are required] to offer women equal prize money, they became a staple.”
Over the years, Allar had racked up an impressive crit racing resume, but it didn’t come easily.
“Holding my line and position skills have always been pretty easy for me. The physical side of racing, the training, the effort, has been something that needed to be worked at. I am, generally speaking, a pretty strong person. I have natural physical strength and a decent athletic ability that carried me to a certain point in my career, but it took a long time for me to develop decent training habits to improve,” Allar shared.
This year, despite balancing school and racing, Allar seems to have mastered those training habits. In addition to the elite national criterium title, Allar won two collegiate titles, her third Tulsa Tough title since 2013 and had a tremendous showing at the North Star Grand Prix as well.
What’s more, at the five-day North Star Allar selflessly sacrificed her sprint jersey to help Rally teammate Emma White take home the yellow jersey.
“It’s easy to sacrifice yourself when you have such a strong and well-rounded team around you,” said Allar. “North Star is a huge race for our program as the team is based out of Minneapolis. It was really special to end the week with the yellow, the young rider, and the most aggressive rider jerseys, following a stage win and multiple podiums. This year our team is really dialled in and we have so many cards to play in any given race, that showed at North Star.”
— Erica Allar (@ericaallar) July 20, 2017
This year has been a bit of a breakout season for both the men’s and women’s programmes at Rally. The men’s team had a tremendous showing at the Tour of California where they bested some of the world’s top teams, while the women have had a dominating summer with eight national titles, wins at BC Superweek and the Cascade Cycling Classic.
“There was a lot of pressure on the guys’ team this year and they certainly stepped up by winning two stages at Tour of California,” acknowledged Allar. “Their results show how well rounded and cohesive their team is.”
“On the women’s side, it’s safe to say that we have a completely different team this year. The team added a lot of horse power and supplemented that horse power with some young talent,” Allar continued. “The core group of riders have really figured out everyone’s strengths and how to ride to those strengths. The younger or less experienced girls are getting a one-way ticket on the express jet to cycling experience and knowledge.
“I think it’s safe to say that Rally has figured out the balance between seasoned riders and development and how to get the most out of that type of roster,” added Allar. “We want to work as a team to win as many events as possible. We have tasted victory a lot this year and we like the way it tastes!”
Developing youngsters, on the bike and off
Winning an elite national title was a big dream for Allar. But now, with that box checked, she’s looking to future of women’s cycling as a whole, not just her own career.
“I would like to see continued growth in women’s cycling, and continue to be involved with the development of young up-and-comers,” Allar shared.
“In the past, I’ve talked about running a U23 women’s team since there is a huge discrepancy of riders near that age in the women’s peloton. There were 150 U23 men contesting the U23 national road race this year, but we are nowhere close to that number for women. Although we’re pretty lucky to have Emma White who happens to be the U23 Women’s TT and Road Race Champ on our team!”
Allar has a keen interest in developing youngsters, period. Off the bike, Allar is working towards a graduate degree in childhood education at Piedmont College.
“It took me a really long time to come to the realisation that I wanted to work with children. I have learned a lot during my time as a racer and I want to somehow bring that into the classroom. I was not always sure about how I would do that, but in the past couple of years, I constantly found myself coming back to the idea of teaching when thinking about my future after cycling,” Allar said.
“I didn’t want to get to a point where I was ready to leave the sport and not have something else lined up. I have read a lot about people retiring and feeling a bit lost or unsure of what to do with their life. I think it’s so important for kids to learn how to work hard and set goals. Particularly for young girls, I want them to know they can grow up and achieve really cool things.”