USA CRITS season preview: Criterium racing, American style

by Michael Better


Elbows out. Bicycle bumper cars. Leaning on your best friend and your worst enemy at 50 kilometers per hour in a ninety-degree corner. Breakaways and crashes and leadouts and sprints. Post-ups, arms up, the smiles of victory and drooped shoulders of defeat.

It’s bike racing at its finest, the American crit scene. It’s a bit nutty, more than a little dangerous, and huge amounts of fun.

A criterium in the United States is not a Belgian kermesse. The courses are usually a kilometer or two in length, held in the center of cities across the country. They often happen at night, under the lights. Speeds are high, tactics nuanced, and beer prevalent — during the race for the fans and after the race for the riders.

The U.S. criterium scene is quite like the post-Tour de France criteriums in Holland and Belgium — except for one thing — the racing is real.

Creating Sustainability

The premier criterium calendar in America is USA CRITS, the brainchild of Gene Dixon, arguably the godfather of American criterium racing.

Dixon’s entry into the sport of cycling and race organization began in 1980 with the Athens Twilight Criterium. The downtown area of the picturesque Georgian city was struggling, despite the presence of a large university. Dixon hypothesized that holding a criterium in the middle of the city would draw people from all areas to downtown restaurants.

Today, 38 years later, the Athens Twilight is largely viewed as the marquee criterium in the U.S. by virtue of the 30,000 fans that pack downtown Athens on the evening of the race, and also by the prestige a victory there has among the riders. The race has served as inspiration for twilight criteriums throughout the U.S. Ten of the 11 2018 USA CRITS events occur under lights.

Dixon launched USA CRITS in 2006.  The name is capitalized as it was originally an acronym for “Criterium Racing In The States.” Today, the tagline for the series is, appropriately, “American Street Track Racing.”

For 2018, 19 teams (10 women’s teams, nine men’s) have bought-in to the USA CRITS series—all dubbed D1 Teams. (The D1 designation has no relation to the old UCI tier system, which called WorldTour teams D1 teams.)

The buy-in for teams means their fee covers race registrations and also puts the teams in a position to be eligible for commission on paid USACRITS.TV subscriptions. To help bring fans closer to the action, Dixon and his team have introduced the channel for live streaming coverage for all their events. A subscription includes all 11 of the USA CRITS races, plus a few extra American criteriums and road races. All in all, subscribers get 20 plus days of live event coverage.

A yearly subscription costs $55 USD ($72 AUD) or a monthly subscription is available for $5.99 USD ($8 AUD). There is also a one-time use option that costs $15 USD ($20 AUD).

Video: 2018 Athens Twilight Criterium preview

The Series

Entering its 12th year, USA CRITS has expanded to 11 races, spanning the country, from coast to coast.

D1 Teams will compete from April to September for a piece of the $50,000 USD ($65,000 AUD) series overall prize purse for both the pro men and pro women. Every individual race also has an equal prize purse for the pro categories.

The overall winner of the series for the pro men and women is based on points. A rider receives 50 points for starting an event and one point for each lap led. There are also three mid-race point sprints. The point sprints occur at five laps in, mid-race, and five laps to go. The mid-race sprint is unknown at the start of the race since all of the USA CRITS’ pro races are timed events. Riders receive the bulk of points at the finish, with the winner receiving 200 points and the points slowly decreasing from there.

The most sought-after jersey is the orange Colvita Overall Leader’s jersey, which is worn by the rider with the greatest amount of points. The blue CyclingTips Lap Leader jersey presented by BikeReg is for the rider who has led the most number of laps in the series. Finally, the grey JL Velo Best Young Rider jersey is for the highest placed under-25 rider in the overall standings.

In addition to the three jerseys, riders will also be competing for the FSA Fastest Lap award. Points are awarded at every race for the five fastest laps (5, 4, 3, 2, 1, respectively). The rider with the most points at the end of the series takes home the FSA Fastest Lap prize. Fastest-lap points are not factored into the series overall standings.

Stacked fields across the calendar are expected, since non-D1 teams and riders are still eligible to take part in the series. This is where the Bandit award comes in. The Bandit award goes to the highest placed rider in the overall points standings who is not part of a D1 Team. While it is possible for a non-D1 Team rider to win the overall series, it’s very unlikely.

Athens Twilight kicks off the USA CRITS series on April 28, with the series finale occurring in Atlantic City on September 15.

Interview with Gene Dixon and USA CRITS announcer Frankie Andreu (at 54min mark)

The Players: Men

On the men’s side, there’s the powerhouse Holowesko-Citadel Pro Continental team pitted against several elite amateur teams, but those amateur teams are stacked with talent.

Holowesko-Citadel has several riders capable of winning a USA CRITS event and it remains to be seen which riders they’ll  bring to the races. Judging by results at Sunny King Criterium a few weeks ago, Holowesko-Citadel will be incredibly hard to beat; they swept the podium and took sixth place as well. Teammates Bryan Gomez and Brendan Rhim lapped the field during the race. Gomez and his teammates could very well run away with the series, but a few riders are looking to spoil the party.

Just a few years ago, Daniel “Hollywood” Holloway (Texas Roadhouse) was the king of criterium racing after he won back-to-back Athens Twilight titles in 2014 and 2015. Holloway has been transitioning to the boards over the last couple of years and raced a full Track World Cup schedule this past winter, winning the Omnium at the World Cup stop in Chile.

Holloway’s schedule gets a bit complicated when summer hits and he has track obligations to deal with, but expect him to come out swinging at the opening race in Athens.

Danny Summerhill, a teammate of Holloway’s, also raced on the track this past winter and looked to have good form entering the season. However, he suffered a recent broken collarbone and will miss the opening race in Athens.

Ryan Aitcheson (Levine Law Group) is Mr. Consistent, always seeming to find his way into the top 10. He’s also a former winner at Athens Twilight, winning in 2016, and will be looking to get back to the top step this year.

A team to watch for on the men’s side is Aevolo. The under-23 development UCI Continental team run by Michael Creed is full of energy. Young riders tend to be more animated when racing, a mix of youthful exuberance and inexperience. Expect Aevolo to race aggressively, especially Michael Hernandez. The 21-year-old finished second at the under-23 U.S. criterium national championships and has shown himself impressively when racing amongst the elites.

The Players: Women

There is no shortage of depth in the women’s peloton with a multitude of riders and teams capable of winning. A team with the sheer dominance Holowesko-Citadel poses is nonexistent on the women’s side, which should make for exciting racing,

Last year’s overall winner, Tiffany Pezzulo (LA Sweat), is back and coming into her title defense with a team-first mentality. If a teammate wins, she sees it as a win for her as well. Pezzulo is actually a two-time overall USA CRITS champion with her first title coming in 2014. She has been around the U.S. criterium block once or twice, so she’s no stranger to any of the courses in the series.

Hagens Berman-Supermint has no shortage of sprinting power in Peta Mullens. The Aussie won Athens Twilight last year and is a consistent podium finisher. She’s tough to beat in any sprint, and with the emergence of Lily Williams, Hagens Berman-Supermint has many cards to play. Williams isn’t too shabby in a sprint herself and she has shown great form early this year, despite coming off of a tough cyclocross campaign.

The women’s criterium peloton wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Tina Pic. Pic’s palmares is a mile long and she knows every race on the calendar like the back of her hand. Despite her racing of 52, she can never be counted out. Experience pays dividends on the criterium scene, and Pic has loads of it.

Pic even convinced longtime cycling sponsor Colavita to return to the sport. At the end of 2017, Colavita said they were out and done sponsoring a cycling team, but a little coaxing from Pic pulled them back in and Colavita is now sponsoring the orange leader’s jersey.

Other riders to watch in the women’s peloton include Samantha Schneider (ISCorp), Erica Allar (Rally) and Laura Van Gilder (Mellow Mushroom) though none of those riders ride for a D1 Team.

CyclingTips is the official media partner of the 2018 USA CRITS series. Race coverage of the series will include pre- and post-race stories on each event and feature stories on each D1 Team.

2018 USA CRITS Schedule

April 28: Athens Twilight – Athens, Georgia
May 26: Winston Salem Classic Criterium – Winston Salem, North Carolina
June 1: Oklahoma City Pro-Am Classic Midtown – Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
June 17: Harlem Skyscraper Classic – New York City
July 6: New American Town Criterium – Bentonville, Arkansas
July 14: Andersen Schwartzman Woodard Brailsford Twilight Criterium – Boise, Idaho
July 28: San Rafael Sunset Criterium – San Rafael, California
August 4: Littleton Twilight Criterium – Littleton, Colorado
August 11: Benchmark Twilight Cycling Classic – West Chester, Pennsylvania
September 2: Giro della Montagna (Gateway Cup) – St. Louis, Missouri
September 15: Atlantic City Resurgence Fest Criterium – Atlantic City, New Jersey

D1 Men’s Teams

Aevolo
ButcherBox
Clif Bar
First Internet Bank
Holowesko-Citadel p/b Arapahoe Resources
Levine Law Group p/b Huseby.com
Palmetto State Medical
Support Clean Sport/SeaSucker/Guttenplan Coaching
Texas Roadhouse

D1 Women’s Teams

Colavita-Bialetti
Feed Hungry Kids Project
Gray Goat Mobile/Bullseye Total Media
Hagens Berman-Supermint
LA Sweat
Levine Law Group p/b Huesby.com
QCW Women’s Cycling p/b Breakaway-JL Velo
Rise Racing
The METEOR-Intelligentsia
Wolfpack p/b Hyperthreads

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