Preview: USA CRITS heads to Winston-Salem’s unique figure-eight course
A figure-8 criterium course? Yep.
The Winston-Salem Cycling Classic is one of the toughest courses on the USA CRITS calendar thanks to a unique layout that uses an overpass to wrap the course over itself. That overpass adds 24 metres (78 feet) of climbing per lap. A pure power rider isn’t necessarily suited to victory; nor is a climber. The winner of Winston-Salem has to be strong everywhere.
Held over Memorial Day weekend, the USA CRITS race in Winston-Salem serves as a difficult hors-d’oeuvre to the UCI 1.1 Winston-Salem Cycling Classic road race on Monday, May 28.
It’s a young race, just six years old. It was started by Dr. Richard Rauck, who tapped into the American lawn-party vibe that sweeps the U.S. on Memorial Day, creating a music festival in downtown Winston-Salem for the community to attend. The festival takes place at the park in the middle of the course, encouraging people to come to historic downtown Winston-Salem and enjoy a fast and furious Saturday night.
Winston-Salem is no flat four-corner, power rider’s criterium course. The eight-corner loop is 1.44 kilometers long and features an overpass, making it into a figure-eight with 78 feet of climbing per lap. That doesn’t seem like a lot, but over the span of a full-throttle criterium, it begins to burn the legs.
Each lap begins by dropping down from the start/finish line and circumnavigating Bailey Park, where the music festival will take place. The loud and energy-filled festival will get the riders’ adrenaline pumping for the climb ahead. The climb tops out about halfway through the course, ramping up to a gradient of about 5%. It is the perfect launch pad for attacks.
The course’s high point sits atop the overpass. Riders then drop down to the finish, hitting high speeds and navigating a sweeping bend coming into the finishing straight. Positioning is key at the top of the climb. If a rider is not in the top-five at that point, their chances of victory are slim.
However, the race is not a guaranteed sprint finish; it’s often won out of a small breakaway off of the top of the climb, or by a solo rider. A rider must not only be able to climb, but show great bike handling skills as well, as the loop drops off the climb and reaches high speeds down to the finish line.
Due to the UCI road race held two days later in Winston-Salem, the pro men and pro women criterium races see incredibly strong fields filled with riders not normally seen on the U.S. criterium scene. Both pro races will have over 100 riders on the start line.
Rally Cycling will be fielding a full six-rider pro men’s squad in Winston-Salem. Last year’s winner, Ty Magner, will be on the start line and will have perennial sprinter and former U.S criterium national champion Brad Huff by his side. Huff’s wheel will be watched closely, and his depth of criterium experience will suit him well when the peloton dives off the bridge and down to the finish. Magner won Winston-Salem solo last year.
After winning the USA CRITS opening race at Athens Twilight, John Murphy (Holowesko-Citadel) holds the Colavita leader’s jersey and looks to only be getting better. He is coming into fine form after going head-to-head against the likes of WorldTour sprinters Fernando Gaviria, Caleb Ewan, and Marcel Kittel at the recent Amgen Tour of California. He finished fifth on Stage 5 and was the first non-WorldTour rider on the day.
Notable absences from the men’s race will be Bryan Gomez (Holowesko-Citadel) and Daniel Holloway (Texas Roadhouse). They finished second and fifth respectively at Athens Twilight.
On the women’s side, the field will be competitive. There’s also a bit of off-bike intrigue: ISCorp became a USA CRITS D1 team since the opening race at Athens Twilight. That’s the team of Athens Twilight winner Sam Schneider, and it gives Schneider the opportunity to contend for the Colavita leader’s jersey.
Schneider dominated USA CRITS Speed Week a month ago, winning all four races. She will have the support from her strong team and U25 JL Velo Best Young Rider leader Caroline Baur. Schneider’s younger sister Skylar will also be in Winston-Salem. Skylar is an incredibly strong sprinter herself and at just 19-years-old is riding for the Boels-Dolmans WorldTour squad. She is guest riding with ISCorp in Winston-Salem.
Current pro women’s series leader Harriet Owen has moved squads from METEOR-Intelligentsia to Hagens Berman-Supermint. However, she will not be on the start line in Winston-Salem after breaking her collarbone at the Amgen Tour of California last week.
Astana Women’s Team will be ready to go on Saturday after getting a huge confidence boost in California. Cuban Arlenis Sierra won the final stage circuit race around downtown Sacramento with a blistering fast final sprint.
Why Winston-Salem matters
The U.S. criterium season is getting ready to head into the summer season when the races are more frequent and just a bit more harder and faster, with everyone coming into form and the season wears on. Athens Twilight is a month old, so teams and riders have had time to tweak their form and adjust their race plans accordingly.
The international and deep fields in Winston-Salem also offer a chance for riders to get a breakout win. The highly-rated UCI road race two days after the criterium plays into the hands of the U.S. criterium squads. The bigger teams and riders may not put everything on the line on Saturday for fear of going too deep in the race or even worse crashing.
For those not in Winston-Salem, the criterium and road race can be viewed live on usacrits.tv on Saturday, May 26, and Monday, May 28.