Tips for a Successful Criterium
You don’t have to be the strongest rider in the pack to race well in a criterium and come away with a positive experience instead of a frustrating one.
You don’t have to be the strongest rider in the pack to race well in a criterium and come away with a positive experience instead of a frustrating one; you just have to be smart about where and how you expend your energy. One classic way of thinking about it is to imagine that each rider starts the race with a handful of matches. During the race, you’ll burn through your matches, and when they’re all gone, your day is done. To improve your results and increase your chances of winning, you want to be careful about your efforts so you don’t burn all your matches and get dropped before the final lap.
Many inexperienced racers believe it’s easiest to ride in the back and sit in the draft and out of the way, but this is actually the hardest way to ride a crit. This is where the greatest suffering occurs, as riders constantly brake and accelerate at each corner. Criteriums are hard for everyone, but there are ways to make them easier so you can get to the finish line with more energy and the power to have a strong finishing kick. Here are some tips for successfully racing crits:
Warm up well
Make sure you get to the race early enough to find parking, get registered and do a proper warm-up with enough time for bathroom breaks, stretching and pinning on you number. Having plenty of time often helps alleviate normal pre-race jitters and anxiety as well. You’ll want to execute the warm-up properly so you get to the line with your blood flow primed and your body ready to go hard from the start. Criteriums get to full speed in the first lap so you need to be ready to sprint off the line and get into a good position early. A typical warm-up consists of 30-60 minutes of riding, preferably on a trainer to keep you close to the car and the start, which includes efforts of gradually increasing intensity. Start by riding at endurance pace, then pick it up to time trial pace, do a few 3-5 minute intervals above your time trial or max sustainable pace, and throw in a few street sprints. Your goal is to prime each of your energy systems, get your heart rate up and initiate the body’s ability to buffer and process lactic acid.
Once you have the warm-up down and get to the start line, the fun is just beginning. The next and probably the most important thing to think about is proper positioning within the pack, and a good start is the first step to riding in a good position. Crits always start off fast so start in the big chain ring and be able to clip into your pedals quickly. This is such an important skill that it’s worth practicing all by itself so you can get a good position straightaway and don’t lose ground before you get to the first corner.
Stake out your place
The best place to race a crit is in the top third of the pack or even closer to the front if you can. If the race is a big group and you can’t tell how far back you are, try to count the number of riders in front of you. If you can’t do it quickly or you can’t count that high, then you’re too far back. Once you get to front part of the group you have to work to stay there. Riders are always moving around through the pack so if you get complacent you could find yourself at the back in a hurry and have to fight your way back up again. To keep that from happening, you always need to be moving up and filling any holes in front of you so you can maintain your position and stay out of the wind.
Keep your momentum
The primary reason you want to stay in the front of the pack is simply because it’s easier. While the riders in the front are accelerating out of a corner, the riders in the back are still braking into it, so the ones at the back have to work twice as hard to accelerate and chase the leaders out of each corner. Riders in the front don’t have to brake through the corners as much, which means they maintain a lot of their momentum and don’t have to accelerate as hard to get back to top speed. Over the course of a race, this saves a huge amount of energy. If you have to brake and sprint to get through every corner, you’ll fatigue very quickly and either get dropped or have nothing left for the sprint.
Now that you’ve successfully made it to the final 10 laps of the race, it’s important to start thinking about the last lap and final sprint. In most bike races there are actually two sprints: one for positioning and one for the finish line. You need to be ready to sprint twice if you want to win. Also take note as to how close the finish line is to the final corner, as the real race might be to the final corner if the space from the final corner to the finish line leaves no room for a real sprint. In these races, odds are that whoever gets to the final corner first will win. Most riders need 200 meters or so to pass someone in an all-out sprint so don’t wait too long to make your move. Sit on someone’s wheel as long as you can and take note as to which way the wind is coming from and pass on the leeward (away from the wind) side so you can take advantage of the draft as long as possible. When you decide to go, make it a 100% effort and go like hell to the end.
Oh, just one more thing. After you use these tips to put yourself in the perfect position to win your next criterium, even if you are 100% sure you’re going to win, don’t sit up and celebrate until you actually reach the finish line. There’s no worse way to lose a race than through premature celebration.
Katie Compton is a Pro Coach for Carmichael Training Systems, Inc. and a champion cyclist in just about every event. She won the 2004 and 2005 US Elite National Cyclocross Championships, she’s won several medals and set world records driving a tandem in Paralympic competitions, and she has been winning criteriums, road races, and mountain bike races for nearly 15 years. To find out what CTS can do for you, visit www.trainright.com.