What to expect at a Criterium

by Vanessa Buccella

No matter what kind of racing they are doing now, every rider has had a FIRST RACE, in this case we are talking about a criterium.  They might not even remember it but they did.  Even the mighty Evelyn  Stevens  or Marainne Vos pulled up to the start line for the first time at some time.

That is one thing to remember during your first race, that it is a FIRST.  It doesn’t have to be your last just because you didn’t win or worse,  got dropped off the back and rode around in a circle by yourself for a half hour.  However I want to share what i have learned through teammates, coaches and my  meager experience  so that you, dear reader, can have a better early race career than me.

(PS My friend Kelly Clarke wrote about her first race experience on Pretty-fast.org.  It happened to be at the Gapers Block Crits, a series of races for beginners and a great place for your first race.)

First, what is a Criterium? What should you wear? What bike do you ride?

We are talking about criteriums because they are the the most popular type of road race in the United States.  I think the hive mind behind wikipedia can describe them better than me:

“A criterium or crit, is a bike race held on a short course (usually about a mile), run on closed-off city center streets. Race length can be determined by a number of laps or total time, in which case the number of remaining laps is calculated as the race progresses. The winner is the first rider to cross the finish line without having been “lapped.””

Does that make sense?  Basically you go around in circles and the first person to cross the line (who did all the laps) wins! Yay. Maybe it will be you!

If you have ever been on a group ride you know sort of what to expect in terms of bikes and clothing.  BUT just in case, please expect the following: Fancy Road Bikes and SPANDEX.  More spandex than you ever saw your high school dance squad wear.  The spandex uniforms are called KITS.  If you are a commuter, and don’t have the lycra shorts and fancy jersey, don’t worry.  Give it a shot in what you got.

Crits are raced on road bikes OR in some instances a cyclocross bike with slick tires.  You can bring a hybrid and race that, but MOST LIKELY it wouldn’t be a lot of fun. Track bikes aren’t allowed.  And a single speed, probably also would not be fun.  Gears are a good thing to have in a road bike race.

As for clothes, yes! wear them.  The tight fitting jersey and shorts with the diaper pad in the crotch (the chamois) are what people will be wearing.  You may think it looks silly or awkward at first, or it shows too many lady lumps, and you may try to wear other shorts over it, but you will soon doff them and learn to be one with the spandex.  Also bike shorts are designed to be worn withOUT undies.

OK! You have your clothes on (thank-god) and your fancy (or not so fancy) road bike. NOW It’s time for the RACE!

1. Pre-Ride/Warm Up

Get to the race early, especially if it’s your first race ever! Before warming up take a few laps around the course (so long as there isn’t another race going on). Get a feel for all of the corners.  Find the best line through the corners at each’s  APEX. ( I <3 Wikipedia, don’t you?)

Do a nice warm-up.  There are plenty that you can hunt down on the Internet but here is one that works and is easy-to-understand, brought to you by the multi-faceted mom/racer/cycling coach,  Kristen Meshberg :

(Remember that warm up varies from person to person. Some people need more or less but here’s a good place to start):

10 Minutes of easy Spinning to get loose and get your heart rate up.
20 minutes tempo -NOT all out but not easy, breathing heavy still can kind of talk.
5  minutes easy spinning
5-10 minutes ALL OUT really get your heart rate up
Couple of sprints:  hard accelerations for about 15  seconds with 1 minute rest in between.

After that you should be good to go. Ride around easy until it’s time to go to the line.

You may think that is a long warm up, but a crit is a short race.  This means it will be fast, and the faster the race the longer a warm up you need.  Also it’s likely to be faster the first few laps then settle in a bit, and if you aren’t warmed up, you will burn out quickly.

 2. Getting to the Start Line: Know the time your race is to start and get to the start line, early.  You don’t want to be at the back of the pack.  When the fields are bigger this is more important.   But no matter how small the field,  you need to be near the front.  So start there.  Make sure you are in your big chain ring.  Keep yourself warmed up but calmed down. Think positive thoughts. OH and get 1 foot clipped into the pedal on your preferred side.   This is a good thing to practice too.  Clipping in that is.  It can really eff you up at the start of a race if you don’t get clipped in correctly.

3.  The Race Start: My LEAST favorite part of the race is right before the start. You are standing there with your bike, and in my case NERVOUS.  The Chief Referee will go over any instructions and tell you about prizes and primes (pronounced preems,  they are intermediate lap prizes). Then Chief Referee will  get out of the way and say “Riders Ready?”.  Everyone gets their hands on their hoods and braces for the whistle.  Then “toot”, and you’re off.  It’s not going to be a sprint off the line.  When the race starts, don’t jump off the line to be in the front and doing all the work, UNLESS that is a team tactic you are employing.  Just settle in, remember to breathe  and think about the first corner. The first few laps may be fast and really shake things up. If you aren’t prepared (read warmed up!) you will get dropped off of the back of the pack.

4. Corners! Learn how to CORNER – A crit isn’t a crit without corners.  So learn to corner. Don’t brake while you are cornering. Flutter the brakes a little BEFORE the corner, but don’t slam on them.  Lean into the corner with your inside knee up and your outside knee straight.  Put your bike into an easier gear BEFORE the corner so you can get up to speed quickly on the way out.  You can always switch into a higher gear. Cornering well takes a lot of practice. Don’t expect to be a pro from the start.

Here’s the deal with corners.  There is an accordion effect at corners during a bike race. The front of the pack has no one in front of them and therefore do not need to brake much through the corner. As you move to the back of the pack, it gets slower because more people have to slow down MORE.  The first few women around the corner brake a tiny bit, but that amount of braking gets larger as you move to the back of the pack. Then, everyone sprints out of the corner. If you are in the back and really have to slow down to avoid hitting the gal in front of you, you are going to have to give it all your gas just to catch back on to the pack. That’s going to tire you out quickly. So learn to corner. If you find yourself really enjoying racing, make corning practice part of your training. Find a good piece of road or an empty parking lot and practice it.

5. DURING THE RACE: Taking turns in the rotation –  During the race, each rider is expected to do a little work at the front of the pack.  But don’t be a dummy and do ALL THE WORK. Don’t be like me at the 2010 Spring Super Criterium where I stayed at the front of my little chase group doing all the work. Then when the last lap came, the speed surged and I was DROPPED like a bad habit.  Don’t do that. Take your pull then wag your elbow when you want to move to the back of the rotation.

As much as possible keep in the top 5-10 riders.  If you wind up in the back, you will do more work because of that accordion effect.  BE BOLD about holding your position. Other riders may try to encroach on the awesome wheel you have of that strapping strong woman in front of you but don’t let them.  Talk to them. Say buzz off, but nicely.  If it’s a bigger field, staying in the top ten riders is going to be hard, just try to stay in the front half of the pack.  Your position in the pack will change constantly, unless you  are super strong. Women will constantly be moving up around you.

6. Getting DROPPED: how to avoid it, what do do when it happens.

At some point, you may get dropped. Getting dropped means that you can’t keep the BLISTERING pace of the other women racing and as they pull ahead, you just can’t keep up.

Here are a couple of ways to NOT get dropped:

PUT IN A BIG EFFORT to  stay with the pack if you see them moving away from you.  REMEMBER it only takes only a few seconds to get dropped. BE PREPARED AND ALERT to the pack moving away.  AND NEVER EVER think (like i have done MANY A TIME) that “OH this is just a surge, they will probably slow down and i will catch them”.  THAT will not happen. This is not a group ride.   It will be hard work, but once you are back into the fold of the pack,  you WILL NOT be doing as much work. Remember if you are on someone’s wheel, you are doing about 30% less work than by yourself.  If you are riding in the middle of a large group you are doing even less work.  Make the effort to stay in the pack.

Watch for Gaps Forming in front of the woman in front of you. It may not be you that gets dropped.  It might be the woman in front of you who is fatiguing. Ask her, “hey Lady, are you going to make it?”   Or just say, On your left or on your right (usually left) and go around her to get back on the pack. When you do move around someone, always be aware of folks behind you when you move out of your line to pass someone.  You don’t want to move to the left or right during a race without looking to see if you are going to cut someone off.  It’s a lot like passing someone on the highway.

IF YOU DO GET DROPPED remember it HAPPENS.  Very often. Most likely you aren’t the only woman in this race that got dropped.  Try to remember how long you stayed with the pack, and each race try to stay with the pack longer.  If you  get dropped, don’t get down on yourself.  Ride your own race.  You paid your fee, stay in the race and get a good workout in.

Also look for women ahead or behind you who’ve also gotten dropped. Try to catch that woman in front of you and work together. Many times, several of you will get dropped around the same time.  Work together just like when you were in the pack. This is called a chase group.  If you work together you may be able to chase back up to the pack. If you don’t catch back up to the pack, race your own race in that group.  See if you can out-sprint the women in that little group.

If you get lapped (the first group has gone around the course and caught up to you) be very AWARE of them. Slow down a bit and let them pass on the Left or right, whichever they call out.  If you like, you can catch back on when they pass you and try to stay with them (this is actually good practice).   JUST DO NOT sprint with them at the end of the race.  Don’t get in the way of their sprint. Remember you are still behind them 1 Lap.

 7. Now it’s time for the FINISH.
I haven’t ever won a race.  I know, I know. HOW AM I EVEN QUALIFIED TO WRITE THIS ARTICLE? (You will notice that the largest section of this how-to is about getting dropped).  That said, I have landed on the podium a few times and had some top tens. SO let me tell you how I finish a race during those times where I felt my pride surge as I crossed the line.  (And oh does it surge!)

  1. The last few laps, get ready for the pace to increase. Everyone starts turning on the gas. DON’T GET DROPPED NOW – You have held on this long. It’s almost over. GIVE IT ALL YOU GOT TO STAY WITH THE PACK and at the front even!

  2. Stay near the front. It bares repeating. You have to be bold. Hold your position. Don’t back down.

  3. On the last lap go all OUT.  Stay at the front. CONCENTRATE CONCENTRATE. Remember you might feel like you are about to die, BUT it’s only gonna be for like TWO minutes.  Just hang in there.  Stay on a good wheel.  Hopefully you have  a teammate and she can try to lead you out for the final sprint. Just pay attention and don’t BACK DOWN.

  4. Often a crit finishes with a Final SPRINT.  During the sprint (the last few hundred meters of the race) pay attention to the riders in front of you.  They may have gone off too early and get tired out down. You don’t want to be on the wheel of someone who sprints too soon.  Time your sprint so that you can give it FULL GAS long enough to get across the line. Getting it right  will take practice and 5. THEN – ONCE you cross the finish line HOLD YOUR LINE, don’t brake suddenly. Pay attention to those around you.  Hopefully you have a good idea of where you placed!  Here’s a good video about sprinting.

  5. As soon as the race results are up CHECK THEM!!  A lot of newer racers don’t check the results and get scored incorrectly. Often this has a POSITIVE effect for them, as they were lapped but were scored as if they weren’t.  But you could be scored LOWER than you were. You have 15 minutes to review the results after they are posted, before they are final.  Cool Down a bit, then check your results.

This all applies whether you are at the front of the race, or at the very back. In 2011, at the Gapers Block Crits, I SPRINTED so I wouldn’t get last.  Always go all out. Why the hell else are you out there?

OK THIS IS A LONG article. There’s a lot to remember.  The best thing (IMHO) is to make like Nike and Just Do It.  Keep this stuff in mind, and race your bike.  A Lot.  Especially race cheap practice races. Then, when you have a little experience, you will be like, dang, Vanessa was sorta right, but it’s not HALF as hard as she made it out to be. What a WUSS!

For more advice from a much more seasoned racer,  check out Luke Seeman’s,  33 bike racing tips. There are also TONS of in depth guides at http://cycle-smart.com/knowledge-center.  Then, next winter take all the classes with PWP for a perfect off-season training regimen.  Soon you will be racing for the Rabobank-Liv team!

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