Fast sprints, technical turns, punchy accelerations, and pure power from the last turn to the finish. Welcome to criterium racing! Crits are thrilling events for spectators and athletes, and a mainstay of competitive cycling in the United States. Having fun and being competitive in criteriums requires a mix of fitness, skill, and savviness. Entering a criterium is easy; winning is another story. Whether you are aiming for your first victory or you’ve been racing for years, here’s a guide to race-winning strategies for criteriums.
What is a Criterium?
A criterium is multi-lap road race held on relatively short course (typically .6-1.5 miles per lap). Racers compete in separate categories based on age group and/or competitive level. For USA Cycling races, categories begin at Category 5 (beginners) and progress to Category 1 (elite) and professionals. Races can be measured by distance or duration, or a combination of both. For instance, a race could be a set 40 laps or 40 minutes, or 40 minutes plus 5 laps. Beginner races may last 20-25 minutes, whereas elite/pro races can last nearly two hours.
Criteriums courses are characteristically technical. The races are often held in commercial districts, downtown areas, and business parks. As a result, they feature 4-8 corners of varying width and tightness, and may include steep hills and descents.
Although these mass-start races are won by the first rider across the finish line, there are often additional competitions within the race. ‘Primes’ are intermediate sprints for cash and merchandise prizes that can be announced at any time during the race. Racing for primes can be profitable, but riders must be careful not to burn so much energy competing for primes that they lose the overall race.
What makes Criteriums so challenging (and fun)?
Now you may be reading this and thinking that 30-40 minutes seems short for a bike race. And 1-2 hours might seem short for elite and pro riders. However, the shorter duration lead to intense racing. Speeds are generally higher than for longer road races, and the technical corners mean repeated accelerations and sprints.
Average power outputs for criteriums may not be very high, but normalized power (a weighted average that de-emphasizes periods of coasting and light spinning) may be quite high. Even more characteristically, criterium power files feature repeated spikes and troughs as riders coast through corners and pedal hard to accelerate out of them.
Criteriums also require intense focus and concentration. Racing on a tight course, taking high-speed corners side-by-side with 30-100 other racers means you must pay attention to pacing, braking, and proximity to other riders, as well as thinking about race tactics.
Although this article is not focused on the workouts for criterium racing, training for these events must emphasize the development of an athlete’s anaerobic capacity, as well as power at FTP. Both of these must be built upon a strong foundation aerobic endurance. Finally, sprint workouts are necessary for honing an athlete’s explosive accelerations.
What does it take to win a Criterium?
There is no perfect formula for winning a criterium, or any race. If there were, racing wouldn’t be much fun. There are aspects of racing that can increase your chances of winning, but there is no magical tactic that says, “If you do X with 3.5 laps to go, you will definitely win.” To win you must initiate and respond to the tactics from other competitors, in real time, based on practice and previous experience.
What does it take to win a criterium?
Attitude makes a big difference in criterium racing, perhaps even more than in other disciplines.
When racers are confident they can race relaxed, with less anxiety, and with a less busy brain. As a result, they can focus on racing rather than just riding to the finish line.
One of the biggest shifts in criterium performance comes once a racer realizes they have the fitness and skill to reliably reach the finish line. When keeping up with the pack is no longer in question, a whole new world opens up. You can go from participant to racer, from pack fodder to contender.
Criterium racers do not need to be (and shouldn’t be) reckless or adrenaline junkies. There are some inherent risks to racing side by side with dozens of other racers on a tight course, which is why riders must have confidence in their handling skills. Crashes happen, but risk tolerance must extend beyond the risk of crashing.
Success in criterium racing requires a somewhat “send it” or “if not now, when?” mindset. You don’t want to be reckless, but you can’t be timid, either. You must be confident enough to move up through a tight space between two riders, and have the judgement to determine whether there’s enough room to do so safely. When the racing gets intense, you must be willing to defend your position in the peloton as riders around you attempt to move up past you.
Your power output numbers may provide confidence that you have the fitness to be competitive in a criterium, but power alone may not translate to success on race day. Many beginner racers have great power numbers from indoor and outdoor training. Some even crush their local group rides. But when they get into the tight confines of a criterium, their confidence evaporates as the racing tactics shift unpredictably and the perceived risk skyrockets. In the end, if you have exceptionally low risk tolerance, criterium racing may never be enjoyable or fruitful.
Criterium Racing Strategies and Tactics
Inside a criterium, there is an ever-expanding set of strategies and tactics to approach the race with. With that said the next sections of this article will break some of those tactics down and highlight the pros and cons of each. These are all theoretical scenarios and the odds of races playing out exactly as they are described is rare but thoughts about strategy and tactics that are mentioned below will help you think more like a racer and perform better at the moment.
Criterium Strategy #1: Ride for the Final Sprint
The first of many different strategies is racing to set up a sprint in the final 150-400 meters. This is an “all in” approach, as you only have one chance to get it right. Positioning and conserving energy are keys to successfully executing this strategy. During the early and middle portions of the race, you want to stay in the draft as much as possible. You will have to pay attention to stay in the first third of the field and avoid losing ground or getting caught behind splits.
A breakaway would thwart your strategy, so you want the pace to be high enough to discourage attacks. If you have a team, you can use riders to keep the pace high or to chase an established breakaway. If you are a solo rider, you may need to contribute to the pacemaking on the front of the pack, with the hope likeminded riders will help you.
In the last 5 laps or so you, you’ll want to be in the top 10-15 riders. The tighter the course, or the shorter the finishing stretch, the closer you’ll want to be to the front. In these situations you won’t have time to accelerate past several riders before the line. There will be a lot of jockeying for position as riders try to get into the draft behind a rider they hope will provide a strong lead out.
Deciding when to start your sprint can be tricky. In a headwind, keep your sprint short. With a tailwind, the speed will be very high but you may be able to hold maximum speed for longer. And when there is a crosswind, try to position yourself so you can accelerate past rivals on the side opposite the wind. If the final corner is close to the finish line, you may need to be the first or second rider into the turn.
Criterium Strategy #2: Big Breakaway
A breakaway is a rider or group of riders who separates themselves from the main peloton and maintains a gap to the riders behind them. Breakaways are advantageous for riders who have great sustainable power (high functional threshold power) but perhaps less of a sprint (low to moderate anaerobic capacity). Getting into a breakaway also increases your chances of winning by reducing the number of riders in contention. And from a skills standpoint, breakaways may be safer because there’s less risk of crashing with fewer riders around you.
Breakaways can work with just one rider or with a large group of riders. The bigger the group, the more riders can share the work of pacing. If there are several teams present in the race, having representatives from most of the teams in the break can discourage a strong chase.
If your goal is to get into a winning breakaway, you’ll need to ride attentively near the front of the peloton and either initiate or respond to strong accelerations. A winning breakaway can form on the first lap or the final lap and any time in between. Successful breakaways often form when the pace of a race is high. A sudden acceleration from an already fast pace means only a few riders will be capable of following (or willing to follow). Once the group has established a gap, the breakaway’s pace can come down to something more sustainable, at or just a little faster than the pace of the peloton.
Criterium Strategy #3: Solo Breakaway
Winning a criterium from a solo breakaway is a huge accomplishment. It requires great mental fortitude as well as great fitness. The benefit to being on your own is that you can take the fastest line through all the corners. You have no riders nearby to disrupt your choice of lines or when or how hard to brake. Maintaining your speed reduces the need to accelerate hard out of corners. On some tight courses, a solo rider with good cornering skills can go significantly faster than the peloton.
Of course, the challenge of a solo breakaway is that you have no one to draft behind, and therefore, no opportunity to rest. This means you must be careful about when you attempt to break away. If you go very early, the peloton may not chase because they doubt you can stay out there to the finish. If you wait until later, they may chase immediately because they fear you might win. You are the only one who knows – or thinks you know – how fast you can go for how long.
Attacking immediately after a prime sprint is a predictable – yet sometimes effective – time to establish a solo breakaway. You may also be successful by counterattacking as an earlier breakaway is getting caught. And for those confident in their handling skills, attacking through a technical section of the course can help establish a gap.
Once you establish a gap, keep riding hard until you ideally get out of sight from the peloton. This means staying at least one straightaway ahead of the field. Seeing you out front is like putting a putting a deer in front of a pack of wolves. They will chase you. If you are out of sight, you may soon become out of mind.
Criterium Strategy #4: Late Race Flyer
A combination of a sprint and a breakaway, a late race flyer is a great option for cyclists who have high anaerobic capacity but don’t want to wait for an explosive sprint. Instead of positioning yourself for the final sprint, you’ll spend the last handful of laps looking for the time and position to launch an all-or-nothing attack.
Late race flyers typically last no more than two laps, and sometimes happen in the last lap. Full commitment is essential. You must go all out, and if you are caught you won’t have power for an effective sprint.
Tactically, you are counting on others hesitating before chasing you. Or, that your strategy causes confusion behind you. You must also be supremely confident in your handling skills because you must capitalize on the hope you can negotiate the corners faster on your own.
Criterium Strategy #5: Teamwork
Joining a team can be one of the best ways to maximize the effectiveness of any of the above strategies. There is strength in numbers. If you’re on a team you can play a role that enhances your chances of winning or helps the team.
If you are on a team and you’re a strong sprinter, your teammates can guide you through the final laps. Likewise, if you are in a breakaway, chasing you means putting your teammates in position to win. Being on a team can be good as you gain the speed and skill to earn your own wins. You can share in the feeling of victory because you’re all racing for the same goal.
Above all, cycling is about relationships, and racing on a team with friends can be tons of fun. As a racer, building relationships, especially with your teammates, creates successful outcomes even if no one ever stands atop a podium.
By Ruben Bacon and Jim Rutberg