Weeknight Criterium Tips for Time-Crunched Cyclists
Amateur criterium racing is not dead, it’s just moved from weekends to weeknights.
Based on the activities and feedback we’re seeing from CTS Athletes, the after-work criterium scene may be stronger than it’s been in a decade or more! And it’s no wonder. There are three new elite-level criterium series – the American Criterium Cup, the National Cycling League, and the Circuit Racing International Tour – drawing attention to this quintessential form of American bike racing. However, cyclists are being pulled in numerous directions and many riders reserve weekends for gravel races, gran fondos, and mountain bike adventures. As a result, field sizes for amateur Tuesday and Thursday night criteriums are often bigger than for weekend races! Weeknight criteriums are perfect for Time-Crunched Athletes, and here are some tips that career professionals and working parents can use to have fun, be competitive, and honor your work and family priorities.
Integrating Weeknight Criteriums into a Time-Crunched Cyclist Training Plan
Consider the weekday criterium as equivalent to a high-intensity interval workout in your training plan. There are repeated maximum-intensity efforts, but the number of efforts, the specific time-at-intensity, and recovery between efforts are unstructured. On one hand, weekday criteriums likely elicit higher peak power outputs than you’ll achieve in solo workouts. On the other hand, workouts with prescribed interval and recovery durations are necessary for creating the progression that leads to adaptation.
We typically recommend one weeknight criterium per week for Time-Crunched Cyclists, especially if you are also racing road, gravel or mountain bikes at least once on weekends. For best results, the day before your weeknight criterium should be an endurance ride or easy day.
Fueling Weeknight Criterium Performance
Weeknight criteriums present some unique sports nutrition challenges. Many amateur racers are used to competing in the morning or early afternoon and have well-established pre-race meal habits. Racing in the evening, after work, is different, particularly because of the timing of other meals in conjunction with your workday.
Eat a substantial lunch (3+ hours before)
You may not normally eat a big lunch during the workday, but it’s important to consume a substantial mid-day meal before weeknight races. This meal is likely to be 3-5 hours before the race start, so it should be a mixed macronutrient meal with plenty of carbohydrate, protein, and fat. Consult this guide to pre-race meals.
Pre-Race Nutrition (0-2 hours before)
If you’re racing weeknight criteriums, you might need to be that person who is snacking their way through the afternoon at the office. Particularly when your workday lunch is early (11:30-1:00pm) and your race is at or after 6:00pm, you’re going to need a small late afternoon meal or some substantial snacks to arrive at the race start feeling energized. This may seem obvious, but it’s incredibly common for adults and students to arrive to after-school and after-work sports famished. Be careful with caffeine, however, because late afternoon or evening caffeine consumption can lead to disturbed sleep later in the evening.
Get a good warmup
If you’re like many Time-Crunched Cyclists, you’ve worked a full day before commuting home or directly to the weeknight criterium. Your legs aren’t going to feel great on the bike after spending hours in a chair or hours on your feet. And typically, athletes over 40 require a longer and/or more structured warmup compared to younger cyclists. If you’re over 40, it’s unlikely that just spinning around the parking lot is going to be sufficient.
If possible, stick a set of rollers or a resistance trainer in your car so you can warm up in the parking lot. The sample ~25-minute warmup below uses rating of perceived exertion (RPE) to keep it simple. It can be used for fast start races like criteriums, cyclocross, and short mountain bike races.
Sample Criterium Warmup
- 10 minutes gradually ramping from RPE 4 – 6 out of 10.
- 5 minutes at 80-90% of FTP or RPE of 6-7/10 and cadence of 90-95rpm
- 3 minutes easy spinning
- 30s Opener at RPE 9/10 and cadence of 100+ rpm
- 5 minute easy spinning
- 30s at Opener at RPE 10/10 and cadence of 100+ rpm
- 3-5 minutes easy spinning
Total warm-up time: ~25 minutes
Now, if you can ride to and from the training race, that’s a great option too! Just plan out the route ahead of time and make sure to have some lights for the way home to stay safe. But this could be a good time saver for athletes living in metro areas AND you get a bit more training time in the saddle! Your warm up and cool down is simply riding there and back. Feel free to work in a few of the openers from the structure warm up above.
Recovery Nutrition after a Weeknight Criterium
Consider a post-race recovery drink or carbohydrate/protein snack if you have a long commute. This is particularly important if you intend to train again the following morning. However, recovery nutrition is important even if the day after a weeknight criterium is a rest day, recovery ride or Zone 2 endurance ride.
As coaches, we have found that Time-Crunched Cyclists are quite susceptible to training disruptions caused by inadequate energy intake following hard efforts, like weeknight criteriums. The result often manifests a few days later in diminished training quality, irritability, and fatigue. Weeknight criteriums and hard group rides may be relatively short, but they are intense. It is important to consume a post-race meal that is rich in carbohydrate and protein. The carbohydrate replenishment is necessary because of the high intensity efforts above lactate threshold. The protein replenishment is important after a hard workout in the evening because it is necessary for promoting muscle protein synthesis overnight.
Race Strategies for Weeknight Criteriums
Weeknight criteriums may not have the same categories you’ll find in sanctioned weekend races. There’s not enough time to run all the separate categories, and weeknight racing tends to be less formal and more social than weekend criteriums. For instance, the Triad Criterium Series in Winston-Salem and Kernersville, North Carolina keeps it simple with A, B, and C races. The Driveway Series in Austin Texas features 5 categories (Cat 4/5, Cat 3/4, Masters, Women, Pro 1/2/3). As a result, you may find yourself in a peloton with a wide range of skill, experience, fitness, and risk tolerance.
Because weeknight racing is sometimes less formal that weekend racing, these events can be a good opportunity to focus on process goals. Instead of just riding around in squares or circles, try these activities and strategies to make it interesting and improve your skill and savvy.
Go back to front
Everyone wants to be in the front third of the peloton, but it’s also important to learn how to get there from the back of the pack. Purposely drop to the rear of the peloton and give yourself a set distance (e.g. one lap or two laps) to get to the front of the group. The big caveat here is that you can’t pass on the outside of the peloton! The whole exercise is to pick your way through the gaps and holes between riders as you move up.
Stick to your buddy
Sometimes you’ll want to stay on a specific wheel for a while. This isn’t so difficult in road or gravel racing, but a criterium peloton can be like a washing machine. Pick a rider you want to follow and try to stay on his or her wheel for a set number of laps. If you lose the wheel, it’s your job to find your way back into their slipstream.
A more advanced skill combines ‘back to front’ with ‘stick to your buddy’. As a pair, start at the back of the pack and move up through the field together!
Experiment with tactics and strategies
Weeknight criteriums are a great place to take some chances and learn how to race. Fancy yourself as a sprinter? Try a breakaway instead. Does your training data say you lack explosive power? Work on it by sprinting for primes or accelerating across gaps.
Get comfortable and have fun
One thing we consistently hear from Time-Crunched Cyclists who compete in weeknight criteriums is that they love the atmosphere. Most people came from work and have to go to work the next day, so the racing is less cut-throat, and everyone is out there for fun, camaraderie, and a hard workout. As a result, weeknight races can be a supportive and forgiving environment to gain confidence and comfort riding in close quarters with other racers.
By Jim Rutberg,
CTS Pro Coach, co-author of “Ride Inside“, “The Time-Crunched Cyclist”, and “Training Essentials for Ultrarunning”
Photos and article review from Adam Pulford