What Is a Criterium Race?

Roadie by Jamie Smith and Jef Mallett

Enjoy this brief excerpt from ROADIE: The Misunderstood World of a Bike Racer by veteran road race announcer, Jamie Smith, and nationally syndicated Frazz illustrator, Jef Mallett

How to Ride a Criterium

Roadie by Jamie Smith and Jef MallettKeeping in mind the danger that lurks in every corner, the best way to ride a criterium is to stay near the front of the field. Avoid the temptation to drift to the back because moving up through the field is difficult when the field is constantly winding through corners. Be prepared for a lot of sprinting as the speeds change constantly. I can’t overemphasize the need to practice the art of cornering. If cornering becomes second nature to you, you can focus on breakaways and other tactics. If not, you will be tentative through every turn while everyone else is zooming past you. It’s no fun to race your bike when you’re scared to tears. Remember, the “out of sight, out of mind” phenomenon can work for you or against you, depending on how you look at it.

How to Watch a Criterium

Where should a spectator stand to watch a crit?

At your first race, your senses may be so overloaded that it won’t really matter where you stand to watch the race. It will all look the same no matter how you look at it. You will likely be unable to tell one rider from the next. Eventually, over time, it starts to make sense. When it does, I urge spectators to watch the first few laps of the race from a location near the start/finish line. Then take a leisurely walk around the course and watch the race from various angles. There’s not a race in America that prevents spectators from roaming around the entire course with the freedom to stand inches from the action. This freedom is one of the cool things about bike racing that I hope never changes.

I enjoy watching the faces of first-time spectators as the field zips past them at 30-plus mph. They feel the full force of the wind that the field kicks up as it passes, and their faces light up with shock as it literally takes their breath away. Also, the idea that so many riders can ride so closely together and so fast is bewildering. Should you go to a criterium or take a first-timer, it’s important to always consider the safety of the riders as well as your own personal safety. Hold on tight to young kids, and be ready to jump back should a crash occur.

Cornering on a Bike from Roadie by Jamie Smith and Jef Mallett ROADThe bigger bike race events will likely have some sort of fencing around the course to prevent spectators from wandering into the street. They may also have a sound system that projects the entire length of the course so that the announcer’s commentary can be heard everywhere. A sound system like this will let you stand wherever you want for the finish of the race and still be able to hear the outcome.

The smaller events will likely provide sound coverage only on the home stretch. Really small events probably won’t have an announcer or a sound system, so as a spectator you’ll be on your own to keep track of the laps and everything else. As I mentioned earlier, there’s no perfect place to stand to watch the finish of the race, and you may not see the critical point of the race. Over time, you will decide what’s important to watch and what can be missed without regret.

A Rose by Any Other Format

In case the criterium becomes dull, the promoter has a few options to spice things up. By tweaking some of the rules, there are a few creative ways to select a winner. I’ll give you a brief description of some of the favorite variations on the criterium race. Ask any Roadie to provide further details and war stories.

Format 1: Devil Take the Hindmost

Also known as the “miss and out.” On every other lap, the last rider to cross the finish line gets pulled from the race. This continues until there is only one rider left. Crazy, huh? Think of it as musical chairs on bikes.

Format 2: Win and Out

This is the opposite of the miss and out. In this variation, several sprints take place. The first sprint determines the winner and only the winner. The winner is immediately out of the race. Done. Finished. You win; you’re out. Thanks for coming. Your work is done here. Subsequent laps determine subsequent placings.

Format 3: The Points Race

The points race is a normal criterium peppered with intermediate sprints held every five laps. Points are awarded to the top three riders in each sprint. The final sprint is worth double points. Whoever accumulates the most points wins. Get the calculator ready; this race is a spreadsheet waiting to happen.

Format 4: Street Sprints

Some people don’t have the patience to watch an entire race. These are the same people who skip ahead to the last page of a mystery novel to find out whodunit. For these folks, bike race promoters have brought drag racing to cycling in the form of street sprints, or straight-line sprints.

To start this event, riders are held upright on their bikes at the starting line by impartial volunteers. Riders are held motionless with the front tip of their front wheel aligned with the starting line. They should be fully engaged in their pedals and ready to pounce. A USCF official will give the signal to start with a preparatory command of “riders ready” followed by a whistle or gun.

Distances range from 200 meters to 500 meters, and the outcome of each heat tends to be decided by mere inches; there is seldom a runaway winner. There is never a breakaway. There’s no time for team tactics. It’s simply a display of brute strength, top speeds, and the occasional crash. Due to the nature of the event, it attracts only the sprinters or riders who think they can sprint. Few nonsprinters are willing to show their inability to the general public in this forum. For them, it would be easier to simply carry a sign that reads, “I have no fast-twitch muscles in my legs!” Here a false start is of critical concern. We’re only racing 200 meters. We can’t allow any riders to have a head start. For this event to run properly, the persons holding each rider upright at the starting line must be totally impartial. All they do is stand behind the bike and hold on to the saddle until the whistle blows. Then they simply let go of the bike. The rider will take it from there. The holders do not assist the rider in any way. Have I ever seen someone cheat during a straight-line sprint event? Only once, but that is a story we can skip.

Roadie: The Misunderstood World of a Bike Racer is a light-hearted exploration of the world of road cycling, bike racing, and the people who love it. Good for belly laughs from veteran roadies and perfect for those puzzled by their road cyclist friends, Roadie explains all the curiosities of the sport of cycling so you don’t have to! From shaved legs to Lycra kits to how stage races work, author Jamie Smith and nationally syndicated Frazz illustrator Jef Mallett celebrate cycling and poke fun in equal measure.