Criterium bike races – also known as “crits” – are becoming increasingly popular worldwide.
Tearing through city streets bolstered with an addictive mix of high-speed, sharp cornering, and bunched sprints, you can see why they bring new eyes to bike racing.
But what is a criterium cycling race, and why are they so popular?
In this article, we’ll be covering:
- What Is A Crit Cycling Race?
- Why Are Criteriums So Popular In The US?
- Criterium-Specific Bike Design
- How To Prepare For A Crit
We certainly won’t be cutting corners in this article. Let’s dive in!
What is A Crit Race?
#1: Short, fast courses
A crit is a lapped cycling race on a closed road circuit, often set in cities.
Laps can range from 0.5 to 1.5 miles long, with total race distances between 15 miles for beginners and 60 miles for professionals.
The format promotes bunched sprints and intense action, with large fields of racers slicing through corners at over 30mph.
Race length is determined by a set amount of time or a set number of laps, and shorter courses mean average speed and intensity are appreciably higher. With multiple laps, spectators get to see racers whiz by time and time again.
A world apart from multi-day stage races such as the Tour De France and the Giro D’Italia, which often stretch across 200 km of tarmac. If you’ve ever been lucky enough to enjoy one of these races in person, you’ve likely spent the morning hiking up a mountain in the blistering heat just for a brief glimpse of your favorite riders battling it out.
Though it is worth the hike, it’s a tiny window of observable racing – whereas a crit allows you to watch the action develop throughout an entire race.
Pronounced preems, after the French word for “gift.”
Crits often award prizes for winning specific intermediate laps, and these are usually cash prizes. It is commonplace to see volunteers collecting cash donations from the crowd, and these donations will go towards a “Crowd Prime,” usually towards the end of the race.
Primes are a way to encourage more competitive riding and generate excitement throughout the race. They may be designated to specific laps before the race or spontaneously announced by the sound of a bell at the start of any particular lap.
Criterium riders compete within a given classification based on their ability. The lower the number, the more proficient and experienced a rider is.
In the UK and Europe, Professional and Category 1 and 2 riders often race together. Category 3 and 4 riders also often compete simultaneously. However, it is common to see exclusive events for each classification, with separate races for Pro, Category 1, 2, 3, and 4 riders.
The US has a similar model. USA Cycling sanctions races consist of four categories:
- US Category A is equivalent to Professional, Category 1, and Category 2 European standards.
- US Category B is equivalent to Categories 3 and 4.
- US Category C is equivalent to Categories 4 and 5.
- US Category D is equivalent to Category 5.
Why are criteriums so popular in the US?
Criteriums are relatively easy to organize compared to classical road races and do not require much space due to the short circuit design.
Roads can be closed for a few hours and then opened back up again. The ease of organization has led to an explosion of racing frequency; every weekend, there are crits across the US.
Although crits are also popular in Europe, most notably in Belgium, the Netherlands, and the UK, they pale in comparison to the frequency seen in the US. America has a rich culture of crit racing, with infrastructure supporting and promoting races across the country.
As Mike Weiss, head of The Bommarito Audi Gateway Cup, says:
“It’s easier to set up. You can tell a community, ‘Your restaurants are going to be booming today. There’s going to be a beer garden, and there’s going to be tailgating around the course, and it’s going to be a free, fun event.'”Mike Weiss
Don’t just expect a race. Expect a community party. If nighttime settles in, the lights come on, and the MCs ramp up the music.
Fancy heading to a crit? Here are a few you won’t want to miss!
Athens Twilight: Race in the morning, party during the day, and watch the pros race at night. Make sure you book an extra day off work after this one!
Saint Francis Tulsa Tough: You’d be hard-pressed to find three crazier days of bike racing. The entirety of Tulsa shuts down to witness a three-day bloc party complete with costumes, music, and races.
Brussels City Crit: Bikes, beers, street food, music in the historical center of Europe’s capital.
Criterium-Specific Bike Design
What should you look for in a criterium bike?
As races are usually held in cities, there are rarely any big hills in a criterium. Consequently, the groups tend to be less fragmented, and the racers stay in a tight pack. The tight pelotons and rapid cornering of a criterium put a particular premium on maneuverability.
Criterium-optimized road bikes will often feature:
- Short wheelbases for increased turning ability. Very short chainstays, and a slightly shortened top tube.
- Forks with an increased rake (slope angle) to reduce trail. Bikes with reduced trail handle more responsively – albeit at the cost of stability.
- Blistering speed requires big gears, and the front chainring should be 53-tooth. Minimal climbing means an 11-23-tooth cassette at the back is optimal.
- Slightly shorter crank arms (145–170 mm) to facilitate pedaling through turns without hitting or scraping the pedals on the ground. Criterium bikes will often have a slightly higher bottom bracket (+10 mm) for the same reason.
- Aerodynamic wheels. Expect to see deep carbon rims. Crits are high-speed events, making aerodynamics a significant factor.
- Drop handlebars with a steeper curve than most road bikes. Crit cyclists spend most of their time riding the drops.
Want to know more? Check out our Complete Guide to Bike Geometry here!
How to prepare for a crit
If you’ve been asking yourself what is a criterium, there’s a decent chance you’re also interested in taking one on for yourself!
Here are a few of pointers to help you prepare for your first crit:
Criteriums are very specific with their physical requirements, but you can’t beat general time on the bike. No matter what sort of cycling you have been doing, it will build an aerobic base which is excellent prep for crit-specific workouts.
Focus on building the base first. A robust aerobic system from low/moderate intensity endurance rides enables you to hold a higher power output before reaching the lactate threshold.
Once the base is sorted, you can start training for the high-speed, high-intensity spikes in power output and exertion that a crit race demands.
Two example workouts that focus on increasing anaerobic capacity are:
- Anaerobic Power Intervals: effort lasting 30-45 seconds with relatively longer recovery effort lasting around 5 minutes. Aim for at least 4-8 intervals if you are starting out and up to 12 if you are well trained. The goal is to drain the tank and give you long enough to recover before the next spike.
- 30/30 Speed Intervals: 30-second of high cadence, high power accelerations followed by 30 seconds of easy spinning. One set should last 4-6 minutes, with 5 minutes of recovery between sets. Start with at least 2-3 sets.
Criterium Racing Strategy and Skills:
- Sit on a wheel. Sitting in another rider’s draft is crucial if you want to conserve energy. Studies show drag reductions from 27% up to 50%, with the exact reduction depending on several variables.
- Close gaps and hunt down attacks. Rather than letting the front of the group create a gap, sprint to catch back up. Get back to the draft and sit in it. Otherwise, you’ll end up equalling the speed and output of those up front without any gains in positioning.
- Practice riding in a group. Crits are a beautiful madness, with bikes as far as the eye can see. Get comfortable with being bumped, and manage your space with the bike in front and behind. Try not to break too fast or too late. Get involved with a local cycling group to acclimatise to cycling in tight spaces.
- Practice cornering. Races can be won or lost in the turns. Work on high-speed cornering while out on your rides, or grab a couple of cones and head to a parking lot. Remember to look through the corner to the exit; your bike follows your eyes. Keep your hands on the drops, and focus pressure on the outside pedal and inside hand to maintain stability and speed. If you are going to brake, brake before the turn rather than during it to reduce the risk of skidding.