Criterium races are great tactical chess matches delivering spectator friendly racing that gets the adrenaline flowing. Good crits racers know that the ability to be competitive in these events boils down to a combination of mental toughness, fitness and technique.
Riders need the ability to deliver and repeat short but explosive high peaks of power, while being able to stay focused at all times, fight for position, corner fast, and hide from the wind.
If you are prepared, the high speeds and the close quarters common to crits are no reason to be nervous or avoid these events all together. Here’s a list of tips that will help you both mentally and physically to “Stay Attached to Your Skin” at your next crit.
Get in a good warmup
This is critical to good crit racing. The rule of thumb has always been the shorter the event, the better (and sometimes longer) your warm-up should be. For crits lasting 40-60 mins, plan a warmup that open the legs and lungs lasting from ~25-40 mins. See my warmup protocol here.
Line up at the front
Lining up at the front does two things. One, it helps avoids jittery riders into the first few corners and second, it helps to prevent burning an early match in the race, by not having to put in an immediate hard effort to move up. If its not possible for you to line up in the first two rows of a race, try to line up towards the outside, get clipped in quick when the whistle blows and you will have a good shot of passing lots of riders who have bunched up at the start.
Don’t overlap wheels.
This is just plain ol’ good pack riding skills. It’s your job to protect your front wheel at all times. Why? Because if the rider in front of you moves over and clips your front wheel, there is good chance you are going down. While there will always be a certain amount of overlap that occurs, use your gearing, wind and light braking to control your position. Try to avoid splitting riders – this is coming up in between two riders in front of you.
If you are fighting to grab a draft against a rider next to you, try to focus on keeping your handlebars ahead of them and you most likely will have the advantage to slide over taking the draft and getting out of the wind.
Stay in the drops
Crits are meant to be ridden in the drops! This does several things. First it makes you more aero, second its puts you into a power position on the bike, and third it puts weight on the front wheel, which gives you a better center of gravity when cornering at high speeds.
Practice in training staying in the drops and corning in the drops.If you are not comfortable in the drops, have your fit checked out by a reputable shop, work on core strength (planks are great for this!) as well as some simple stretching.
Think zero watts
Crits are not about putting out 2000+ watts at every corner, but instead it’s about being the most efficient rider. Save your strength by finding opportunities throughout the race to conserve energy whenever it’s possible. Good crit riders will see the majority of their efforts in Zones 1 and Zone 6 (Coggan Scale) when analyzing power. Make it a game and see if you can spend at least 50% of your time in Zone 1. When the pace drops, remember to shift to a slightly easier gear and spin up the cadence to help flush out your legs, don’t coast.
Note – This is my own personal preference, but I like to setup my brakes to be a little looser for crits, this allows me to apply light pressure and feather them when needed. This setup also allows me to avoid any abrupt braking when I need to scrub a little speed. Do not loosen them up so much that you can’t brake hard in an emergency. Experiment with the setup before race day and try this at your own risk.
Position is everything
Stay towards the front, but not on the front (in the wind). Where you are positioned in the front, depends a lot on the size of the pack and layout of the course. You can ride a crit from the back (tail-gunning) but it can be risky and requires experience and a vigilant eye.
Don’t chop corners – aka don’t be a douche
Nothing causes crashes and annoys your fellow racers more than this. Take good clean lines when cornering. Normally this means cutting the apex – creating a straight line, wide in, wide out. Chopping corner is when a rider on the inside comes in early to the apex and instead of following the normal flow of the corner, comes out too wide and in front (cutting off) the rider to the outside. Practice cornering (in the drops) and drill it over and over until you understand how to properly execute a turn from both inside and outside lines.
Crits are won many time on the second to last lap. If you are 20 riders back and your last name is not Cavendish, its highly doubtful you’ll sprint past 19 guys. On the last lap, you should be no more than 3 or 4 riders back.
If you have been hanging out towards the back all race, this may require that you now burn a match and put a big effort to move up (even more reason to try to stay towards the front during the race). Really plan to do this before the last lap as many times the pace will be too high on the final lap to move up more than a handful of spots. If you are coming into the last corners, being towards the front will also help you avoid the riders trying risky moves to grab some places, many times chopping corners, causing crashes or close calls.
Focus on Staying in the Moment or as I call it – SITFM
You can guess what the “F”is… right?
This is part of being a mentally strong, mindful athlete. Don’t let the race dictate your decisions, mentally focus on staying in the moment and say to yourself “What should I be doing right now?” For example – Are you in the wind at the moment? Get out of it! Are you too far back? Move up! Staying in the moment mentally will also help you manage your emotions when the race gets tough or when you get start to fatigue. Don’t worry about the last lap, focus on doing the right things for the lap you are on.
The small things you do during those moments, will add up in final race moments!
Give these tips a try at your next crit and let me know how they work out for you. Feel free to share and comment below!
About Noel Bonk – Founder BonkWerx Coaching
Yes Bonk really is my last name! I have been passionate about going fast on a bike since I was old enough to turn the pedals. As a USAC Coach, with over 15 years of racing experience (many of which were done while balancing being a tech entrepreneur and raising 4 kids), I now specialize in helping others get fast and stay strong all-year round.