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The five things you need to know when racing your first criterium

The five things you need to know when racing your first criterium

If you signed up for your first criterium race or “crit”, there are a few things that you should expect. Knowing these things ahead of time will make your first experience much more enjoyable and help set your expectations at a healthy level. 

These are the five things that we wish someone had told us before we raised our first crit.

1. It’s going to be faster than you think.

Even though you may have done a bunch of club rides, or joined the fast group ride in your city, your first crit is inevitably going to be faster than you thought. Be ready to consistently ride at 25 to 30 miles an hour, no matter what category you’re starting in. 

You may think that because you’re racing category 4/5 (beginner categories in the US) it may be slower, but remember that you’re riding with a big group. Even though the individual fitness level on average may be lower than other categories, the group’s combined efforts will keep the pack rolling along at a very steady clip. Pack riding is a double edged sword. With experience, you’ll use the pack to hide from the wind and maintain speed while saving energy. Your first few races, you’ll probably struggle to find a consistent spot in the group and find yourself chasing back onto the rear of the group. 

Let’s not forget, too, that crits aren’t one straight line. For most beginning racers, this is the difficult part. We’re not used to taking 90° or even sharper turns at such a high pace in a group of 50+ cyclists. That’s not something we do during a usual group ride. And it’s certainly not something we do in a high enough volume to be considered effective practice. 

The biggest problem new racers have is conserving energy by keeping speed consistent.

When you’re out training before your first crit, make sure you find safe, clean, car-less corners to practice rounding at speed. You want to be comfortable leaning into a turn, orienting your pedals correctly, seeing your line and exit and getting back to pedaling as soon as possible. The more speed you can carry through every corner, the longer you’re going to last in the race and the fresher you’ll be at the end. 

2. You need to practice riding in a pack.

The pack you’ll be racing in when you enter your first crit is going to be tighter than you’re used to, faster than you’re used to, and involve a lot more bumping than you’re probably used to. We don’t say this to scare you off. It’s part of the fun, actually. But you should know going in, that riding smart in a pack is a learned skill. It’s something that you have to train at. 

It’s going to take you many many races to develop the intuition that the best racers have. With time and more races under your belt, you’ll begin to make better decisions as you ride, find the sweet spot in the pack, become more comfortable in tight positions and know better where or where not to put your front wheel. At first, at your first race, or your first dozen races, you’re going to be nervous riding so closely to people you don’t know. To some extent, you have to trust them to not make any sudden, dumb movements. But, to a much larger extent, you need to keep your wits about you at all times, anticipate others’ movements and make sure you protect your front wheel.

To become more comfortable riding in a pack and the inevitable shoulder and elbow bumping that’s going to occur, go out with a group of friends and ride through empty Parcing lots or safe, quiet neighborhood streets, elbow to elbow with each other. Take turns leaning on each other, bumping each other, and going around corners while touching elbows. Obviously, the goal of this is to become more comfortable riding at speed while in contact with other riders and to learn how to keep your handlebars safe from entanglement with others. The ultimate name of the game in pack riding is experience, experience, experience.

3. The most important skill is positioning, not fitness.

When going to their first crit, people worry too much about their fitness. Hopefully, it will make you feel better when we say this - fitness isn’t everything, especially in lower ranks of racing. 

If you look at the front of a lower category pack versus the back of a lower category pack you’ll see that the racers at the front are racing much smarter than the ones at the back. You can tell because the ones at the front, though they may circulate a little bit from the front of the pack to say 10th or 12th wheel, when they come back around again most of those racers are still right there near the front. The racers at the back, though they may make it up to the 15th or fifth wheel even, are going to be moving back-and-forth with a much larger range, therefore using much more energy during the race.

This is because the riders at the front understand the washing machine effect and the accordion effect:

Washing machine effect:Every time the pace slows a surge will come from the back, while riders try to take advantage of the slower speed to gain a better position. These riders will overtake others, and those overtaken will now be farther back. When given the chance, they’ll then try to move back up and the cycle continues. When you feel the pace slow, expect the surge and look for wheels to get on that are moving forward or gaps to exploit to gain positions. If you’re not moving forward, you’re moving backward! 

Accordion effect: When the group goes around a corner, the riders at the front choose the speed to take the corner at. Everyone else is at their whim. As soon as anyone pulls a brake, there is a ripple effect that moves through the group, multiplying as it moves towards the back. By the time the back of the group goes through the corner, the riders at the back are forced to take the corner much slower than those at the front and then sprint like hell to catch back up. This is why you want to be closer to the front.

The best way to learn how to manage this during a race is simply to race and to watch those who are better than you. If you race regularly, it’s not hard to pick out the guys that keep winning. When you’re in the pack, find them, sit on their wheel, and just try to follow them as they move through the pack. You’ll see where on the course they move up, where they let themselves drift back, and at what intervals in the race they make these moves. You may be surprised by how much time they spend not at the front. Speaking of which - let’s move onto the next point.

4. It’s all about NOT pedaling.

When you go to your first race, your goal should not be to set a lifetime best average power for the duration of your race. Your goal should be the lowest normalized power possible.

 What?! How do you win a race with a super low power output? 

You learn to race smart. Racing smart means doing everything you can to stay out of the wind and maintain consistent speed. During a crit, the worst thing you can do is sprint out of every corner. That being said, most of us end up doing races where we sprint out of every corner even though we know better. This is because our positioning needs work. Or our ability to turn. Probably both. Either way we have to figure out how to avoid the energy zapping practice of sprinting to catch up. 

If you focus first on energy conservation, then you can use the conserved energy to make your moves. Once you eliminate these constant sprints by improving your positioning you can better prioritize where you’re putting out power. It’s a great feeling to realize that you’ve made the jump from racing to keep up to deciding how you want to ride the race. After each race, compare your average power output to the race before and see if you’re improving. Review the race to figure out where you were putting in too much effort or could have positioned yourself better.

5. Pick a winner and follow their wheel. Learn from the best.

This is a criminally under-used tactic. If you want to be great at something, it makes sense that you should follow those who are already great at it. Those who are great have already developed a system and a strategy to be great. Why not let them show you the way? 

In bike racing, this is especially easy when you have a regular race series that you attend. If you see the same racers week in and week out, it’s easy to see who’s winning and who’s not. Once you get into the race, find the riders that will contend for the win. Attach yourself to their wheel for as long as you can. At some point, they will probably drop you, but you’re going to get a huge benefit from just attempting to follow them around in the pack. Watch what they do, watch which sides of the track they ride on, watch which lines they take, watch where they attack or don’t, and watch how much they’re pedaling. They’re probably doing everything at least a bit better than you so you’re making them will show you the way to the front of the race.

And let’s throw in a sixth bonus lesson: Your equipment doesn’t matter nearly as much as you think it does. 

As you enter the sport, you’ll find that the differences between racers in the lower categories are pretty big and based on much more impactful factors than equipment. Your power, positioning and tactics matter far more than your aero bike and expensive kit. Equipment may get you an extra 1%, but in such a chaotic style of racing where you’re turning constantly, any benefit is easily erased by poor skills or training. If you’re looking at putting a lot of money into a fancier setup, consider spending that money on a coach, training plans or a power meter (if you don’t have one).

Good luck! Keep the rubber side down!