My first Criterium Bicycle Race
My first Criterium is a moment that will be indelibly stamped on my mind. It was my first foray into bicycle racing, and I was desperately scared.
It had been an excellent year of bicycle training for me. I had a new bike – an aluminum Giant TCR with Ultegra shifters and a Dura-ace Dérailleur -- and I had ridden hundreds of miles each week on it. I had also ridden about 3 centuries, further developing my lungs and legs to be in their best shape.
Several guys on the weekly ride were encouraging me to start racing. I kept pushing it back with a “maybe, someday”. Frankly, criterium racing scared me. I had read many forums and books that talked about the accidents and tight cornering . I figured I'd probably fall down on the starting line.
In late August, the race came to town. Our local cycling club had put on an excellent, smooth course every year for several years now. My friends convinced me to try it. It was late August, so a lot of the rider's would be riding easy on this week's to prepare for the state competition the following weekend. I was finally persuaded. I convinced my high-school friend to join me, and paid the extra money to buy a year-long United States Cycling Federation license. Sunday morning, I skipped church and pinned on my first bib number.
The peloton was frighteningly disorganized. Apparently this was the first criterium race for several of us, and we bobbed and weaved around the corners. Several mountain bikers showed up, and began racing at the front in heavy, pounding, mountain-bike fashion. I stayed in the back and wondered how I was ever going to survive.
Thankfully the criterium course was wide and the pace was – easy. I suddenly realized that I was in the front of a pack of slackers. All the real racers had taken off around the corner some two or three minutes earlier.
At that point, the race finally began. I and my friend and a couple of the more coordinated riders remaining took turns leading each other, lap by lap, trying to pull ourselves back into a winning position. At some point I lost my water bottle and began feeling dehydrated and sticky-mouthed from the effort. My friend graciously lent me his bottle for the remainder of the race.
It became almost monotonous; “pedal, pedal, pedal, coast, pedal, turn, pedal, pedal, pedal,coast, pedal, turn..”
I was so determined to catch up that on some of the corners I attempted the risky maneuver of pedaling through the corner. Corners are deadly -- as I learned the hard way in some later criteriums that I raced – but for today I was a fighter. I was fearless. I was going to do anything to win. And at that moment, I fell in love with the sport.
Stepping into that first criterium opened more doors for me both personally and professionally. Placing fourth, I realized I was in better shape than I thought. I placed fifth at the state competition the next weekend, and proceeded to race nearly every weekend after that.
Personally, I was going through a challenging relationship, and this new sport became a way of escape for me. On nights I couldn't sleep I would ready my equipment and leave for a century ride an hour or two before day-break. I ended up completing six centuries before that year was over.
Always an avid church goer, I found new peace in early Sunday morning bike rides away from the push of normalcy. I would climb among dew-glistening hills and descend to the foggy valleys while most of my friends were still in bed fighting off hangovers from the Saturday night before.
Professionally, as a bike shop employee, I found new authority in my ability to speak about the products I was selling – I had tested many of these products more than my customer's ever would . I also gained practical experience in handling my bicycle in the tight conditions and high-speed corners of a criterium. I learned how to crash (yes, there's a skill for that). Despite my several accidents – including one that involved an SUV several years later while riding from class – I never broke a bone.
I also found that it opened doors to meet new suppliers and riders. As with any industry, cycling revolves around connections. While I've never claimed to be a talented networking person, being a friendly face that showed and raced hard at every criterium was helpful.
During the warm-up for a criterium in St. Louis, one of my friends stepped to the course and handed me a Cannondale CAAD-series bicycle. It was their top of the line for that year, and had only been released for production a few weeks earlier. Always a fan of stiff bike frames, I immediately was in love. I was a sad cyclist when I handed it back and mounted my own steed for the race.
As I've grown older, I've learned that cycling isn't all about the racing. But racing – and especially criterium racing – is a great way to increase ones fitness and expand into new arenas.
Here are a few thoughts for your first criterium:
Criteriums are Slow:
Ok, so they aren't. But when I began, I figured I would need to be able to average 18+ mph on my own private rides to keep up with the pack. Sure, I've been in introductory criteriums where we've pedaled faster than 30 mph – for a moment. Then we slow down to more reasonable speeds around 19 mph. But typically criterium courses are flatter than you experience on your daily training ride, and you have the wind protection of all your fellow riders to help ease your work.
Learn to Corner:
There are a lot of corners. The criterium I hated the most was a high-speed end-of-the-year race held in Arkansas for the state championship. It was fast, narrow, and had over 12 corners per lap. Not your typical race.
But knowing how to corner and practicing cornering are essential. Ideally, most of the peloton will swing wide, and then cut straight across the corner, coming out wide on the other side. Practice until you are comfortable going through corners at high speeds Unfortunately, many of these riders will brake for the corner, and then surge out of it, causing accidents, and wasting momentum
Learn to get Bumped:
With riders braking on the corners it tends to bunch up the peloton and leads to tires rubbing and overlapping. Whatever you do, keep the area around your front tire clear at all times. The easiest way to taste pavement is to get the front wheel knocked out from underneath you by a rider in front that decided to change lanes across your overlapping wheel.
By the same token, expect to get bumped. A rider moves over to avoid a pothole, and now you and he are riding shoulder to shoulder. Just stay calm, hold your line, and everything will calm down. Sure, its unexpected to be riding knee-to-knee, but by not rushing to over-correct, you can maintain control and continue racing the criterium
Stay near the Front:
It takes more effort to stay near the front. Typically riders with more experience will be closer to the front, fighting for those positions. This helps you avoid wrecks caused by more inexperienced criterium racers. It also helps you avoid some of the “whiplash” surging that the riders in the back experience as they try to catch up after braking for each corner.
Of course, while you want to take your turn in the wind, you don't want to fight the wind by yourself. Share the turns, just make sure you stay in the front third of the riders.
When preparing for my first criterium, there were not many “first experiences” out there for me to read about. I honestly thought it was going to be a lot more challenging than it was.
In reality, it was a lot of fun, and something I would encourage all riders to work up to. Hopefully this article encourages to try one of your own.
Feel free to add any questions you have in the comments below!