Don’t Hate Them For Winning
There are riders who never work at the front prior to the final few laps in a criterium, and yet consistently get on the podium. These riders are often not aerobically powerful. Some can’t time-trial their way out of a wet paper bag. They have to suck wheels so much they get tire marks on their lips to finish with the field, yet somehow they manage to collect the prizes and upgrade points week after week while harder-training, harder-working, fitter riders suffer weekly humiliation in their wake. Riders who like to think that their harder work makes them better refer to these annoying leaches as “crit scum”. This is a term of derision grounded in jealousy. Imagine the frustration of being beaten regularly by “weaker” riders and you can understand the feeling. But is it fair to say that a rider who is routinely beaten is “stronger” than the ones who beat them? Racing strength is a combination of physical fitness and tactical skill. How do crit scum do what they do where physically stronger road racers can’t? Can fitter riders learn to overcome their deficiencies? Success in criteriums requires conserving all possible energy for the finish. Weak riders learn to do that every time they race, while stronger racers may mistakenly think they can waste a bit of energy and still win. They must be more deliberate about learning to race.
Criterium Specific Tactics
Like all successful racers, crit scum adjust tactics to specific races. That requires attention to the “Three C’s”. As explained by Kendra Wenzel, my co-author on Bike Racing 101 (Human Kinetics Press, 2003), the Three C’s are Competition, Course, and Conditions. Competition means the other racers: the specific riders and teams but also the category. Course means the hills, the corners, and the width and condition of the pavement. Conditions are things like temperature, wind speed and direction and precipitation. The successful racer adjusts tactics as the race develops, but attention to the Three C’s helps form a frame of reference. The same movements of riders in a crit may have different meaning than similar looking movements in a road race. That difference causes problems for those frustrated road racers. For instance, a break ¾ of the way through a road race is often a real threat. Anyone strong enough to break away that late in a race may be strong enough to stay away. In a flat crit in the lower categories, a breakaway is occasionally serious, but more often is simply the no-hopers blowing their wad before disappearing into the back of the field.
Given any particular combination of competitors, course and conditions, there are more likely and less likely scenarios for how the race will play out. It’s never possible to predict with certainty how a race will develop, but it’s possible to develop ideas about one or a few possibilities and then to form an appropriate tactical plan. For instance, most flat, four corner crits in lower categories on dry days will come down to field sprints, while extremely hilly crits will shatter into small groups. One can’t cover many breaks and simultaneously save energy for a sprint. If one is fairly certain of a field sprint, one should ignore breakaways. If one is fairly certain that the race will shatter, one should stay far forward, though not in the wind. Planning for a field sprint is a gamble. If an ignored break does stay away, one loses. If the field stays together and one has invested excessively in chasing breaks, one loses. Still, one can only ride each race one way, and if one has to gamble, it makes sense to bet on the most likely scenarios. The exception is that if one has no chance to win in the most likely scenario, one might consider either a) racing a different race or b) planning to cause something other than the most likely scenario.
There are a few rules for criterium racing that apply independent of the Three Cs, and then adjustments for specific races. The rules that apply in all crits include: Never go flat out unless you have to, move up at every opportunity, be a jerk when necessary and always spin. The goal of these is to conserve energy or “matches” so one can burn them later or to take advantage of other riders errors for one’s own gain.
Never Go Flat Out Unless one must make a maximal effort to avoid being dropped from the field, flat-out effort should be avoided. Rather than going flat out, crit scum will let a few riders pass during hard accelerations or will apply other techniques to match pace with sprinting riders without sprinting themselves. By not sprinting to keep a wheel or match pace with the field out of each corner, they conserve matches for primes and the finale. Not sprinting out of each corner often means losing positions. To avoid fading to the very back, crit scum know that it’s necessary to move up whenever possible. The favorite option for many skilled crit riders is to find a gap into which to move at each corner, often on the outside. When other riders slow for the corner, the rider with an open line can easily pass a few by not slowing. When the surrounding riders sprint back up to speed, the skilled rider cruises, being passed by a few riders and ending up in the same position as before, but with one more match than nearby riders.
Be A Jerk as Needed
Particularly in the lower categories, less skilled riders often leave the inside line open coming slowly into a corner. A skilled rider can move up, sometimes the entire length of the field, and rejoin the flow of the pack right at the corner. Moving up the inside past a coasting field is considered bad form by some, but is entirely legal and is much more efficient than moving up past riders who are riding hard at the time. Years ago I saw Roberto Gaggioli, a very successful pro criterium racer, take the inside line in the final corner of a big-money criterium, exiting wide enough to push the entire Saturn Professional Cyling Team leadout train up the curb and into the grass. The team’s manager was not mad at Gaggioli. He was mad at his team for leaving the inside line and enabling Gaggioli’s brilliant move. There’s no question a lot of riders hated Gaggioli after that and similar moves in many other races. They really hated him not for the moves but for the fact that they worked allowing him to win again and again.
Winding up from a high cadence to an even higher cadence can be a challenge. There may be a strong temptation to shift to a bigger gear so as to get something to push on, but crit scum avoid the temptation. Accelerating a big gear requires high force, which comes from the recruitment of fast-twitch muscle, which is also sprinting muscle. Jumping in big gears uses up one’s sprint, while winding up a smaller gear leaves the sprint intact. Crit scum spin high enough cadences to avoid pushing hard on the pedals other than during sprints. That’s not a terribly hard skill to develop, but does require some focused effort. (Riders who need to develop a spin should routinely choose one gear easier than their most comfortable gear. Over a period of weeks, the comfortable cadence will rise. When one can ride indefinitely at 110 rpm and spin up to 130 with power, one is ready to race crits effectively.)
Accounting for the Competition
The particular riders and teams in a given race generate specific tactical considerations. Those are beyond the scope of this article. I would like to address though, what happens differently depending on race category. In 1/2/pro criteriums, the field will often be strung out single file from the get-go, with a few very strong riders on the front or off the front, and the rest of the field struggling to maintain contact or chase. The exception to this is the course with turns so tight that even highly skilled riders are forced to slow down. Such bottlenecks create an opportunity for the crafty rider to move up. In a single file peloton, there is no easier place to ride and there is no easy opportunity to move up. Getting gapped in such a situation is often the end of the race for oneself and everyone farther back. Being behind a gap ends one’s race unless one is massively stronger than nearby riders and can leapfrog them. In such races one moves up by brute force and takes wheels aggressively. In the 3s and lower categories, ride quite differently. There is more changing of speed as different riders take the lead or refuse to take the lead. There are opportunities to move up easily between bursts. When the speed drops, the field spreads out across the road, the distance to the front of the pack decrease drastically and moving up doesn’t require aggression so much as attention and an open line.
Technical and Non-Technical Courses
Every course demands it’s own tactics. Even the texture of the pavement and the crowning of the road changes the best tactics for a race. Every course has an optimal place to sprint. The experienced crit racer learns to read courses, to know where the opportunities will come and whether one needs to sprint to the final corner or out of it, for instance. The consideration of such details is a topic for another article. For now let’s distinguish two types of courses and the tactics generally required for success on each. For the sake of this discussion, “technical” courses have tight enough corners with narrow enough exits to force narrowing of the field to one or a few abreast, or have hills that spread out the field. Non-technical courses are open enough and flat enough that the field can cruise around without much change of speed. Note that a course that is technical for less-skilled riders can be non-technical for more skilled riders. If the course is technical enough to force drastic acceleration and slowing of the field once or more each lap, being far back in the field is a competitive disaster. The riders at the front cruise out of the turns or over the hillcrests with moderate effort, while riders at the back of the field have to ride up the hill or into the corner at the same speed as the exiting leaders in order not to end up farther from the front. That is physically impossible so the trailing riders chase after each hill or corner. To avoid being gapped, such riders have to ride harder than the leaders. After a few laps of such efforts, the trailing riders can no longer maintain the effort so gaps begin to form, or at least they are too tired to move up even when the field slows. Either way, their race is over. If the course is non-technical enough that the field doesn’t have to slow for the corners, it’s no harder to ride at mid-field or the back than it is at the front. On such a course in the lower categories, the field will often ride around as a clump spread across the road rather than strung out. In such a race, one can sit at the back relaxing, eating and drinking for much of the time, and then move up just in time for sprints.
Weather can drastically affect races. When the thermometer is pushing past 90 F (32C) or a few degrees less with very high humidity, bodies will have difficulty dissipating heat. Riders who increase effort will internally generate excessive heat, causing them to shut down quickly. On a non-technical flat course, this means that breakaways are less likely to succeed. On a technical or hilly course, the field may shatter where it would not on a cooler day. On hot days riders who think to keep themselves cool by sprinkling water on their jerseys and through their helmets may beat other riders that they could not beat in more pleasant weather. On easy courses, successful riders don’t worry about pack position much on very hot days. Heavy rain makes pavement slippery, increasing the perceived risk of crashes. That can have one or two possible effects. If the riders are conservative, the field stays together. If a few riders are more aggressive and skilled enough to stay upright, the field shatters on a course on which it would stay together on a dry day. Successful riders stay near the front on wet days. Extreme cold and wet can turn normal tactics upside down. A body with a core temperature below normal can’t make as much power as a warmer one, and sitting in getting soaked with road spray can quickly make one hypothermic. Under cold enough, wet enough conditions, it can actually be advantageous to do a bit more work to stay warm, enabling one to make or respond to attacks. Be careful with this concept though; it only applies if sitting in would really leave one hypothermic. Wind dramatically changes races. Strong enough winds make any course a challenging course on which the field can shatter. In races with strong winds, riders will become sorted by relative strength, with stronger riders in the front and weaker riders in the back. After the sorting has occurred, the field begins to break up as the riders in back can’t match the pace of the front riders. Strong winds favor riders with road fitness, but also favor riders with superior drafting and pack handling skills if they are smart enough to get forward early and to fight for a spot at the front before the pack shatters.
Putting it All Together
Each combination of competitors, course and conditions makes particular scenarios more or less likely to occur in a criterium, as in any race. If one considers these factors and adjusts tactics accordingly, one can increase one’s chance of gambling on the correct scenario. One can put one’s bets on likely winners so to speak, riding hard when but only when it’s likely to pay off. Some riders have what it takes mentally to figure out and play this game successfully. They win prizes week after week and can be proud to call themselves Scum. The rest can be glad there are longer, harder races that depend more on physical strength and less on tactics.