The Beginner’s Guide to Crit-Racing

Roberto Vukovic racing a criterium, on his red BMC Roadmachine bike. Wearing a Limar helmet, Oakley Sutro glasses, Shimano shoes and a white black Castelli skinsuit.

Mid-summer means it’s time for my hometown race, which is a classic in German crit-racing. It’s in the downtown area and has a varied race program with a women’s beginner race, a fixed gear race, and license categories. The race has it all, and a fine amount of spectators add to the great show.

The course is anything but easy: Four corners and two long straights always promise fast and hard racing. And the elite race didn’t disappoint again this year. 

We rode 80 km (49,7 miles) with an average speed of almost 46 km/h (28.6 mp/h). I came in 9th, and though I missed the break, I’m happy with my performance. Being competitive on the course requires fast sprinting, excellent cornering, and pure power from start to finish. 

In preparation for the race some cyclists that attended their first criterium, reached out to me and asked me about my best tips for a successful crit-race. 

First of all, I went through the policy of crits.

Crit-Racing Rules

It’s always a good idea to get a basic understanding of the racing format. Crit-races are mass-start, multi-lap events held on closed roads, consisting of 4-6 corners, mostly in downtown areas, commercial districts, or parks. Laps are relatively short going from 0.9 km (0.6 miles) up to 2.5 km (1.5 miles) per lap.

The racers compete in different categories. While the USA starts from category 5 (beginner) up to category 1 (elite) and professionals, Germany just has 3 separate classes, for instance. Typically races are measured by distance. For example, my home race was 58 laps in the elite class.

The winner is the first rider to cross the line. However, criteriums always involve intermediate sprints for primes with cash or merch. These primes can be proclaimed at any time during the race. That adds further difficulty to crit-races.

With that in mind here are 8 things I told the newbies to work on toward their first crit.

1. Build a Broad Aerobic Base

No matter how hard crit-racing seems, it’s still an endurance event. And any enduring competition requires a big aerobic “engine.”

You need a high aerobic capacity to clear all the lactate from the high anaerobic demand of crit-racing and to recharge for the next punch. Therefore, building a solid FTP is essential for crit-racing as well.

So, you want to make sure to include endurance miles and aerobic efforts like sweet spot intervals in your plan.

2. Engage in Sprint Training

While crit-racing is less about your max power and more about your repeated sprint ability (RPA), it’s still vital to practice short all-out sprints. Believe it or not, the main contributor to a great RPA is your aerobic base.

However, for the sprints, we want to stay very short and just practice accelerations. This is why I call these efforts phosphocreatine (PCr) sprints. PCr is the fastest system to generate energy for muscle contraction but also the fastest depleted. It’s empty after 5-6 seconds. And this is the range we want to train at.

A good starter workout includes 6×6 seconds of all-out sprints in a ride to improve your neuro-muscular connection.

3. Manage Your Nutrition

Crit-races might be short but you will need fuel and every study on carbohydrates has shown its performance benefits for endurance athletes. But fueling is very individual. Find out what works for you and practice your fueling technique during your rides.

Crits are very technical and hectic, if you find it easier to drink, maybe skip the gels, and make sure to add a carb-rich powder to your bottle. Also, have your last big meal rich in carbs 3-4 hours before the start.

4. Practice Cornering

Cornering is king when it comes to crit-racing. If you’re great at cornering that’s half the battle. Because when you lose ground you need to spend energy to make it back up. This adds to a ton of lost energy; that way, even the strongest riders get worn out.

For example, search for empty parking and take some turns. Remember that your bike goes where your eyes go and that your inner leg and crankarm should be up. In the race, it’s better to leave a small gap at the corner’s entry and close it while cornering than to have a gap at the exit.

5. Find Comfort Riding in the Pack

While racing, you compete with 50-100, or more, bike racers. Therefore, body contact is sometimes unavoidable. To race robust you need to get used to it.

A good way to practice is having experience with group rides and meeting your buddies to practice some bumping with elbows and shoulders on a grassy field. Once you’re more experienced you can practice on empty parking, for example.

6. Set Up Your Race Bike

A clean bike is a fast bike because mud and dirt add drag to your bike. The type of bike isn’t that important, you can choose a gravel bike or an endurance bike just make sure you equip it with 25-28 mm road tires. 

Additionally, crit-racing with all the corners and breaking requires lots of shifting. Before racing adjust your gearing, to shift smoothly and prevent losing ground from failing gears.

7. Be Prepared

Prepare yourself the night before the race. Check the weather and adjust your clothing or bike setup. Make yourself a checklist with all the gear you need for race day. With a pre-packed bag, you thwart forgetting essentials. Think about all the things you need, like your race license, shoes, and nutrition. Arrive at least 1.5 hours pre-start to get your number relaxed and to be able to recon the course.

8. Warm Up Like a Pro

The more intense a race is the better the warm-up should be. However, you shouldn’t warm up too long and hard. Studies suggest 20-30 minutes of easy riding with an opener effort and a short sprint.

Here’s an example warm-up:

  • 13min easy riding at 50-60% of FTP
  • 1min at Tempo 85-90% of FTP
  • 2min easy riding at 50-60% of FTP
  • 6sec all-out sprint
  • 4-5min easy riding 50-60% of FTP

Enjoy! Crit-Racing is Fun

Ultimately, don’t forget the most important thing about bike racing: Having fun. In my opinion, criteriums are among the best ways to get into competition in cycling. You learn essentials like riding in a pack and cornering, while the mix of high speeds and technical corners in crits is just pure joy. 

Hopefully, this guide will help you conquer your first-ever crit-race and ignite that passion for bike racing as it once did for me.

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