The most common form of American bike racing, the criterium, is a multi-lap race of 25-60 miles held on a closed generally a mile or less in length. These races, which usually last one to two hours, are extremely fast - 30 MPH and up – as the cyclists jockey for position and sprint for lap “primes’ (cash or merchandise prizes, pronounced “preems”). The short closed course, generally with both right – and left-hand corners, makes this type of racing easy to watch for spectators and more accessible for the media.
In criteriums, it’s “go” from the gun, as the strong riders force the pace and the weaker ones struggle to hang on. Quick acceleration and bike-handling ability are paramount – a successful criterium rider will be able to dive into a tight corners at high speed, leaning the bike over a gravity-defying angle, then power out of the turn and instantly set up for the next. It’s important to stay near the front; the first few riders in the pack can take a corner with little or no braking. Those toward the back jockey for the best “line” through the turn, brake, and then sprint to catch up with the pack as it accelerates, developing an “accordion” or “slinky” effect.
In an hour-long race where corners will number in the hundreds, the constant braking and accelerating takes its toll; riders who fall off the pace and find themselves out of contention or lapped by the field, will usually be removed from the race. A rider who crashes, flats or has some other mechanical problem, however, may take advantage of a free-lap rule to repair his or her bike, proceeding to a repair pit and re-entering the pack in the position he or she left it a lap later.
Attacks and chases follow one another with dizzying quickness as riders from one team or another “take a flyer” off the front. Watch for situations in which one team greatly outnumbers the others. One team may have a rider attack, forcing the other teams to chase, and then send another as soon as the first is reeled back in, repeating the process until the competition folds under the pressure or has nothing left to put back into the pedals.
If the pack stays together, the race may end in a field sprint, with each team maneuvering its fastest rider toward the front in the final laps – and from near chaos, a winner!