A criterium, or crit, is a bike race held on a short course (usually less than 1 mile), often run on closed-off city center streets. Race length can be determined by a number of laps or total time, in which case the number of remaining laps is calculated as the race progresses.
On Friday morning the 28th of September during work, I decided to see where the Athletes By Design Fall Fling bike races were being held this weekend. To my pleasant surprise, they’d landed a course in a calm little subdivision five miles from my home.
I sent an email to my wife and said, “I’m going to race my bike tomorrow!”
“Sounds good, honey,” came the reply.
When I first purchased a real road bike in 2007 (a Felt 4C carbon fiber road bike) one of the first things I did was enter a number of criterium races in the Chicago area. Back in the early 2000s, as marketing manager for a regional media company, I’d committed sponsorship money to support major bike races in the region. Through those experiences, I came to learn a bit about the sport. On a whim one time, I even entered a race with my Trek 400 series steel road bike to try it out. I got dropped in the first 400 meters.
So I’ve always had a deep respect for real cyclists. My two best friends raced for years before I ever touched a road bike. I’d visit their races and watched a few crits along the way. I also learned the dangers and joys of criteriums. That first year of racing I watched more than a few guys skitter into hay bales and crunch their bikes, or themselves. The basic truth is that crit racing is dangerous. It’s easy to forget that.
Over the years I’ve let up a bit on crit racing. Usually, I’d head at least twice a year to the local scratch and handicap races held by the ABD Cycling group at a local industrial park.
Most of my bike racing the last four years has been done in triathlons. That’s quite a bit different than true bike racing. For one thing, there’s no drafting allowed. In crits, you don’t survive a lap if you don’t draft. It’s either hold the wheel of the guy (or gal) ahead or get dropped.
So I’m sitting at the start line yesterday with a fit-looking band of 60+ cyclists that I recognized a few from years past. Cycling is an evergreen sport. Age does not matter much to those who keep at it. Thus I knew the pace would be solid from the get-go despite the laconic instructions being doled out by the race director.
Off to the races
Sure enough, the whistle blew and the Alaskan-sized guy in front of me sped off. I clipped in cleanly enough but in that spare moment a much-older woman rider drifted toward me and the path was cut off to catch the draft of the lead guy or anyone else.
The race composition was basically every guy over the age of 60 and every woman too. So I applauded the presence of a woman that was 75 years old. Yet I should also probably have been alert in case of slower riders, but I wasn’t. Haven’t not raced all year I forgot that sometimes bike races start like that.
So I hustled like hell to get around the first circle and tear into the 300-meter incline toward the first turn. That required some slalom work too. That early delay really cost me.
Heading into the first turn, I swung wide to avoid another cyclist and got out into the ruts at the far side of the road. This crit was held in a standalone suburban development called Mill Creek outside Geneva, Illinois. The roads are in great shape right in the middle. But on the edges, the asphalt was cracked and foreboding. When I hit that zone on the turn, my front wheel jumped from one crack to the other. I skidded into the curb itself and knew I’d be going down.
Drop it like it’s hot
During all those years of crit racing I’d learned lots of fine bike handling skills. This situation was not dire, and a voice in my head told me to just relax and find some grass to land on if possible. That’s what happened. I leaned over at a high rate of speed (more than 20 mph) and performed a sort of glancing slide. I laid ‘er down, in other words.
It didn’t really hurt and I popped right up, stood the bike on its wheels and looked down. The chain was loose. Otherwise, I could have basically kept on riding.
There were also some colorfully shaggy dirt clods stuck in the side of my bike shoe and sticking out of my left brake hood. I plucked those out and started walking back toward the start with my bike. A race marshall called out and said, “Come on back. You get a free lap.”
I knew that. Sort of. But something about going down like that took the joy and anticipation out of the day. I got back on the road but actually let the lead group swing past so I would not interfere with the pace line of six guys as they entered the corner. They were the real racers from that point on. I’d be nothing but a pretender.
So that was that. I pulled over again and told me wife, who was standing near the finish. “Ahhh, I’m done.”
Everyone near the finish was really nice. “Are you sure?” the race director offered. “You can just ride and have fun.”
But it wasn’t fun for me at that point. I go to bike races to race, and while I’ve never won, I’d stuck with the bunch a number of times. But this time I wasn’t really ready to do that in a number of respects.
Jumping into a late-season crit after not really racing any crits all summer is not the best game plan. I’m sure there are riders who are capable of that. But not me. 90% of my riding has been between 18-22 mph all summer. Most of these were long haul training rides with occasional sustained speed, but not much surging or real sprint training.
This crit started at 22 mph and was roaring along at 24 mph on the 300-meter uphill. In warmups I rehearsed those surges and could feel the internal engine overheating. It was perhaps a bit insulting to those other seasoned riders to think that I could take my multi-sport cycling and apply it to a crit and hope for success.
As it stood, it was the mental side of the game that tripped me up. To crit race well, you need to anticipate the actions of other riders, especially the slower ones. And stay out of trouble.
Or trouble will find you, as it did me. Fortunately, all that I got for the trouble was a bit of a sore shoulder. Nothing broken. No road rash. No busted bike parts.
Just some dirt clods and a few confessions under the late September sun. “If it was easy,” I told myself, “Everybody could do it.”
And that lesson applies to just about everything. But it’s the true criteria in bike racing. That’s why they call it a criterium.