Crushing the Crits

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By John Higgins — Criterium racing is a popular form of road bike racing that can be found in many cities and regions around the country. Crits are held on closed courses with no cars and are of short duration – usually an hour or less, making them a popular “after work” evening workout. The close and fast-paced group riding can be intimidating to start with, but you will be guaranteed a healthy dose of anticipation, excitement, adrenaline and exhaustion. Think of a criterium as unstructured interval training with a few riding buddies.

The Sugarhouse Criterium, generally held in May, is a great race that will challenge all riders. Photo by Dave Iltis
The Sugarhouse Criterium, generally held in May, is a great race that will challenge all riders. Photo by Dave Iltis

Crit racing demands and develops riding fitness and skills, but more is needed if you want to “crush the crits”. And it’s not just strategy, timing, and eye-watering acceleration. You need to give consideration to your choice of equipment, how it is set up, and how you position yourself on the bike.

The Bike

Let’s say you have embraced the notion of N+1, and have a dedicated bike allocated to crit racing. How might it be different to your every day, any event, gran fondo or canyon conquering bike? We’ll begin with the frame. A bike fit mentor of mine who grew up in the New York crit racing scene emphasizes that a crit bike should be longer in the top tube (more frame reach) but shorter in the stem than a traditional road touring (stage racing) bike. You want a bike stable under acceleration that holds a line well, but very responsive to steering inputs to dive into a gap or avoid a wheel overlap. For most people this would be a bike with a modern race geometry like a Specialized Tarmac rather than an endurance geometry bike like a Specialized Roubaix or a Trek Domane. Desired stem length is 70-90mm, depending on frame size, rather than a more traditional 100 – 120mm.

Handlebar width and shape is an important choice. Yes, handlebars come in different widths and drop profiles. A slightly narrower bar than what you are used to may offer the dual benefit of making you more aerodynamic and less likely to bump bars or entangle with another rider. You are likely to spend most of the time riding in the drops (more on this later). The bar should not be so narrow that you have to either wing out your elbows or tuck in your knees to complete the pedal stroke without your knees competing for space with your arms and hands. If this is an issue you may benefit from a bar that is wider in the drops than the hoods to give more leg clearance inside your forearms. Nor do you want a bar so narrow that it restricts your breathing. Crit racing demands a lot of oxygen, so don’t restrict the supply by going total pro and cramming yourself onto a 38cm bar if you are built like The Hulk. The depth and shape of the drops should also provide a secure and comfortable grip for your hands. There is surprising variation in the curve radius of the drops, and some bars just don’t work well with some hands.

Crank length is a very important variable for several reasons. The typical lineup of crank length in mm is 175, 172.5, 170 and 165. Shorter is better when it comes to crit racing. If you are long legged person on 175’s, drop to 170. If you are on 170, drop to 165. A shorter crank offers the following benefits:

  1. reduced chance of pedal strike when pedaling through corners. Digging a pedal into the road surface when cornering is an adrenaline-spiking, crash-inducing experience that is best avoided.
  2. accelerate faster. A shorter crank is easier to spin up as the pedal is turning through a shorter radius. Being able to respond to sudden moves by accelerating quickly is important in crits. You don’t want to get bogged down trying to turn a long lever or have to dump a bunch of gears before you spin quicker.
  3. ride more easily and aerodynamically in the drops as your hips will be more open. It’s easier to lower your torso, and an open hip angle helps you get force onto the pedal earlier in the pedal stroke. More force for longer = faster.

If you are concerned that a shorter crank reduces your power, I’ll refer you to local cyclist and renowned researcher Dr Jim Martin who is regarded as a leading authority on the relationship between crank length and power production (https://www.cyclingutah.com/tech/crank-length-coming-full-circle/). The short answer is that there is none.

Pedal system. I’ll nominate crank length as more important than pedal system when it comes to avoiding a pedal strike. However some pedal systems are lower profile than others. The standout are pedals from Speedplay (now owned by and marketed as Wahoo). If you are a seeker of marginal gains, then this is the pedal for you, especially as there is an aero version available.

Riding Position

The selection of equipment and how it is set up (thinking mostly handlebars) is going to determine your riding position. Your riding position needs to be optimized for the ABCs of crit racing:

  1. aerodynamics and accelerations;
  2. braking control;
  3. cornering. All of these can be achieved by riding in the drops.

It is astonishing to watch a local crit and see how many riders do lap after lap with their hands on the hoods. A crit is not a Sunday Stroll. Either the rider is not working hard enough, their strength and flexibility is sorely lacking, or the stem is already slammed and the drops are out of arm reach. The drops should be accessible, and you should be able to work up to riding in them comfortably for the duration of the event (40 – 60 minutes). Riding in the drops lowers you center of gravity, improving cornering control and traction; improves aerodynamics – the faster you are going, the more important this is; provides a more positive and secure hand grip to control the bike; allows for judicious feathering of the brakes (provided the brake lever reach is adjusted to suit your finger length); and coils the muscular spring for unleashing powerful moves to establish or catch a breakaway or go for the finishing sprint. If you cannot comfortably reach the drops and stay there, raise your bars until you can instead of riding on the hoods the whole time.

Riding Skills, Racing Skills, and Fitness

These are all very different, but are other important elements to riding safely and well in a criterium. If criterium racing is an important part of your riding agenda, or you would like it to be, engaging the services of a cycling coach may be advisable. You can also subject yourself to a deep end immersion experience by showing up at a local crit, watching a few races, and then signing up and lining up.

Local Events

For information on local criterium events, see our road racing calendars here: https://www.cyclingutah.com/event-calendars/, check with your local bike shops, or with USA Cycling at https://usacycling.org/events-search?discipline=19&sub_disciplines=8

Let the fun begin!

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