Skills for Criterium Racing 1130x600
Training Tips

Learning the Cycling Skills for Your First Criterium

By: Jim Rutberg  August 25, 2021

How to ride in a pack, corner, and accelerate in this dynamic race format

Criteriums have long been one of the most popular and plentiful competition formats for cyclists in the United States. These fast, exciting, and spectator-friendly races can be found nearly every week in small towns and big cities throughout the country and can be a great experience for cyclists of all ages and ability levels. To have a fun and safe experience in your first criterium it pays to spend some time preparing for the technical demands of this dynamic race format.

A criterium is a mass start, multi-lap event contested on a closed course where laps are typically a mile or less and include 4-6 corners. Racers do a pre-determined number of laps or race for a pre-determined amount of time - usually 30 to 90 minutes. For the latter format, officials will time the first few laps to figure out how fast the field is racing, then hold up laps cards at the start/finish line indicating how many laps remain in the race. Speed, intensity, and excitement are the defining characteristics of criterium racing, so use the following guidance to get ready and then find an event near you.

Developing Criterium Skills

The keys to having fun in a criterium are being comfortable and confident in a pack and with high-speed cornering and accelerations. Fortunately, these are skills you can work on in local group rides and through specific skills sessions.

Tips for riding in a pack

Whether you are riding in the Sunday morning group ride, the Tuesday night bike shop training ride, or a local criterium, the fundamental skills for riding safely and confidently in a pack are largely the same.

  • Keep your head up: Staying in the draft is crucial for conserving energy, but you can’t just pay attention to the wheel right in front of you. By keeping your head up and focusing your attention further forward, you can notice and anticipate changes in speed and direction with enough time to respond appropriately.
  • Get comfortable with bumping: While cycling is not a contact sport there is often a bit of incidental contact between riders in a tight peloton. Anticipating this, you want to get comfortable bumping elbows and shoulders with an individual rider in a non-competitive setting before doing it in a group setting or race. One of the best ways to do this is on a grassy field because you can roll slowly and the ground is relatively soft if you fall. Keep your upper body relaxed so your elbows and shoulders can act like shock absorbers instead of push rods. Keep a firm grip on the bars and practice bumping elbows, bumping shoulders, and leaning on each other. Once you’re comfortable doing this on the grass, try it in an empty parking lot, and then finally practice some bumping as you ride side-by-side on the road.
  • Manage your spacing: To ride together smoothly, riders need to accelerate and slow down together as a group. To do this you want to manage the amount of space you maintain between your front wheel and the rear wheel ahead of you. You want to be close enough to get a good draft but not so close that you need to hit the brakes hard and/or frequently to avoid a collision. If you need to use your brakes to adjust your speed in a tight pack, it’s best to apply them gently or gradually so your abrupt braking doesn’t make the riders behind you hit the brakes even harder.

Tips for Cornering

With 4-6 corners per lap, criteriums can be won and lost in the turns. Cornering drills can be done in empty parking lots, quiet residential streets, and during training criteriums if they are available in your area. Here are some basics for getting through corners quickly and safely:

  • Look through the corner to the exit: Your bike goes where your eyes go, so look for the exit of the turn rather than focusing on the apex or the wheel ahead of you. The same goes for avoiding obstacles like potholes and sewer covers; focus on the line that will take you beyond the obstacle. Focusing on the obstacle increases the likelihood of hitting it.
  • Hands in the drops: For increased stability through high-speed corners, keep your hands in the drops rather than on the brake hoods. While this slightly lowers your center of gravity, the bigger benefit is to balance your weight more equally across both wheels. More weight on the front wheel helps you maintain traction and steering.
  • Focus pressure on outside pedal and inside hand: Keeping your outside pedal in the 6 o’clock position ensures you won’t strike your inside pedal on the pavement as you lean into the corner. Press your weight into that outside pedal for traction and stability while adjusting the arc of your turn by modulating the pressure you exert with your inside hand. Press harder with your inside hand to tip the bike further into the corner and tighten the radius of your turn.
  • Brake before the corner: The faster you take corners the closer you get to the limit of your tires’ ability to maintain traction. Grabbing a handful of brakes in the middle of a corner can cause a loss of traction and a painful slide. Do most of your braking before entering a corner so you can get through the turn safely and can get off the brakes and start accelerating sooner.

Acceleration Skills

Sprinting skills are not just for the finale. In a criterium you will frequently have to accelerate hard, like when you need to get back up to speed after slowing for a corner, when you must bridge a gap in the pack or want to initiate a breakaway, and in the final handful of laps when multiple accelerations are needed to get in position for the finale. When it’s time to go full gas, keep the following in mind:

  • Choose your gear: Big gears (i.e. 53x11) are great for maximizing top speed, but are hard to get moving. Smaller gears (i.e. 53x15) allow for a higher cadence and quicker accelerations. To increase speed quickly, increase cadence first and then shift into a harder gear, as opposed to shifting into a big gear first and getting bogged down trying to accelerate against higher resistance.
  • Hands in the drops: Accelerations to bridge gaps or maintain position in the middle of a race can be done with your hands on the brake hoods or drops, but when it comes to the final laps and the sprint finish you’ll want your hands in the drops. Not only is there an aerodynamic advantage, but your weight is more evenly distributed between the wheels for better traction and steering control and your body is in a stable yet flexible position to respond safely to contact with another rider.
  • Hold your line: The fastest riders focus all their movements on making the bike go forward faster and that means accelerating in a straight line and keeping the bike under them. Thrashing the bike back and forth wastes energy and increases the risks for everyone around you. Furthermore, significantly deviating from your line during a sprint is not only dangerous but can result in relegation or disqualification.

Up Next: Developing Fitness for Criteriums

Developing the skills for criteriums is crucial, but you also need the fitness to reach the finish line. Many cyclists who are looking to start racing criteriums have plenty of aerobic endurance from generalized cycling training. Stay tuned for an upcoming article that will explain how you can tailor your cycling training to meet the intensity demands of criterium racing.