A viewer's guide to Criterium racing

What is a criterium?

The New West Grand Prix is a criterium or crit. It’s a mass-start bike race contested on a tight, closed circuit the riders will lap 40-60 times in about an hour. If that sounds a little like Nascar racing, it’s an apt comparison, complete with multiple lead changes, bunch charges to the line, pit stops, chills and spills.

Riders lean into the corners.

Tactics in a criterium.

No cyclist can maintain a sprint speed for an hour or so, so racers with aspirations to win a criterium most work together to dictate the pace, wear out potential challengers, shelter each other from the wind. There may be the odd privateer entered in the race, but most of the riders are affiliated with a team. The team will share the workload and protect the member they feel has the best chance to win the day.

Look for riders wearing the same kit riding together, either in a line called a pace line, or in a compact group amidst the rest of the racers. A rider in the shelter of a group can conserve as much as 30 per cent of their energy that they can then use when it matters most.

The pack is usually tightly bunched in crit racing.

If a team member falters because of a mechanical problem or crash, the rest of the team will ease their pace to allow their displaced member to catch up and rebuild their momentum behind the shelter of their teammates.

As the race progresses, a team may decide one of its members is riding particularly strongly with a good chance for victory, so they’ll pay special attention to protecting that leader and setting them up for the win. Teams generally share any prize money.

The 20 metres of climbing the racers will do each lap will make teamwork and tactics especially important in the Grand Prix. A strong team looking to wear down challengers could attack relentlessly on the Strongside climb or push the pace up the Carnarvon Street incline. With multiple riders to launch those attacks, it also saves the legs of their leader for later in the race, when it’s time to make a winning move

The action on the straights goes by in a blur.

What to look for in a criterium.

While a criterium might look like a relentless, frenetic sprint to be the fasters, there’s a lot of subtle nuances going on from the moment the starting gun sends the riders off.

Criteriums are unique because they allow pitstops. It doesn’t happen often, but a racer with a flat tire or mechanical problem can pull into a designated pit area for repairs and then rejoin the race a lap later without losing their position.

The climbs up Eighth and Carnarvon streets will thin the field. Most criterium races pull lapped riders off the course to keep the route clear for contenders and make it less confusing for spectators and officials. Don’t be surprised if only a handful of riders make it to the end.

Another aspect to watch and marvel at is just how close the racers are to each other as they circle the course at 30-70 km/h. There’s not a lot of room between them and the slightest wobble or moment’s inattention can lead to broken carbon fibre and skinned hips.

Criterium racing is fast.

If you’re not already exhausted, listen for the bell that rings periodically through the race; that signals the riders they’re on a “prime” lap, a one-lap race within the race that awards the first racer to cross the finish line at the end of the lap with a prize, usually cash. Primes ensure the race pace stays high and provides motivation to riders who may not have it in them, or team support, to go for the overall victory.

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