I can’t claim to be a shy person. Nor have I ever been accused of lacking confidence. But there is one discipline in cycling that I’ve been nervous about for a while now… Crit Racing.
Criteriums are short races held on closed circuits. Unlike Sportives, which I’ve done loads of, they’re openly competitive – with points for the top placings and prizes for the winners. At Sportives, the Etape, Marmotte or even the Maratona dles Dolomites you might get a time and a ranking but the official line is about participation, about the challenge, about doing your best. Crits hold no such pretense.
So why the nerves? A Sportive can be 5, 6 or 7 hours long. Minutes, let alone seconds are fairly unimportant. You’re ranked by time, not position (unless you’re right up at the pointy end, which I never am). Whoever crosses the line just in front of you doesn’t really matter. By contrast, Crits are 40-60 minutes long, 30 seconds can cover all the scoring positions; and positions are everything. You need a license to race and gaining points equates to climbing the license, which ranks from category 4 to 3, 2 1 and elite. Putting a large group of competitive cyclists on a tight track means gaps get smaller and elbows get pointy-er. Everyone pushes that little bit harder on the descents, banks harder into the bends or is that bit more reluctant to give up the wheel. The line between success and failure is thinner, but a whole lot more tangible!
Crits are also about more than just being fast. Obviously it’s perfectly possible to just blow the field away, but it’s unusual and you have to be a real hitter to pull it off. For the most part you work with the bunch. It’s fun playing pro a bit, thinking tactics, deciding whether to cover breaks, making sure you’re well positioned, measuring your efforts. The top 10 won’t be the fastest 10 riders, but the 10 who rode the best race.
In order to ride the Tour of Cambridgeshire earlier this year I had to get a license. A load of the guy’s I ride with, (including my pal Lou) all race – so it was about time I got involved. I duly signed up for “Hog with the Occasional Hill”, a 45 minute race run mostly on the lower circuit at the Redbridge Cycling Centre. One lap of the main circuit, including “the Hoggenberg” entailed a 300 metre five per cent hill every 15 minutes. The Hoggenberg doesn’t sound much, but it is enough to take your legs away in a sprint and when you only do it three times per race, it’s a sprint every time.
I went in well-advised by the guys who have raced a bit. Stay with the group, feel it out on the first climb then sit in for the inevitable sprint finish. On the first climb I was able to move up the group easily enough, but I needed some time to recover. Not a lot happened before the second ascent, when a small group tried to go but never got far. Going into the final climb I knew I needed to get to the front of the group and stay there. I came off the top of the hill 4/5th wheel and held my position. As the race drew into the final few laps the pace ramped up. I started to think about the finish. There’s a long sweeping left hand bend into the line. I wanted to be on the outside to avoid getting boxed in. As we took the bell for the last lap we came into a tight hairpin. One guy overcooked it and ran wide, crashing on the outside of the track. I had to cut to the inside to avoid being caught up but that put me out of position. I was tight on the inside coming into the final bend so pushed up through a tight gap and made my way to the front of the bunch, but it was a long way out. I made the decision to open up my sprint early and I think I went clear for a bit, but was pipped on the line for the win. Second was a pretty sweet result for my first time out. I won eight points towards the 12 needed to rise from category 4 to 3 and £30, which covered my £20 entry and even a small profit!
Buoyed by my success and having clearly found my true calling, I prepared to take the London Crit scene by storm. The same organisers behind Redbridge also put on a three race series at the Hog Hill circuit over two weekends. This time though, we would race the hill every lap. There were three “primes” – intermediate points placings every 15 minutes or so. As well as license points, there were series points for the top three in each prime as well as the top 10 finishers. In race one, going into the first prime there was an attack off the front. I decided to test my legs and went with it. I felt good covering the move up the hill and easily won the sprint for the points. It was only when I descended the hill and got back on to the flat that I realised how much it had taken out of me. I spent the next couple of laps hanging off the back and had completely missed the second prime but I managed to get back in the bunch. I stayed in place trying to catch my breath until we came into the last lap. Lou went for a final lap break and I was in second wheel. We didn’t get away but the pace had really picked up and I was struggling just to hold Lou’s wheel. I came around him and put an effort in for as long as I could but was gassed when the final hill came. I managed to stay mid field on the climb but had nothing left for the sprint and rolled over the line in 11th. With five series points in the bag, the race wasn’t a complete loss.
At this point, my overly competitive/analytical tendencies came out. I was signed up for the second race of the series – with the option of entering the third. A good number of the top racers moved up to Cat 3, so wouldn’t be in the second two races. I had options… I wanted to make Cat 3 before the end of the series, which meant I needed 6th place or better. The primes were a completely different competition though. I figured I could attack the primes in race two, probably leaving myself with not a lot for the finish, then go for the license points at race three. Genius, right?
All was going to plan in race two as I sat in among the bunch, before going for the first prime similarly to last time. I tied with another rider for first place then sat back into the group. As the pace picked up on the hill for the second prime I got out of the saddle but as I put the power down, my chain dropped…by the time I’d gotten it back on the pack was long gone. For two laps I pushed to try and get back in. I made some ground but never really got close. Unfortunately, by the end I was more worried about getting lapped than making some heroic comeback!
With my delusions of grandeur shattered, I turned up for the final race of the season with more realistic aspirations. I had another go at the first prime, but two days after my solo finish the legs were pretty ropey and it was clear that if I tried anything I’d end up with a repeat of what happened race one. So I sat in the bunch and did as little as possible for the next half hour or so. A couple of really strong riders were looking to animate the race but were well covered by the bunch. So, it came down to a sprint. I wasn’t ideally positioned for this and when the quick climbers went off the hill I had to work through the bunch to chase. Off the top, I was sitting 5th or 6th but managed to spit out of the final bend and ultimately found myself on the losing end of a photo finish for second place. I took third – with enough points to move to Cat 3 but had to sacrifice any series aspirations to get there.
In a weird way, those four races served to prove everything I knew about Crits going in. Crashes happen and can really ruin your summer. The fastest guys don’t always win. For instance, I beat a guy who went on to win a race with a 30 minute solo break which takes huge power. I was beaten by guys one week that I dropped the next. And finally, that I’m probably not as good as I think I am sometimes! We all dream of being the guy who makes the hero break, but ultimately my success came when the race stayed together and I went with the bunch.
With the rugby season kicking off soon I’m not sure how much more racing I’ll do this year. But with a Cat 3 license and some experience under my belt, I’ll be starting racing a lot earlier next year. Who knows… it may yet be my calling as a cyclist and I might indeed still take the London Crit scene by storm? Probably not though.