I vividly recall my first Bay Criterium Series. I warmed up well. I fumbled to clip in as the commentator, Phil Liggett, counted us down from 10 to 0. I was the last rider before we even got to the first corner.
I heard Phil say that the quality of the field is exceptional, as everyone was vying for Sydney Olympics selection. I was lapped in only six minutes and told to withdraw from the course. It was a humbling experience.
Bob Kelly, my husband and coach, then said:
“Next year when you do the Bay Crits you will finish every criterium, although you will be hanging on for dear life. The following year you will be sitting towards the front and will be able to follow wheels. The year after you will be creating the race – attacking, getting into breaks and will get on the podium.”
He was correct. On stage 4 in 2003 I finished second to a very young Belinda Goss. Phil Liggett later told me he thought I was going to win it.
So what did I learn from my first Bay Crits experience? Several things:
- Cycling takes time. It doesn’t happen in 4-6 weeks — it’s a steady year-on-year progression of improvement. You must be patient. You can’t buy the “kilometres in the legs”.
- Cornering and bunch riding skills are critical.
- Holding position within the criterium is important to minimise energy loss.
- It’s important to have a strong core to back up for five days of criterium racing without becoming inefficient.
- You need to train the correct energy systems to be able to go with the repeated surges.
Get the base trained first
My introduction into Bay Criterium racing showed that I didn’t have the endurance base that the other riders had, nor the bike skills to race at that level. I describe the benefits of a big endurance base as being like “putting money in the bank”. You let your savings build up and then you draw on them when needed.
A good endurance block gives you the platform to work from when doing hard efforts and trying to hold on in a race. In watts or average speed terms, a good base can enable you to hold a 40km/h average or 280W average, whereas without enough base kilometres you may struggle to hold 35km/hr or 240W.
Each year you ride, you effectively add to your base or foundation. In my first year of full-time cycling I rode 25,000km. This continued over a 10-year timeframe. This cumulative base of 250,000km meant that I could sustain a higher power output/average speed after 10 years of racing than I could in my first season.
In simple terms, I had a bigger base to draw from. I had a bigger memory of kilometres in the legs to help me hold a higher power output, to attack faster, and to race smarter.
Cornering and bunch skills
Learning how to corner at speed is a vital thing to learn. By this I mean understanding how to lean the bike and knowing that you will keep it upright. In summary, you want to:
- put pressure on the outside pedal with your leg straight
- stay in the saddle
- bend both arms and relax your shoulders
- know how to ride through the apex of the corner with riders all around you
- keep your cadence somewhere around 95-100RPM and anticipate gear changes so you don’t ride over-geared. This is vital for hotdog circuits — change before a tight corner so you can punch out of the corner without losing momentum
- understand the entry speed needed into corners so you get through with minimal braking but without crashing out
- always look ahead (never at the ground) and try to look through the corners to your exit point
- understand how and where to put pressure through the handle bars to improve tyre contact with the ground.
These skills need to be practised over and over again so use local criteriums to practice until they became second nature. They say it takes 10,000 hours to perfect a skill so doing at least two criteriums every week is a great way to learn how to ride these sorts of races well.
Pressure on the handle bars
So what do you do with your hands? Firstly, make sure you are riding in the drops as this provides a lower centre of gravity and enables you to corner faster. This takes practice and requires a reasonable level of core strength and skill.
I was taught to put pressure through both drops but slightly more through the outside drop. The best way to explain this is to consider where the centre of gravity is when you drop a plumb bob from each of your drops.
When a bike is leaning to the left, and you position a plumb bob from the right drop, the plump bob falls almost directly down through the tyre. This is what you want – downforce through the tyre to help it grip the most.
Putting a plumb bob from the left drop shows the centre of gravity is out to the left of the rider, so if turning left and more weight was given to the left drop, it could cause the front wheel to wash out.
I slightly lower my inside shoulder and bend the inside arm a little more. It feels like I am almost hugging the leg that is bent up.
Bike fit and set up
I am making the assumption that as a crit rider you have a bike that fits you correctly. Cornering when you are too stretched out means you can’t bend your arms, or put pressure in the drops as needed. Conversely if your bike is too small, more weight is distributed over the front wheel which is dangerous.
In addition, if your seat is too high you can’t put pressure on the pedals properly. A poorly fitting bike can cause you to struggle to corner well, relative to your racing buddies, regardless of how often you practice.
Build your core
I have mentioned it before but core strength is the secret weapon which enhances what you are doing out on the road.
A good core improves your ability to transfer more power through the pedals. It helps you develop strength in your glutes and quads and provides the foundations to build your sprint to that next level. You only have to look at how rock solid Andre Greipel is on the bike to appreciate the core he has developed, not to mention his quads!
Check out this article on becoming a better climber for some tips on how to improve your core strength.
Training the energy systems
A criterium is not a steady release of energy. The pace surges, riders attack, there are intermediate sprints, there are gaps to close and so on. Training for these surges will make you a better crit rider.
A great drill is to do a series of short hard sprints, followed by limited recovery. For example, you could do four or five sets of 10-15 second efforts, seated or standing, with one minute of recovery between efforts. This simulates the repeated accelerations needed to be a dominant criterium rider. These could be done on the road or on an ergo.
Remember, criterium racing is learnt by practising it so I encourage you to race local criteriums and have a go. Try to evaluate each criterium you do. Ask yourself:
- did I waste energy by following too many moves?
- did I sit out in the wind rather than hide in the bunch?
- did I brake harder than everyone else so I had to accelerate harder and more often to get back to a wheel?
- did I warm up enough?
- did I position myself in the top 10-15 riders to minimise that “elastic band” effect that happens through tight circuits?
Doing a self-assessment like this after each crit will give you a sense of how well you did and what you could improve next time around.
I hope this article has given you a few ideas about how to become a better criterium rider.
About the author
Helen Kelly and her husband Bob run Kelly Cycle Coaching. Both are certified level 2 cycling coaches and Helen has raced professionally all over the world and represented Australia at the world championship level.