Criteriums hold a special place in the hearts of the American bike racing community. A type of bike race characterized by participants doing laps on a closed course usually less than a mile in length, crits, as they’re typically called, are extremely popular in the US. They were originally created in Europe as a sort of “parade” for spectators to see big name racers, but they’ve quickly become one of the go-to styles of racing for amateur bike racers the world over. While crits are run pretty much anywhere people race bikes, it seems their level of popularity, and the level of intensity, is on another level here. My guess is it boils down to two main factors: the way our cities are laid out, and the high level of spectator friendliness.
With our wide roads, (relatively) smooth pavement, and a tendency to use interconnecting blocks, American streets are perfect for short, looping race courses. Organizers rope off some roads, pay the fees, sign the forms, bring on some sponsors and they have themselves a race. Obviously it’s more complex than that, but it’s significantly easier than trying to shut down stretches of road… something the locals typically don’t like. Ironman can throw tons of money at cities so they close their roads, and can even leave roads open in a pinch since riders are supposed to keep right and ride basically single file. Plus, course considerations aren’t as big a deal, no problems with a sharp U-turn or a road shoulder-width path through a turn. In contrast, road race organizers typically have a tiny budget, the racers often like to make use of the entire road, and the flow of the course is something that has to be considered. It’s an expensive logistical nightmare, unless you’re hosting a major race like the Tour of California.
Like NASCAR and other speedway type races, crits are extremely spectator friendly when compared to their road racing brethren. At, say, the Tour de France, if you wish to spectate you find a spot on the route that looks cool, you trek out there and hang out for a few hours, the racers go by, you scream and cheer, then you go home. It can be thrilling to see them whizz by, but you end up “watching” most of the race on TV or through the race radio. In contrast, crits lap the course over a dozen times, so spectators see the racers multiple times during the race. Some courses are even setup in a way so spectators can see the action all over the course! They also make use of primes, or awards for racers who “win” various laps, which helps keep the intensity of the races high and gives the spectators a chance to see multiple sprints for the line. We watched a race the other day that had 12 primes yet was only about 20 or so laps long.
Crits aren’t at all unique to America, we sure didn’t think them up, but we’ve certainly embraced them to the fullest. So the question for me was simple, was I ready to embrace them, and could I even hang with the frenetic pace and extreme intensity they’re known for? The answer to both questions is: Yes!