Get Up and Ride: Racing in Your First Criterium


If you live in the Midwest and want to be a bike racer, you’re probably going to find your way to a criterium-style event sooner or later. Of the types of races you can do on a road bike, there are road races, circuit races, time trials and criteriums, as well as stage races that are made up of some combination of the four. Of these types, criteriums are the most common, especially in northeast Illinois and southeast Wisconsin. Held in parks, around town centers and in industrial areas, criterium courses cover the least amount of total mileage – typically one mile or less (when it comes to convincing communities to shut down their streets and roads for a day, the smaller the area, the better). That same small size also makes criteriums incredibly spectator-friendly.

Bike racing can be very dynamic and criteriums are a great example of that. The exciting, thrilling, even heart-pounding dynamic also means you can’t rely on a single recipe for a guaranteed result. Because the nature of criterium courses can differ widely from one to the next, riders of very different abilities can find a race that suits them.

It’s my first race. Will I be able to keep up?

If you’re new to bike racing, don’t worry about being thrown in with the most experienced racers for your very first race. As a new racer, you will be put into a race with riders whose experience and ability levels are similar to yours. Cycling sanctioning bodies typically split racers into separate categories and age group races based on their experience levels. Men start out as Category 5 racers and women as Category 4. Based on your performances, you can upgrade to higher categories (actually lower in number, Category 1 racers being the most experienced). In bike racing, there’s a place for everyone – experts and beginners alike.

How long do the races usually last?

Unlike other types of races, criteriums are often based on time, not distance. For instance, you may have a race that is 45 minutes plus two laps. In this case, you start the race with the officials counting up in time. When 45 minutes has elapsed, the counter will switch from counting up in minutes to counting down the remaining laps. The number of miles you race will depend on how fast your field rides each lap. While some criteriums are longer, beginners often race between 30 and 40 minutes and more experienced racers ride for 50 minutes to an hour.

If criterium courses are only a mile in length, there must be tight corners, right?

While cornering is an important skill for all riders, it’s even more important for racers of criteriums. Learning how to corner, at speed, allows racers to save energy by rolling instead of slowing down and then having to accelerate over and over again – which can be very tiring.

Some basic cornering suggestions: make sure you maintaining good body position, take the proper line through a turn and know when to brake (as well as when not to!). Once you learn the essentials of cornering, then practice, practice, practice! No matter how experienced a rider you are, this skill set can always be improved.

How do you maintain speed for a whole race?

Drafting is another key component to racing. Staying tucked into the group will save you a ton of energy and will allow you to spend the energy you do have when it benefits you. Something as simple as knowing which direction the wind is blowing can help you plan your race strategy. When you’re racing, try to anticipate where you’ll need to be on each section of the course based on the wind. Try to prevent gaps from opening between you and the rider in front of you. Closing down gaps when a race is going at full speed is hard work and doing it repeatedly can cost you a good result. Save your energy for something more productive.

How do criteriums differ from triathlon riding, time trials or other types of racing?

Bike racing can be as strategic as playing a game of chess, only with a lot more participants. Everyone has a plan of their own, and some plans are played out just when you are about to make yours. If that happens, you’ll need to adapt and make another one. Pay close attention to what is going on around you and remember, there are usually racers in front and behind you, so glancing back from time to time doesn’t hurt. Listen for shifting gears – they can be a good clue that someone is about to take off. Stay relaxed and ready to react. The best riders have the ability to evaluate multiple things going on around them while staying completely relaxed. Being attentive will also help keep you out of trouble. While accidents happen at all levels, inexperienced riders can sometimes overreact to a little bumping and wind up producing a negative outcome.

Could you recommend a criterium course for a beginner?

If you’re just starting out, I’d recommend choosing a course with wide, gentle corners and no large changes in elevation. This will allow you to get comfortable racing in a pack before you progress to more challenging courses. Around here, the Sherman Park criterium is probably the least technical – it’s basically a big oval. Other less technical courses are Muskego (Matt Wittig Memorial Criterium) and Tour De Villas. Remember, just because a course isn’t technical doesn’t mean it won’t be challenging. As the common bike racing saying goes, “The course doesn’t make the race hard. The racers make the race hard.”

If you want to see what’s available locally, you can go to the Illinois Cycling Association ( and Wisconsin Cycling Association ( for events and teams associated with USA Cycling. American Bicycle Racing ( is more of a grass roots organization, but they have a full schedule of events in Illinois and Wisconsin.