Criteriums are pretty much an exclusively American form of racing. They can be rather frightening for beginning racers because of the pack skills required. Once you get used to them though, they can be a lot of fun because there is always something going on in the race. Often you get spectators to cheer and usually some primes to sprint for during the race. Criteriums are popular with people who have limited training time because they don’t require the mileage base that road racing does. They do require a lot of high intensity training though. Criteriums are a good place to test race tactics. You can try making attacks and going for the primes without too much fear of getting dropped if you get tired. If you are comfortable in a pack, it is relatively easy to sit in and recover. Practice your sprint by going for primes. The first skill necessary for a good criterium is getting a good starting position and getting clipped in when the gun goes off. Practice clipping into your pedals without looking at them and accelerating whenever you get stopped at a red light. You don’t want to have to spend the first couple of laps trying to chase or move up.
Good cornering ability is essential for being successful in criteruims. You should never have to brake in a corner if you follow the right line. There is a flow to the pack through a corner and you should follow it. Generally, corners are not a good place to move up. You may make up at most one position, and you will probably make someone mad! The best way to learn how to corner is to follow someone who is good. This can be by doing the twilight training crits, group rides or doing races that include higher categories. When going around a corner, relax your upper body, bend your elbows, keep your hands on the drops and have your outside pedal down with your weight on it. It is actually much easier to ride near the front of a pack that at the back. At the back, you will almost certainly have to brake in the corners (because someone else did) and accelerate back out of them. This takes a lot of energy and is known as the “yo-yo effect”. The front of the pack goes a constant pace and the back strings out and comes back just like a yo-yo.
The last essential criterium skill is sprinting. There are 3 important things about sprinting: 1) position 2) position and 3) position. Unless the course has a very unusually long start-finish straight, if you are not in the top 3 out of the last corner, you will not win. Ever. In many races, the race actually comes down to a race for the last corner. You will not be able to improve your position by more than one or two places after the last corner, even if you are the fastest sprinter in the field. During the last few laps, do not be afraid to be out in the wind a little if it keeps you in good position. The basic rule for the last laps of a crit is to always have access to the front in case someone decides to surge.
If you have several members of a team at a race, you can lead out the best sprinter. The purpose of the leadout is to maximize the chances of the best sprinter winning the race by keeping them in a good position in the final laps without the sprinter having to expend a lot of energy. For this to happen, the leadout must be FAST! Usually a leadout will start with one or two laps to go, and it may take several leadout people to keep the speed up: for example, the first person goes as hard as they can for half a lap with 1 lap to go, then they pull off and the next person goes as hard a they can for half a lap and finally the sprinter goes at 200m. This is known as a “train” and you will see it all the time in Pro races. You can also have a “sweeper” which is a teammate who sits on the sprinter’s wheel and makes sure nobody else is on it. If the sweeper stays on the sprinter’s wheel all the way to the line, they can get 2nd or 3rd, thus maximizing the team placings. The sweeper has to be aggressive about holding their position though because everyone wants the wheel of a good sprinter.
The leadout must be fast enough to stifle any urges of other teams to attack or swarm around the leader. Often you will see teammate from team A leading out her sprinter for a lap at some relatively fast pace, only to have team B swarm up the side with half a lap to go some 2-4 mph faster. One of the best ways to learn how to sprint is to be a leadout rider. This is because it will give you a mission to get to the front at the end of a race. It is always easier to ride AT the front than NEAR the front. It will also help you build up your own speed.
Sprinting utilized a different energy delivery system than other forms of racing. Your muscles use mainly creatine phosphate when sprinting. This form of energy allows for very high power output, but it is gone in 10-15 sec. To replenish creatine phosphate stores in your muscles requires a relatively long time - 5 min. or so. This is why it is important when doing sprint workouts to recover fully in between efforts. You don’t want to train yourself to go slow. You should do your sprint workout early in the week when you are freshest. Sprinting also requires coordination and upper body strength and therefore must be practiced.
A good sprint workout consists of a thorough warm-up, maybe with a few short, small-geared jumps and then 5-8 all-out sprints of 15-20 sec. with 5 min. or so between efforts. To work on pure speed, get yourself rolling (say 18-20mph) and then sprint as hard as you can in the gear that allows you to go the fastest. To work on strength and acceleration, you can do “power sprints”. This is where you start at very low speed (5 mph) in a big gear (53x13 or 53x14) and accelerate as hard as you can for 15 sec. Sprinting requires a lot of strength and a winter weight program can really benefit here. Track sprint specialists hit the weight room year around. It is good to do sprint workouts with a partner or a small group for extra motivation. You can also look at max. speed on your cycling computer for each effort to gauge progress.
Sprinting is a combination of leg speed and power. To work on leg speed and coordination, try some of your sprints on a slight downhill or with a tailwind. To work on power, do them uphill or into the wind. A few tailwind or downhill sprints are a good way to “wake up your legs” the day before a race or as part of your criterium warm-up.