Criterium races are short, intense, and exciting. The U.S. crit scene is flourishing, and any road cyclist interested in stepping into the world of racing world should give it a try. Crits are a fun way to build your experience, skills, and fitness. But they can be intimidating to new riders.
Ricky Arnopol and Wyatt Gaulke are local Pro/Cat. 1 racers, and they are two of the fastest riders in our shop. They have a huge amount of crit racing experience, so we asked them for some expert advice on how to improve at criteriums, how to deal with the challenges of crashing, and how to get started if you’re new to the sport.
Wyatt is a Bike Technician. He races for Reynolds Roofing, a club team. He’s won a couple of small races but is most proud of his fourth-place finish at the Friday night race in Tulsa Tough. Thanks to his results this season, he’s also "guest riding" for FAVE Cycling for the rest of the USA Crits series this year.
Training and Fitness
Ricky and Wyatt have put in a lot of hard work to get to where they are. The key to doing well in crits is training at high intensities. Crits are short and fast, and they require racers to put out a lot of power and recover quickly. Getting better at this sort of riding requires focused interval training or consistent hard racing to build fitness.
The Pro’s Closet: What’s training like at your level?
Wyatt Gaulke: We ride a lot. I’d say we’ve both put in around 7,000 miles for the year.
Ricky Arnopol: There’s no secret to it. We just ride lots of miles. 7,000 is decent for midway through the year.
TPC: Do you do crit-specific training?
RA: For me, I spend the first half of the season focusing on stage racing and road racing, and that requires a bit more volume. Then when you get into crits, you want to focus a bit less on quantity and more on quality. You have to do more aggressive, specific, high-intensity training. Usually, that means interval work.
WG: That being said, Ricky and I race so much, in season we can almost get away with just racing and taking the other days easy. I’ll race mid-week and twice on the weekends, and then I fill the rest of the week with easy rides and recovery.
RA: True, crits are intense enough that if you have a full schedule you can’t do a huge amount of training during the week or the month because you’re just going to suffer. It’s a lot of race-recover-race-recover.
WG: I haven’t done a specific workout in about two months. All I’ve done is race.
RA: Haha, that’s a loss. If you’re aren’t racing as much as we are though, you just have to simulate it. High-intensity interval work two to three days a week and ride easy for the rest of it.
TPC: Is there a type of rider you think does well in crits?
WG: The bigger the better.
RA: Yeah, when you get into crit season you can join what we call the "thicc blok club."
WG: Eat that extra burrito.
RA: You don’t need to worry about going out the back on something like a mountain stage. Crits aren’t road races. Focus on intensity and build that punchy, repeatable power. That being said, fitness is good, but it isn't everything.
Skills and Tactics
Crits require riders to race in tight groups at high speeds while navigating through corners. Bike handling skills and tactics play a huge part in how successful you will be as a racer. Fortunately, skills and tactics are something that can be learned and practiced. Getting better just requires commitment and time.
TPC: What sort of skills work do you do?
WG: Track standing, cornering, and bumping. It helps a lot to go out with some friends and practice leaning shoulders against each other while riding.
RA: A lot of times when you go to a clinic for crit racing they’ll have you ride in a straight line while leaning against each other, bumping elbows, or touching a front wheel to someone’s rear wheel and sort of leaning on their rear wheel. That way, when you’re in a race and that happens you’re relaxed and you don’t react. As long as there’s no crazy movement, and if everyone keeps their cool, you won’t go down.
WG: Also, you can go to a grassy field with a friend and practice contact and these sorts of things safely.
RA: Do fast group rides to get used to riding in a pack. What’s also good is finding low-key practice races. Here we have Tuesday Night Thunder at Pearl Izumi, which is pretty much just a practice series. There are no categories.
WG: It’s cheap too. Ten bucks.
RA: You can do a lot of them without spending too much. It’s relaxed and you can get all the practice you need. Good people show up. It just like any other sort of training. You have to do it a lot to get good at it.
TPC: How important are skills like positioning and being able to corner well?
WG: It’s everything. You can make up so much in the corners and by being in the right place at the right time.
RA: I think you can actually get away in crits without that much fitness. The strongest guy typically isn’t the one who wins. If you’re really tactically good, you can move around the pack efficiently and hit corners harder. It makes a difference. It’s easier to succeed if you can keep a good position.
WG: The whole thing is usually a race to be in the right spot in the last corner.
RA: Right. If you come out of the last corner in the top-five, you’re probably finishing in the top-five. Not many passes happen in the final sprint because the speed is usually so high. Good positioning and cornering are what it really takes to be a good crit racer. Obviously, you have to be fit. But I’d say your tactics and skills make up almost 75% of it.
TPC: Do you have any easy tips to improve?
WG: Well, you just have to do it. You need to practice. Race a lot.
RA: Unfortunately, it really takes time — just doing it over and over and over.
WG: You have to fail a lot.
RA: You can make up 20 spots in one corner if you do it right. I’m not saying you can do that every corner, but the really good guys have the experience to know when they can sit back, and when they need to move up. The experience is what sets them apart. When they do move up they do it without even thinking. It’s so second nature they just move more efficiently, quickly, and safely. You can only learn how to be good at that by doing it a lot.
TPC: So were you any good at crit racing when you started?
RA: No. The first race I ever did was a crit. I got lapped twice. I almost quit racing after that.
WG: Yeah, I got dropped hard on the first lap as a junior. It sucked.
TPC: But over time you got better?
RA: Of course. It gets harder every level you go up, but you also become more tactically astute. In the lower categories, you start to figure it out more. You position yourself better, you watch the key riders, and you know your own strengths. Then suddenly you start to do well. When you get the Cat 1/2 level, everyone’s gone through that. They’re on that same level. Unless you’re this amazing sprinter that can hold 2,000 watts you have to learn to be cagey.
WG: And you have to be bold. You have to learn to take chances.
RA: In all honesty, you have to be okay with crashing.
WG: And very okay with not making it intact to the next race.
Crashing is a big fear for many new racers. Unfortunately, when you have big groups of riders all jostling for position, crashes tend to happen. But that’s part of what makes crit racing so fun and exciting. Ricky and Wyatt both have had plenty of experience hitting the deck. They’ve learned to deal with it in a way that lets them continue racing at a high level.
WG: Yeah, it just happens. I broke some ribs in the first USA Crit this year.
RA: They’re hard to avoid. But I think I’m getting good at not crashing. Putting myself in a specific position where I mitigate the risk of going into the barriers.
TPC: How do you avoid crashing?
WG: Just knowing when to move up, like whenever there’s a lull you should move.
RA: Staying on the inside line going into a turn is usually the safest place to be. You can’t always stay there, but if you can it reduces the likelihood of someone taking you out. Also, most crashes happen because everyone’s too close. One person makes a sudden movement and the person behind them can react in time. This is were practicing bumping and other skills really help.
TPC: How do you deal with crashing mentally?
WG: F—k it. That’s all it is.
RA: Really, you can’t think about it. I think all the worry about crashing happens before the race even starts. And then once you're in it, it sort of just goes away. When you crash it happens so fast. You usually have so little time to react that you’re on the ground before you even have a chance to worry about it.
WG: It happens really fast. You just have to accept that if it’s going to happen it'll happen. That’s part of racing.
RA: In the last laps of a crit, if you get in the front, in that washing machine, you’re so focused on staying upfront it’s like tunnel vision, you can’t even think about crashing. You always want to try and be in the front. Or you can be in the back. It’s easy to end up in the middle really quickly, and once you’re in the middle that’s when you’re in danger. If there’s going to be a big crash it’s going to be right in the middle of the pack. If you’re in the back, usually you can skirp around it.
WG: Because the back’s usually pretty strung-out, single-file. It’s easy to avoid stuff.
TPC: What do you do if you crash during a race?
WG: Just to jump right back in it if you can. Get back into the race as fast as you can. Go to the wheel pit if you need to fix something and get back on the next lap. Unless you’re really messed up, it’s good for you mentally to just hop back in.
RA: If you really want to get good at bike racing you’ll have to accept crashes. If it’s not serious you just have to take it in stride and carry on. You lose some skin but skin isn’t so bad. You can keep riding.
TPC: Do crashes ever affect you mentally or physically in future crits?
WG: I broke my elbow and wrist last year. It was season-ending. Coming back into it has been a bit hard. You’re tentative and cautious. It takes time for that to go away. But weirdly, it’s almost nice to just crash again and not break anything. Just knowing I’m not going to get that hurt, there’s some relief there.
RA: That’s true. I had a big crash before Nationals, but it was a good thing. You always kind of want to get a crash out of the way earlier, and hopefully it’s not bad. That way you can carry on without it weighing on you mentally. It’s funny, sometimes just crashing is the best way to get over crashing.
The bike you choose to ride can make a huge difference in your race experience. You don’t need the latest superbike. The key is to ride a bike that you’re comfortable with and don’t mind beating up. Ride what you can afford to replace. The components that will make the biggest difference in your bike’s performance are wheels and tires.
TPC: What bike are you guys riding?
WG: Specialized Allez Sprint.
RA: Specialized Allez Sprint. I’d say it’s the new hotness in crit racing. We’ve gone back to aluminum. But it’s got aero tubing.
WG: It’s cheaper too, so if I break it I can replace it. That’s key for crit racing.
RA: We both have SRAM Red eTap, and both use Reynolds wheels as our race wheels.
WG: We’re pretty much riding the same bike. They’re the same size even. We could probably swap.
TPC: What makes a good crit bike?
WG: You can ride anything. It doesn’t have to be nice at all. It’s probably better if it isn’t crazy nice. What’s most important is that you feel comfortable and confident on it. You shouldn’t have to think about it when you’re riding it.
RA: Good wheels and tires are key though. Confidence in your tires goes a long way. A high-quality racing tire on a wide carbon rim just feels so much better.
WG: Right, once you get to a high level you’re setting up for corners at 35mph. Your tires have to be good. You don’t necessarily have to have carbon rims, but if you can afford them, and afford to replace them, they will help.
RA: And a deep-section aero wheel will make a difference when you’re at high speed.
WG: They’re just stiffer too. That stiffness is going to help you accelerate, corner harder, and stick to your line.
RA: Wider rims with a wider tire are ideal. There’s more traction and it’s like riding on a cloud. If you’re a beginner though, aluminum wheels are not a bad choice. Some are really good now, and plenty are wide enough. Aluminum frames now are really good too. You don’t really need a carbon frame if you can’t afford it. Aluminum frames are really stiff and pretty light now.
WG: They’re not that uncomfortable now too. I’m pretty comfortable on mine.
RA: Me too.
TPC: What’s your opinion on disc brakes?
RA: At the highest level, guys on disc brakes can come up to a corner 5mph faster and the guys behind them on rim brakes have no chance. I think disc brakes are a hardcore gain.
WG: The difference in stopping distance can be bad. It’d be better if everyone were on them. Disc or rim brakes, it should be all the same.
Tips for First-Time Crit Racers
TPC: What tips do you have for someone doing their first crit?
WG: Pedal hard and have fun! And keep that outside foot down.
RA: Try to be at the front or the back. The back’s not too good if you want a good result but it’s safe. But just look at the people in your race. Fast people usually look fast. Follow them. You’ll do better and you’ll learn more following good riders.
WG: If their legs are shaved and they look really good, you should probably follow them. Just — seriously — don’t ever corner with your inside foot down. That’s a disaster waiting to happen. Really weight that outside foot and you’ll corner better. Have fun too. As you start moving up, it gets more serious and it’s less fun.
RA: I don’t know about that.
WG: It’s still a grand time. It’s just hard. So much harder.
RA: Sure, sure. I remember Tour of America’s Dairyland. I did it as a Cat 4 and it was probably the highlight of my career. So fun.
TPC: Do you need a team to do well?
WG: No, of course not. Go ahead and ride solo, it’s fine. You can get in the top-20 or 30 in some big crits.
RA: You can win if you’re good enough.
WG: It’ll take a lot of talent. A team can definitely help if you have big goals.
RA: But a lot of pro riders who go do crits just show up solo and they do just fine. A strong team definitely helps at a higher level. When you’re at the lower levels, most people are doing it individually and that’s just fine. Even at the pro level, it’s really hard to remain a solid unit as a team. Crit racing can be so sporadic, unorganized, and chaotic sometimes it pays off being a single rider who doesn’t have to worry about anyone else.
Do you have your own tips or advice for racing crits? Let us know in the comments!
Bonus: Ricky and Wyatt’s Favorite Crit Lingo
Thicc Blok: A body composition advantageous for crit racing. It’s generally heavier and more powerful than the ideal road racing or stage racing body type. When you gain some weight during crit season it’s often known as joining the "thicc blok club."
Washing Machine: If a team’s pushing the pace at the front and everyone’s frantically circling around trying to stay on rider’s wheels. Riders in the pack tend to move up and fall back in a circular pattern called the washing machine.
Full Send: Complete commitment to success despite stressful or dangerous circumstances. Similar to its use in action sports. “I’m going to go full send into that corner.”
Divebomb/Chop-chop/Chop the inside: Taking the inside line in a corner and cutting everyone off. Riders can get bonus points if they say “Chop-chop” while doing it.
Yard Sale: Crashing spectacularly. Named because a rider’s possesions will get scattered across the ground. It can also refer to crashing into someone’s lawn during a race.
PRB: Post-race beer.
Chirping: Communication between riders during a race. It can often be negative, involving hot tempers and riders scolding or yelling at others. E.g., “That guy was chirping at me the whole race.”