What level of cycling fitness do I require to compete in a entry level Criterium?
To discover what level of fitness is required to compete in an entry level criterium, we must begin by determining the demands of a criterium event.
As cyclists, we’re fortunate that we are able to define the demands of our sport in objective terms. Moving a human being from point a) to point b) requires a given amount of mechanical work, which we can measure relatively easily with a power meter. Our understanding of human physiology means that we can estimate the energy cost of producing this work.
Analyse the demands of a cycling event
A statistical technique called Exposure variation analysis (EVA) is a useful way to analyse the demands of a cycling event because is examines both the total time that an exercise intensity was maintained for (e.g. you held 300 watts for a total of 10 minutes during a criterium) but it also takes into account the influence of how this 10 minutes was distributed through the event. This is important, because 40 bursts of 15 seconds at 300 watts (10 minutes total) is a very different effort to holding 300 watts for 10 minutes, continuously.
In 2008, Abbiss et al. used EVA to analyse the variation in power output in time-trials, criterium and road-races. As expected, power output in a criterium was much more variable than in a time-trial (4.23 vs. 2.81). Whilst criteriums are sometimes thought of as the most variable cycling events, road races were the most unpredictable, resulting in an EVA of 4.81.
- TT = 2.81
- Criterium = 4.23
- Road-Races Race = 4.81
Power benchmarks for criterium racers
Using analysis such as this alongside power-files from athletes in criterium races, we can see the the repeated circuits create recurring patterns: a sustained moderate to high power interspersed with very high-power bursts. Consequently, we can use this starting point to define the level and type of fitness required for a criterium. The moderate high power output which forms the foundation of the event requires the rider to have sufficient aerobic base to be able to sustain a given wattage for around 60 minutes. The bursts, such as those required when accelerating out of each corner, require you to be able to surge and maintain a very high-power, but perhaps only for 15 seconds. This stresses the anaerobic energy systems and requires effective muscle recruitment to produce high neuromuscular power.
Power-based benchmarks are generally most useful when they are expressed relative to body mass i.e. watts per kilogram. The following represent two suggested benchmarks for a rider aiming to compete in a criterium.
1) Establish sufficient base fitness to sustain around 4 w.kg. for 20 minutes
2) Develop sufficient neuro-muscular power and fatigue resistance to be able to produce 7 w.kg for 15 seconds, 10 times, with 45 seconds recovery between each effort.
You could do a simple test to establish your current levels using a WattBike, but don’t let test results hold you back. The best way to find out what level of fitness is required is to go and do a race and see whether you get dropped or not! After the race, analyse what happened as objectively as you can. Assess where you performed well and where there’s room for improvement.
How can I use my power profile to identify my strengths & weakness for Crit racing?
Once you have determined your basic level in terms of sustainable and short duration power, you can conduct additional tests to understand more about your individual strengths and weaknesses. The simplest way is to conduct four tests: record your best power output, perhaps on a WattBike again, over 5 seconds, 1 minute, 5 minutes and 20 minutes. You may need to do the short tests on one day and the 20 minute effort on another, so you’re fresh enough to produce the highest average power possible.
It’s possible to make some generalised assumptions from the results of these tests to categorise riders as sprinters, all-rounders, or more steady-state (e.g. climbing/TT) type riders using power outputs expressed as watts per kilogram, relative to categorised benchmarks (Allen & Coggan, 2010).
An all-rounder’s power-profile is characterised by a generally horizontal plot or tightly grouped results across the time durations tests. This is a reflection of the fact that all-rounders will generally be competitive in a range of disciplines, but not be exceptional in one.
Sprinters often demonstrate a significant down-sloping profile as a consequence of their exceptionally high level of sprint capacity and relative weakness in other areas.
In contrast to sprinters, steady-state rider’s up-sloping profile demonstrates their improving capacity as event duration increases. However, the relative weakness in sprinting and short-duration efforts can sometimes compromise performance in events such as road-races, even if the race distance is long, because the most significant ‘moves’ in these races are often a consequence of short bursts.
Classifying new riders
Riders in the first 2 of years of cycling should be careful about drawing too many conclusions from their power-profile. It’s likely that they have great potential to improve and should try to develop a complete foundation in training, establishing a ‘minimum standard’ across their capacities and improve their skills before identifying a specialism. For example, a new rider who believed their strength was in steady-state events would do well to try to improve their short duration power. This should improve their capability to make the powerful bursts required to stay in contention with the leaders in a race, so they have a chance of using their preference for steady-state riding by launching a solo attack or escaping with a group, later in the race.
For more experienced riders, the power-profile can provide a fairly robust insight into a riders strengths and weaknesses and can be used to focus training, target events and race strategies. In the context of a criterium, all-rounders could aim to get in breaks and benefit from their fairly strong sustainable power and sprint (in a small group context). In contrast, sprinters would be wise to bide their time, position themselves well and wait for the final burst to the line. Steady-state riders may find criterium the most challenging events, but they could get lucky in breakaways, perhaps alone (if they are strong enough) or by attacking a breakaway group in the closing laps to make ‘death or glory’ charge for victory.
The important point to remember is that most of us have more potential to improve than we think – so don’t limit yourself!
What are the top 3 cycling skills required to race a Crit?
“Get to the finish line first, using the minimum amount of energy possible”
The increase in popularity and decreasing price of power meters has helped many riders realise even more of their potential in a way which previously was only available to the elite few. I’ve been amazed at some of the power figures posted by amateur riders. When analysing the power files of amateur races, I can see how the level has progressed in the UK over the last decade. However, watts per kilo are only part of the story.
I’ve also seen many incredibly strong riders fail to even finish races because they were unable to use their physiological capacities due under-developed road-racing skills. At best, this lack of skill wastes energy and can result in a rider being forced to continually sprint out of corners, fight too much for position or make unwise decisions about where to apply their effort, often resulting in them expending their limited glycogen stores and being spat out the back of the race. At worst rider’s poor ‘bike-craft’ can be dangerous.
Criterium racing requires many skills and you could argue a case for a number of them to be in the top three. However, developing the following three skills will provide good preparation for a rider enter the world of criterium racing:
Improving cornering skills will not only improve rider safety and speed, it will also save energy. Weak cornering skills often cause riders to lose position in the peloton, scrub off too much speed or take poor lines, resulting in them being forced to accelerate constantly catch up. If you compare the power files of two similar riders, the rider with good cornering skills may expend 10% less energy than a rider who is wasting effort in every bend. I could spend the next few hundred words trying to explain how to improve your cornering, but I suggest you just watch this video by one of the best bike handlers of the last 10 years, Robbie McEwen.
2) ’Reading’ the race and competitors
When a rider first begins to race, the peloton can look like a confusing, constantly moving mess. However, over time, riders begin to understand the fluid nature of the peloton and perceive how a race is unfolding. Eventually, riders can begin to form fairly robust predictions about how a race will unfold and make decisions about where to expend their energy to improve their chances of getting a good result. This sometimes undervalued skill may be called ‘reading a race’ and it comes through a combination of race experience (entering events and learning from what you’ve seen) and research (being intentional about improving your knowledge of courses, competitors and tactics, perhaps through riding courses in advance, checking out other riders race results or seeking advice from more experienced racers).
If a rider develops their capacity to read a race, they will be less likely to make bad decisions which waste energy and reduce the probability of getting a good result. If you know a particular rider often attacks early in a criterium but then explodes half-way into the race, it’s probably a waste of time to follow them. In contrast, if you notice a particular group of riders often seem to get in the winning move, it makes sense to ride near to them and follow if they attack. If you think you have a chance as a sprinter, read the race results online and find out who is regularly winning sprints. ‘Glue’ yourself to their wheel in the next race and see what happens. Even if you can’t stay there, you’ll learn something.
On the flip-side, watch out for erratic riders and avoid them. As amateur rider’s training has improved, you may find riders with ‘engines’ that have developed disproportionately with their bike handling skills. I’ve seen a number of riders who are able to ride at 55km.hr but don’t have adequate control of their bike.
“Try to avoid riding close to riders who regularly sport bandages and a lot of scars. If they fall off a lot, there’s probably a reason and you don’t want to get caught up in it.”
Reading the race and knowing your competitors provides the opportunity to ride smart. Avoid heroics: there are no prizes for the longest effort on the front. If someone is foolishly committed to doing all the work, let them. However, if you’re in a small group that is working well together or are near the head of the peloton and end up on the front, don’t skip your turn – do enough to make a contribution and keep the pace even whilst conserving energy. Racing is a series of budgeting decisions. Riders must make continuous evaluations and balance the need to save energy against the opportunity to ‘invest’ it for maximum return.
As you’ve probably gathered by now, good positioning is crucial to performing well in criteriums. I’ll address this skill in more detail in the next question.
Where should I ride in the peloton during the race?
The biggest energy cost of a cyclist’s increasing speed is a result of pushing through the air. Aerodynamic drag increases exponentially with increasing speed, so in a high-speed event such as a criterium, minimising drag is key to preserving energy for the high-power bursts which make or break the race. Simply by riding in the peloton, a rider reduces the power required for a given speed by 30%, relative to riding alone.
However, in addition to drag, a rider’s position in the peloton changes the power requirements because of the rapidly changing fluid movement patterns of a racing bunch. A rider towards the back of a group will have to use much more energy to get round a criterium course than a rider closer to the front. At the front, the pace is more even into and out of corners and riders have more choice about which line to take. This results in a smoother power profile. Consequently, well positioned riders can produce more of their energy aerobically, accumulating less fatigue and saving their high-power anaerobic bursts for race defining moves. In contrast, riders at the back suffer from a ‘concertina effect’. Entering the corner, the effect of riders breaking in front accumulates so the rider enters the corner much slower. However, the front riders exit the corner much earlier and many are already up to maximum speed whilst the back-markers are still entering or in the corner. This speed differential stretches the peloton, requiring riders towards the rear to accelerate hard out of the corner and produce a sustained, high power effort simply to remain as part of the group.
“He/she who pedals the least, wins the race.”
Ideally, a rider should aim to stay within the top 20. This sometimes incurs a high energy cost in the first few laps of a criterium, as riders fight for position and try to eliminate the weakest racers, but this initial effort often pays dividends in terms of saving energy over the course of the race. Being near to the front means the rider can also monitor attacks, be in a better position to read the race and they are more likely to avoid crashes which often caused by a combination of bunching and fatigued riders towards the rear of the peloton. The smoother ride near to the front of the group also saves mental energy.
In addition, when analysing power files of races, you can sometimes see a correlation between rider’s finishing positions and the amount of time they spent pedaling. Riders who stay near to the front are more likely to finish in a good position and seem to spend less time pedalling, likely due to the reduced fluctuations in pace and better drafting opportunities in the top-20.
Nutrition before, during, after the race.
Nutrition Before The Race
When competing in sports that require high intensity exercise for a long duration (60 minutes+, such as in a criterium), performance is improved when glycogen stores are full prior to competition (Wright et al., 1991., Rauch et al., 1995.) Traditional approaches used to advocate a glycogen depletion period (reducing glycogen stores through training or reduced carbohydrate intake) in the days leading up to competition, followed by a 3 day ‘carb-loading’ period. However, many athletes found this protocol uncomfortable and more recent studies challenged the approach (Bussau, 2002). Based on more recent evidence, many nutritionists now suggest that a rider should consume 7-10g of carbohydrates per kg of bodyweight the day before a race (Jeukendrup, 2010). This could require a 70kg rider to consume 700g of carbohydrate the day before a race. Individual’s tolerance and requirements may vary according to preference, how you respond on what your level of activity has been leading up to the event, so it’s important to ascertain what works for you and ideally, seek the advice of a qualified nutritionist.
Performance Enhancing Espresso
Personally, in addition to topping up my muscle glycogen stores, I was a fan of a pre-race espresso (or three). I like the taste and the performance enhancing potential of caffeine has been actively researched since the 1970s. Fortunately, it seems that consuming caffeine in a drink, such as espresso, works equally well as consuming caffeine alone, such as in the form of tablets,. Studies suggest a dose of 5 mg.kg, 1 hour prior to exercise, can improve endurance exercise performance (Hodgson et al. 2013). However, lower doses (2-3 mg.kg) have also be shown to be effective (Jenkins et al. 2008). If you’re wondering how much caffeine is in a cup of coffee, according to the Harvard School of Public Heath, for the purposes of most studies, a cup of coffee is 227.3ml(8oz), containing 100 mg of caffeine.
Nutrition During A Criterium
Criteriums are generally only 60 minutes in duration, so there is likely no need to take on additional carbohydrate for the purposes of providing fuel. However, studies have demonstrated that during exercise lasting approximately 1 hour, a mouth rinse containing a small amount of carbohydrate can result in a performance benefit, likely due to it’s impact on the central nervous system, increasing central drive or motivation (Carter et al. 2004). Practically, a rider could mix up a single bottle with a dilute carbohydrate solution (30g of maltodextrin powder in 500ml of water), take a swig and rinse it around their mouth for 5 seconds, once every 5-10 minutes.
Nutrition After A Criterium
What a rider eats after a criterium race depends on how soon they need to ride hard again. If the rider needs to perform at a high level in training or racing the same or next day, it’s important to consume carbohydrate and protein soon after to replenish muscle glycogen stores. Studies suggest that ingesting protein (0.2-0.4 g.kg) and/or an amino acid mixture (around 9g) with up to 0.8 g/kg carbohydrate, accelerates post-exercise muscle glycogen repletion and should have positive effect on subsequent exercise performance (Beelen et al. 2010). Practically, for a 70kg rider, this could translate to a post-race shake containing 28 grams of whey protein and 56 grams of carbohydrate. If you don’t have to train or race hard, soon after, the need to consume protein and carbohydrate immediately after the event is likely less pressing.
If you could only do one workout session in training what would it be?
The ideal training session for a race depends on the event demands and a rider’s individual strengths and weaknesses. A training programme should begin by establishing what a rider can do, determine what they need to do (the demands of the event) and build a logical progression in terms of training and nutrition to bridge the gap. Training should generally follow a process of increasing specificity as the target event approaches. However, if I could only recommend one workout to help prepare a rider for a criterium, I’d recommend a ‘micro-burst’ session, where steady state riding was interspersed with repeated high-intensity efforts, as it closely resembles the power files of criterium events.
The micro-burst workout is a fantastic stimulus to both your aerobic, anaerobic energy metabolism and neuromuscular systems and simulates the highly variable nature and repeated accelerations which characterise criterium races. It’s worth including in your workout library, even if you have no intention of competing in criteriums.
15 min Easy riding, <56% FTP(Functional Threshold Power)/ <69% (Functional Threshold Heart Rate)
3×10 min (5 min Rest Interval) Continuous 15 second microbursts:
15 sec “On” hard microbursts, 150% FTP
15 sec “Off” recovery, 50% FTP
15 min Easy riding, 56-75% FTP/ 69-83% FTHR
This kind of workout is best carried out on a turbo-trainer or WattBike and paced using a power meter. However, if you don’t have access to power measurement, just ride really hard in the 15 second bursts, then ride 15 seconds easy and simply use a stop-watch to time the session.
It Takes Time
Improving your cycling performance takes time and commitment over months, weeks and years. Progression occurs gradually through the accumulation of good decisions and consistent actions, day by day, session by session. The journey is perhaps more important than the end goal, so whether you’re aiming to ride your first critierium or win the Tour Series, make sure you enjoy the ride!
Allen & Coggan (2010) Training & Racing With A Power Meter: Ch. 4
Abbiss et al. (2008) Examining pacing profiles in elite female road cyclists using exposure variation analysis. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 44: 437-442
Wright et al. (1991) Carbohydrate feedings before, during, or in combination improve cycling endurance performance. Journal of Applied Physiology, 71(3): 1082-8
Rauch et al. (1995) The effects of carbohydrate loading on muscle glycogen content and cycling performance. International Journal of Sport Nutrition, 5(1): 25-36
Jeukendrup A, Gleeson M. (2010) Sport Nutrition: An Introduction to Energy Production and Performance: 133
Bussau et al (2002) Carbohydrate loading in human muscle: an improved 1 day protocol. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 87(3): 290-295
Hodgson et al. (2013) The Metabolic and Performance Effects of Caffeine Compared to Coffee during Endurance Exercise, PLoS ONE 8(4)
Dam (Retrieved 11/2014) Department of Nutrition, Harvard School of Public Health: Ask the Expert: Coffee and Health; http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/coffee/
Jenkins et al. (2008) Ergogenic Effects of Low Doses of Caffeine on Cycling Performance. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism18: 328-342
Jeukendrup (2014) A Step Towards Personalized Sports Nutrition: Carbohydrate Intake During Exercise; Sports Medicine, 44 (1): Supplement 25-33
Carter et al. (2004) The effect of carbohydrate mouth rinse on 1-h cycle time trial performance. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 36(12): 2107-2111
Beelen et al. (2010) Nutritional strategies to promote postexercise recovery, International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism 20(6): 515-32.