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In praise of criteriums

Trevor Ward
3 Aug 2021

Fast, frenetic, intense, dangerous, noisy… a criterium is bike racing distilled down to its most raw form

If you ever find yourself in Venice, and have already bagged one of Strava’s more unique segments by taking the vaporetto across the lagoon and hiring a bike to ride the length of the Lido, a visit to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection is highly recommended. It’s here you will find several examples of cycling represented in the form of modernist art.

Au Velodrome is a Cubist rendering of Charles Crupelandt winning the 1912 Paris-Roubaix, painted by French artist Jean Metzinger and believed to be the first modernist painting to show a real sporting event and athlete. Nearby is an even more striking composition.

Called Dinamismo di un Ciclista and painted by Italian Umberto Boccioni in 1913, it’s a conflagration of shapes and colours that gradually reveals itself to be man and machine hurtling at speed. Boccioni, who would serve in a battalion of cyclists during the First World War, was a leading light of the Futurist movement that pioneered new forms of depicting speed and motion on canvas.

Although he could have taken his inspiration from any of the regular bicycle races at the time – both the Tour of Lombardy and Milan-San Remo were already popular fixtures on the Italian sporting calendar – his painting hints at a type of racing more ferocious and uncompromising than any long-distance challenge. The broad strokes, bright colours and blur of components – human or mechanical? – represent a relentlessly fast and violent contest that could surely only be a criterium race.

Halfway between road and track riding, a criterium race typically comprises laps of a closed circuit of between 1km and 1.5km in length. Though it can be an off-road circuit – such as Scotland’s Crit On The Campus, which takes place on the grounds of Stirling University – town centre circuits are more common and usually involve more challenges for the riders. The race lasts around an hour, so the pace is fast and furious from the start, requiring special skills from the protagonists.

‘It’s all about the ability to be lucid when you’re under the pump. A smart rider will always beat an opponent who relies too much on brawn,’ says James McCallum, who was British and Scottish national circuit champion and winner of the overall circuit race series during his nine years as a pro (during which time he also won a Commonwealth bronze medal in the track scratch race and was Scottish national road race champion).

‘It can be pretty hairy – crashes are inevitable – and it’s a brutal discipline requiring being able to continuously repeat top-end efforts for up to three to five minutes at a time, but it was my bread and butter as a pro,’ he says.

Giving us the horn

McCallum, who has since gone on to coach riders including two-times British circuit champion Eileen Roe and elite road series champion Steve Lampier, adds, ‘You need the ability to tap into your VO2 max and neuromuscular power at the same time. My favourite training session was sitting behind the motorbike and having to attack when the rider hit the horn. I miss that stuff.’

Crit racing is the most popular form of the sport in the US – the Red Hook Criterium in New York grew from an informal race for fixie riders around a Brooklyn neighbourhood into an international series with races in London, Barcelona and Milan – and can trace its roots to kermesse racing in Belgium, which are slightly longer road circuit races held during village fairs that are still popular today.

Before retiring as a pro in 2014, McCallum raced crits all over the world and describes Durham’s undulating and cobbled circuit as the toughest he’s faced: ‘It’s one hour of absolute panic!’

The man responsible for designing it is three-times northwest cyclocross champion Mark Leyland, who oversees all the city centre circuits featured in the Tour Series. A former junior crit racer – ‘I remember the thrills and spills of racing through bus stations covered in diesel!’ – he says the circuits are designed with both racers and spectators in mind.

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‘For the riders, a variety of skills are required. It’s more than just sprint, brake, sprint,’ he says. ‘Pure speed isn’t going to win you the race at Durham, but it might on a much flatter circuit like Stevenage. As for the spectators, crit racing is perfect – lap after lap of action at a constantly high speed and you’re able to see the race go past 30 or 40 times in an hour.’

McCallum agrees, saying, ‘The speed and sound of a bunch roaring past your nose at 60kmh for an hour is impressive. And for us doing the racing it’s pretty cool too. You’re basically in a tunnel of noise for an hour, which is extremely intense. When I won the London Nocturne in Smithfield, the crowds were five to 10 deep on the home straight. That’s pretty special.’

Returning to art – this time literature – the hero of Tim Krabbé’s novel, The Rider, recounts the story of a cyclist who ‘seduced a woman during a criterium’. She was among the spectators and they exchanged glances as ‘every hundred seconds he came barrelling past’.

‘Their love blossomed as prettily as a flower in one of those time-lapse films,’ writes Krabbé. ‘Ten laps long they smiled at each other, for another 10 laps she winked, they began running their tongues over their lips, and by the time the race was approaching its decisive phase their gestures had become downright salacious.’

Disappointingly, this doesn’t ring any bells with either McCallum or Leyland. ‘He was obviously riding quite slowly,’ muses Leyland, while McCallum laughs off any parallels with his own career, saying, ‘I was always too busy staying upright.’

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