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Sunshine Pro: How to finish your first criterium race

Tips from Astana's Marie-Soleil Blais, the winner of the Choices Market Criterium at BC Superweek, for staying in the pack and saving energy so you can compete at your local crits

by Marie-Soleil Blais

It’s only been five laps into the race and you’re already struggeling at the back of the peloton. Legs loaded with lactic acid, out of breathe and not comprehending how they can go so fast! Soon after, you know it’s only moments before you’re asked to exit the race course.

Marie-Soleil Blais wins the Choices Market Criterium. Photo: Scott Robarts

We’ve all been there. Criterium racing can be overwhelming at first. The good news is, it’s a lot more technical than it seems, which means you can improve without any fitness gain. An experienced rider doesn’t need to be in good form to stay in the race. So before you think you’re not strong enough, here are my top tips to get a hang of this criterium racing thing.

Intense warm-up and early staging

This is the first mistake people make. Ideally, I would recommend a 25 to 30 minute warm-up, using a trainer or rollers (rather than riding around on the street). Include two progressive efforts of 2 minutes: first building from zone 3 into zone 4, then from zone 3 to zone 5, and another minute from zone 4 to zone 5 at 100 rpm+. You want the legs to burn a little, it’s essential to prepare your body. Don’t be scared to go hard.

You should do your warm-up about 45 minutes prior to the race, leaving you enough time to arrive to the start line early and super important, to position yourself closer to the front.

Commit to the first 10 minutes

Anticipate a brutal fast start, it always happens. Because it’s so much harder to ride at the back of the peloton, you cannot stay there very long if you wish to finish. It’s really important to fully commit in the first few laps, to do everything you can, digging as much as you can to move up (even if it seems unsustainable), to be in the first half of the peloton. Imagine that the race is only 10 to 15 minutes. It will ease up and it will be easier near the front, I promise. But don’t wait to feel better before moving up, just keep moving up in the first few laps!

Practice your cornering

It’s not just about taking a corner fast. Cornering with riders around requires practice. You need to adjust your speed and line to the rider in front of you. A trick for this is to leave a little gap before the turn, then adjust by accelerating out of the turn, rather than the opposite. You want to avoid braking in the turn where you risk of loosing traction with the road. Most importantly, you want to avoid decelerating or braking exiting the turn, as the peloton is re-accelerating hard at these moments.

Positioning: be smart and efficient

Work at navigating the peloton efficiently, spending as little energy as possible. Move up when the pace slows down and stay in the wheels when it’s fast. Learn to read the flow and to ride as smooth as possible, using others to move up and anticipating the changes of speed by looking ahead and around at all times. You want to avoid pushing hard and braking at the same time. Try to notice when you’re wasting energy and to recognize situations. With practice, you can win positions with good timing.

Choices Market Criterium. Photo: Scott Robarts

Beware of gaps, look ahead

One common thing I hear when people try to explain why they didn’t finish: the person in front of them let a gap open up. Yeah, that happens. Beware of that situation, look ahead and never stay behind a rider that’s showing signs of fatigue. Maybe this rider is 10 positions in front of you so you need to be aware at all time. As soon as you realize someone might leave a gap, you absolutely need to pass them. The earlier, the better. A voice in your head will want to ignore it, but you have to get back in the field as quickly as possible when a gap is forming ahead of you. It might not work if you waited too long, but staying where you are is like giving up before trying.

Last resort: tail-gunning

This is not a great situation to be in, but if you are the tail of the peloton and you can’t get out of doing the yo-yo, sprinting to catch the peloton only to slow down again waiting for a sharp or narrow turn, you can do what we call ‘tail-gunning’. It means pacing yourself to catch the back peloton, leaving a gap intentionnaly, to time yourself so that you can take the turn at higher speed (rather than stopping and re-accelerating). This can allow you to recover a little bit before giving another try at moving up in the peloton.

Hope these tips help and that you can put them into practice by the end of the season!

Marie-Soleil Blais is a first-year professional with Astana Women’s Team from the Centre-du-Québec. She’s a seven-time Quebec champion on the road and track. At 2019 BC Superweek, Blais won the Choices Market Criterium.