I remember having goosebumps on both arms as I entered the last lap of the race. After a few failed attempts to finish with the pack in a race, today I was going to accomplish my goal. I would finish with the main pack! Granted, I wasn’t in a position to finish in the top five, or ten, but baring an accident or a flat tire, I was going to finish. I can do this, I thought. I can actually finish a criterium. Maybe one day I can actually win a race.
Criterium racing is popular in the U.S. Because it’s the easiest layout to achieve. Crits are usually held in a downtown area on weekends. A course is mapped out and the streets are closed to vehicular traffic. Bikes and cars don’t get along in a race. Neither do racers and dogs or pedestrians. I’ve seen the results. In most criteriums the racers do a certain number of laps and the first rider to cross the finish line is the winner. Pretty simple. Other times the racers race for a predetermined amount of time -say thirty minutes – and then there might be three laps to determine the outcome. These are more rare.
The courses are usually under a mile and involve going around corners and, if available, up and down hills. Even a short, not-too-steep incline can take a toll after thirty laps at full speed. Sometimes the courses might involve a dozen turns or more. It depends on the streets. One of my favorite criteriums was held in Chicago close to the University of Chicago. If I remember correctly, it was held on the Midway Plaisance. Okay, I looked it up on a Chicago street map and I was right. It was definitely the Midway Plaisance, and that’s how it’s spelled. I got it right Spellckek so take that. The course was an oval with long straightaways with wide, easy-to-navigate corners at each end. As long as you avoided the potholes. It was Chicago, remember? Perfect for a tall racer, who did not corner extremely well. I remember leading the pack to the finish line after the first lap. Not bad for a novice racer, but I soon realized the other racers were using me to break the wind. They were drafting, as it’s called in cycling. I did finish in the top twenty that day… But that came later.
I entered the last lap of the Dixon Criterium with goosebumps. It isn’t easy to reach for your water bottle in a criterium when you are rubbing elbows with other racers while sprinting at speeds over thirty miles an hour. I couldn’t remember if I had taken a drink or not. Could the goosebumps be from dehydration, or were they from the elation of finally finishing a race? I couldn’t be sure, but I was going to give it a 100%.
One other way of earning money, or prizes, in a criterium would be to win a prime. A prime – we always pronounced them as ‘premes’ – would happen during the race. It would be announced a lap ahead of time and would usually be a cash amount for winning the lap. I was involved in my first prime in Dixon. The pack had split partway through the race, and I was in a pack of maybe ten riders just slightly behind the main pack. The race announcer rang the bell for a prime, and I was in perfect position to take the cash. Or so I thought. I lost to a more experienced rider, who sat on my wheel and sprinted past me in the last few meters. Live and learn.
My teammate, Bill Hough, was with me in Dixon. He had already finished with the pack in a few races, but this was my first chance to finish one. I don’t remember if he was in front of me or if I was pulling him along. It didn’t matter. I was going to finish with the main peloton. I wasn’t one of the racers who had been dropped and left to ride to the finish line alone, or worse yet, to be pulled from the race by the head official. There is no worse feeling in racing than to be told to stop by the man in stripes. Well, maybe crashing and breaking bones might be worse, but baring that. You get the picture? That had happened earlier in the race. I heard a crash several riders behind me, and later learned one of the racers suffered a broken collarbone. He was okay, and actually raced the following weekend. Tough guy.
I don’t remember my finishing position that day in Dixon, Il. All that mattered was that I finished on my bike, in the main peloton, and was now on my way to a glorious and successful career as a racer for the Straight Up team.
I continued to have minor successes and, more than I care to remember, utter failures in criteriums over the rest of my so-called racing career. I attribute part of my lack of success in criteriums to my regard for personal safety. I had seen people hurt in crashes, and had crashed myself many times (Mostly while riding my mountain bike, but that’s a subject for another blog.) I didn’t want to crash, so I didn’t take the chances necessary to win, or place in the top ten or twenty, like other riders. Of course, I can always claim I wasn’t built to be a criterium racer. I was a basketball player, who just happened to love the thrill of bike racing.