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An Introduction to American Criteriums

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 Criteriums are one of the purest, most representative forms of Professional Road Racing in America. They are raw, ambitious and wonderful to spectate. This project is about what they are and why they matter.

The “working title” for the creative brief that would one day become Manual For Speed was Domestic. Why? Because our opinion was—and still is to some degree—that the heart of cycling was a near-heroic (fight!) to the almost-death in the streets, at the feet of the public. Blue collar, rowdy, rough and tumble. A hard man thing. A chance to die every weekend and if you’re lucky earn enough to stay on the road for a dew days more. Doing odd jobs, crashing on sofas in strange houses. Like boxing but on a bike, like Rodeo but minus the horse.

And yeah, sure, according to GALLUP 86% of cycling fans are clinically preoccupied with World Tour or “European”-style Racing. For the all the obvious sexy, romantical reasons, reasons like three decades of cheap, widely available black and white posters featuring dudes riding dirt roads through mid-summer snowbanks; all the many French, Italian and Belgian sexy place names, e.g. Galibier, Tre Cime Di Lavaredo, Ronde De Vlaanderen ; oh and the Country Colors! and the Alps! and the Dolomites! and the wide-angle switchbacks!, as well as all the coffee table books and monument descriptions and category climb statistics and foggy-cobble-misty hill-top-cross-postcards and all the documentaries about Merckx and Cipollini and Ulrich, because of all that, World Tour racing is and has been racing’s true North.

But that doesn’t mean it’s right. Or that it has to be that way. And that’s why, eventually, we created a project within MFS committed to exploring and documenting Criteriums (crits, son!), journeyman & privateers and the Saturday Night Streets of small town America.

Bright and loud. Fast and trashy. Here and us.

While criteriums and criterium-like races are held all over the world, they are, by all accounts, a uniquely American expression and/or manifestation of professional cycling. Clearly NASCAR is to car racing (in America) as Rodeo is to horse sport (in America) as crits are to bike racing (in America), it’s just how we do shit.

If we had the time and money to properly research the history of criteriums in America (we don’t), we’d likely discover their popularity has everything to do with the fact that Americans don’t care—pretty much at all—about cycling. Deductive reasoning is free and it tells us this. It goes like this.

  1. Because, as a society, we don’t care about cycling we patently refuse to let it interfere with our lives and/or, more importantly, interrupt our traffic. Cars and roads are our God Given Rights. They are inalienable and whatnot. So rolling enclosures are a no-go!
  2. But if you do your 90-minute bike tournament at night or on a weekend, and you promise crashes and sprints and amped-up unintelligible announcers and jock jams and podiums and champagne, and whooshing noises accompanied by a big blast of wind like when 18-wheelers go by, until we’re all corn-dogged-out and sunburned and done partying for the night, we, the citizens of America, will let you sprint your buns off for our enjoyment.

Whatever the actual reason is, this is—in fact—how we race. And you know what, that’s fine because crits are the purest, most unadulterated form of speed cycling has to offer, and because of that, because of the speed and the rush and whirr and the wind, it’s magically visceral or viscerally magical.

We’ve all heard the stories and we’ve seen some things. Older guys sometimes still talk about the dudes (proper privateers) in the ’80s, who drove all over America in their Honda Civics loaded with bikes and duffle bags, doing the circuit, gambling, maybe winning enough to pay for another 10 days of food and gas, maybe not. We’ve been to Walterboro, we’ve stayed in the motel next to the Cracker Barrel. We’ve seen and felt the blurry twilight time-lapse that is Boise. We’ve seen blood. We’ve eaten burritos in rural North Carolina at 1:01 AM. We’ve homestayed. We’ve sat in the plastic kiddie pool filled filled with lukewarm water and empty beer cans on the top of Cry Baby Hill. And we want more.


  1. Criterium racing began in the United States in the 1920’s, at a time when track racing was extremely popular throughout the country. The USA CRITS website refers to crit racing as “American Street Track Racing.”
  2. Criterium racing, as a discipline, is not recognized by the UCI.
  3. In Belgium, the most common  crit-type style of racing is a Kermesse; 3-5 euros to enter, prize money is usually 600-800 euros, the field is typically 35 to 80 deep, the races last for 120 minutes as opposed to 60-90 minutes in the US and the courses are longer.
  4. A list of words that rhyme with criterium are: bacterium, collyrium, delirium, imperium, psalterium and criterion.
  5. The root of criterium is criterion.
  6. “Criterium” is worth 13 points in Scrabble and 16 points in Words with Friends
  7.  USA Cycling says that criteriums are: “The most common form of American racing”.
  8. One of the longest running cycling events in the US is the Harlem Crit (or Harlem Skyscraper Classic). It was founded in 1973 by David Walker, a Community Affairs Officer with NYPD’s 25th Precinct. The Skyscraper was designed to attract children to a cycling safety and racing program through the excitement of professional racing, and to offer amateur riders a chance to race in a beautiful urban setting.  The race has come a long way since then and so has Harlem.  Abandoned buildings and brownstones in the 70’s and 80’s have been replaced by  prime Manhattan real estate.
  9. Athens Twilight was the first nighttime race in the US in 60 years when it started in 1980.
  10. John Eustice won the first two US National Crit Championships. 1982 and ’83.
  11. Tyler Farrar won the US championship in 2005.
  12. The current US Crit Champion is Eric Young from Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies. He was also champion in 2011.
  13. In the early 2000s, Cannondale, then a US company, began to tailor its offerings for this kind of racing  with the CAAD line. Shorter wheelbase, increased rake. Stiff, and cheap to replace in case of a crash.
  14. In Europe, various localities host fake, post-Tour criteriums where the local Pro gets to win, and GC riders outsprint sprinters. It’s an exhibition not unlike American pro wrestling but with bikes.
  15. Crit racing is also part of collegiate cycling in the US.
  16. Circuit races are held in Belgium and the Netherlands, but there they race for points, not just for intermediate primes and a finish sprint. Their format is usually like this: every fifth lap, the first three riders get points. Points double on the final lap.
  17. In the ’80s, grass track racing became popular in the UK and northern France. Shorter than a criterium, the soft surface allowed riders who were concerned about crashing on pavement to compete.  The races were a lot like a crit but also included velodrome-style competitions; scratch races, points race, elimination, etc.
  18. Crits are popular in the United States in great part due to the ease of closing a small circuit, versus large or rolling closures needed for a stage race.
  19. Traffic concerns also influences the time of day when races are held—often at night.
  20. This style of racing, a circuit or lap repeated as many as 20-40 times, is also conducive to spectating as  audiences are able to both stay in one place and see the racers go by multiple times.
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