Criterium Positioning 101

By: Coach Kent

If you want to succeed in criterium racing, you need to understand the basics of positioning yourself to save energy for the moments of the race that actually matter. In sports like running or long-course triathlon, where tactics mostly boil down to subtle variances in pacing, the athlete who performs the most work is typically the winner. In cycling, the athlete who performs the most work is usually getting spit out the back during the final lap while all the “lazy” racers sprint around them.

The goal of this article will be to overview some of the basics of drafting during a criterium. All of this info transfers over to long course circuits and road races, but criteriums are unique in that the shorter courses make the optimal position a quickly moving target throughout each lap.

Finding the Draft

30% is the number often thrown around when discussing how much energy can be saved in a draft. I’m not sure where this number came from exactly, but I can tell you it’s just an average at best. Depending on the wind speed and your position in the draft, it can be much higher or lower. One of your main goals during a race should be to conserve as much energy as possible, always looking for that little extra draft that might give you that little bit of extra energy when it really counts.

While pre-riding the course, pay attention to what sections you have a crosswind, tailwind, and headwind. This is a very basic step that’s often overlooked because of it’s simplicity, but building a mental layout of where you’ll need to be positioned on each section of the course will help you start saving energy early and effectively during the race.

Section 1 – Crosswind

Section 1 – Crosswind

On this section of the road the wind coming from the north. The lead rider is dictating the pace and is getting zero draft benefit. The rider in second position is going to have a noticeable draft benefit, and this benefit will continue to improve for riders sitting third position and beyond.

In crosswind sections the optimal drafting position is actually more to the side of a rider than directly behind them, so the riders further back who no longer have space to move beside a rider are now forced to line up directly behind one another. The first couple riders who are forced to the edge of the road will still receive a small draft, but that benefit reduces drastically for each rider the further back you go. In other words, the riders at the very back of the echelon are getting no draft benefits are and are working just as hard as the lead rider. This is not a great place to be!

The riders at the very edge of the road are being “guttered”. This term is used to describe what is happening to riders who run out of usable road and are being forced to ride in the wind. The “gutter” can be on either side of the road depending on where the wind is coming from. Teams will often employ tactics to try and put other riders in the “gutter” while they send attacks or give just enough room for members of their team to receive a draft.

Section 2 – Tailwind

Section 2 – Tailwind

The peloton turns the corner and is now treated with a tailwind. Generally speaking, everybody has to work harder regardless of their drafting position because the peloton is traveling faster and blocking less wind for the riders further back. There is still a noticeable draft benefit further back in the peloton, but it’s significantly less than what is experienced during strong crosswind or headwind sections. For a rider that just spent some time suffering in the gutter, the tailwind section might not provide the break they were looking for. On this particular course, the tailwind section is quite short and is heading into another crosswind section. This would be a key moment to improve your position in the peloton.

Section 3 – Crosswinds Again

Section 3 – Crosswinds Again

After the brief tailwind section, the peloton is met with another crosswind. The wind is still coming from the north, but the optimal position is flipped from where it was on the other side of the course. Nothing really changes in regards to how the draft benefit is being distributed throughout the peloton.

Section 4 – Headwind

Section 4 – Headwind

The final part of this course is the headwind section. The lead rider is still driving the pace and getting zero draft benefits. Riders in second and maybe even third position will get a large drafting benefit, but nothing compared to what riders towards the back of the peloton will receive. In a strong headwind section, the lead rider could be driving the pace as hard as he can, and the rider sitting 5-6 wheels back will be working half as hard to maintain the same pace. With that said, there is a crosswind section approaching and being at the back of the field will likely mean more time in the gutter.

Summary

Criterium courses are typically only take 2-3 minutes per lap, and can have anywhere from 4, 6, 8, or even more turns in that short time frame. This means the optimal drafting position is constantly changing with every turn. Remember, nobody cares how much work you did during the race if you’re dead last. Work on your ability to save energy so when it’s time to use your strength it actually matters.