With the Tour de France over now comes the criterium season. These are exhibition races put on by entrepreneurial race organisers who seek to capitalise on the high profile of the sport following July. Riders are invited to take part in these races and the stars of the Tour de France command big appearance fees, some can collect €50,000. Not bad for 90 minutes.
These are unofficial races but no rider is penalised for breaking the UCI’s rules. No teams take part, riders compete on an individual basis, making their own way to the race and there’s no team car carrying spares. Riders who won jerseys from the Tour de France will wear them in these races, for example if Cadel Evans lines up then he’ll wear the yellow jersey. Sometimes locals amateurs take part too, helping to swell the ranks on the cheap but also to provide some regional flavour.
The format is simple, a short loop in town that allows the spectators to see the riders pass by many times, usually over an hour or ninety minutes. There will be amateur races before plus some other exhibition events, maybe a race of retired riders.
These “races” are normally fixed. The result is determined before, usually by the riders in concert with the organiser. The public have come to see a show and they’ll see some famous riders attacking before the big names dispute the finish and here you’ll often see a climber outsprint the sprinters, all in the name of a “dramatic” result. But the plans are not set in stone, a rider might attack to go clear and enjoy the cheers from the crowds and other riders will want to pull them back so they can get their share of the limelight.
The pace can be high but it’s showbiz and the riders are being paid to take part. The organiser wants a good show with the top names to feature prominently in the results and the riders are only too happy to oblige. It doesn’t always go to plan, in the late 1970s one amateur thwarted the pros. Frustrated at the strong riding the pros ganged up on the amateur but he hit back, dropping them. His name? Bernard Hinault, a future five time Tour de France winner.