Criterium season

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.

Aalst Criterium
Crit race + beer festival = Belgium

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.

27 thoughts on “Criterium season”

  1. Fascinating.

    I saw one of these races when I lived near Cognac. They went round and round the centre of Cognac for about an hour and a half while I was sitting in a restaurant, and I had no idea what I was watching.

  2. Dear Innering,
    The only thing I still didn’t get is ‘where is the money’ – is the circuit closed and you pay for the tickets or only for the beer … or else .
    Good day

  3. Gadi: one or two have tickets but usually the organiser gets sponsors, often asking every bakery, café and butcher for €50, the local town will put up money and then they sell race programs too listing the riders.

  4. Spot-on again!

    “there’s no team car carrying spares” & “The result is determined before”

    Yesterday the Aalst criterium saw another good example of the rules outlined in your article. Gilbert flatted deep into the finale, so there was a problem obviously. Fortunately Andrea Tafi was still hanging around (in the so-called ex-pro race), and he immediately gave his wheel to Gilbert, who overtook the main field, and then dropped it for a solo win.

  5. When we say there’s no penalty for breaking UCI rules, does that also include the WADA code? Are there controls? Because I seem to recall Hinault once refused to undergo one, and there was some fuss.

  6. Cav will mostly be doing laps of his local, I suspect. As Lord Cipo pointed out when he turned up to the Giro “Eee was lika leeedle barrel!!” He’s not very lean, is he?

  7. Not every ‘star’ rides the criteriums.
    They once did, because for many riders, it enabled them too earn decent money for the whole season.
    Nowadays they generally pick n choose, which bumps their price (start money) up.

    Many of the criteriums are secured area races, so an entry to the circuit, enables a return on attendance, but as Inner Ring says, nowadays, the organisers rely on a return from participating local businesses.

    A lot of the races have ‘ex pro’ events held on the same evening, and one former high profile pro – who lived near the event, was invited.
    He unfortunately, forgot that a national hero was expected to win, and he rolled him in the sprint.
    He was not invited back….

    Great fun evenings entertainment, if you can, go see one.

  8. Just seconding Flashing Pedal. In days of yore when pros were even more poorly paid then the post tour month was the chance to earn big. Some riders would race as good as every day, driving between towns, in what was basically a circuit. Since they rode as individuals what they earnt was theirs, from appearance fees for the stars to collecting primes and day day agreements for others. This is also why the lanterne rouge was valuable as it commands an appearance fee.

  9. I saw a criterium in Almelo, NL, last August.

    There was a women’s race, which I don’t think was fixed, as neither Marianne Vos (the big star) nor Kirsten Wild (the local girl) won it.

    Then there was the caravan publicitaire – local business with trucks, floats or just vehicles with their name on the side, which made three laps of the circuit, handing out goodies. No doubt they paid a fee to the organisers. It also attracted children (with their parents), to ensure a big crowd and a cracking atmosphere.

    The star attraction of the men’s ride was Olympic champion Samual Sanchez, although his English wasn’t up really to answering interview questions. The race itself had all the ingredients, including a breakaway featuring Johnny Hoogerland. Just as I was thinking that SS hadn’t done much to justify his appearance money, he bridged to the leading group and beat them in a last-gasp sprint. Fixed? Probably, but who cares, it was a very entertaining evening.

  10. If you can combine these post Tour crits with the Belgian kermesse bookies taking bets, you can really improve cycling’s image 😉

    I was waiting for you to cover these events. Hopefully after the road season ends, you’ll have a post about the 6-Day races.

    Often times true fans get so wrapped up in the sporting aspect, they forget that “racing” is also entertainment, and this is where the money for sports ultiamtely comes from.

    Another aspect of these races is that since the riders “enter” on their own, it gets them away from the team bus environment of Pro Tour events, which makes them even more approachable.

  11. I’m quite keen to head over from Blighty to see a couple of these one year – any recommendations which crits are most worth going to?

  12. Thanks for the great blog!
    These crits sound great – are upcoming events (particularly in Belgium) listed anywhere that you know of?

  13. These critériums are great but they were used, even by Eddy Merckx, as a mean to coerce riders to “behave”. If more than 50% of your income was coming from these contract, riders had to obey… Piel et Dousset were two parisians managers with all the contacts and contracts and they were eating in the hands of Merckx and any other stars. If I remember correctly, it is Bernard Hinault who changed the way things were done when he forced the organisers to take many of his teammates with him at the start. Guimard was very proud of that. Cycling historians will easily find proofs and /testimonials of riders who became less agressive in TdF, for example, when the menace of having no crits contracts was brandished… It was also a great time to take amphetamines because it is well documented that some riders were traveling all over Europe to do up to 3 criteriums per day. I personnally remember Teun Van Vliet telling a young italian first year pro (he got the contract because is father was a sport writer in a famous newspaper) that if he left the last place in the bunch at any moment, he would not finish the race on his bike. Yes it is a show but there are some rules made by tough men.

  14. Coming from the US, it would be great if there was a list out there of these crits. And if they are the same every year – same town, usually same day after le Tour, etc. And anyway to know who you might actually see at each race? Hard to plan a trip overseas blindly – well some people are good at it, but I’m a planner. Would also love to see an article on the 6 Days. Have a friend moving to Belgium and hoping to use her as a base camp to get to Ghent this year.

  15. Good point by Luc Prévost, the riders used to use them to dispense favours and rewards. We might see Dries Devenenys appearing at quite a few rides with Andy Schleck.

    Jennifer: the races are organised by individuals so there’s no formal calendar but there’s almost one a day in France, Belgium and Holland at the moment.

  16. I paid $9US to enter the streets of Aalst for the 1995 edition.
    Bruyneel was “king” that year, because of his yellow jersey escapade following Indurain’s wheel through the hills of Liege.
    Post Tour crits are a great night out, even if they aren’t really races.

  17. Bonjour!

    @inrng Your are so right about Dries Devenenys and the Schleck. That also explains partially the “under the hood” power of the TdF ecosystem.

    A not related comment:
    The great cinematographer Louis Malle made a short movie called “Vive le Tour” in 1962.
    I just watched it again today:

    Riders talked openly about drugs (ASO will say Louis Malle does not exist…) and the film contains scenes similar to Horner being put back on his bike that are very painful to watch with the actual medical knowledge about concussion.
    One day, someone will be held responsable for managing athletes this way.

  18. Why would you ever pay to see a pre-determined race? It is like watching American wrestling. I would prefer they just race, period.

  19. @coloradoGoat I understand your point but it is still a great occasion to see your favorites from a different perspective as they come in their Mercedes and put the bike out of the trunk themselves.;-) And they go fast. The last one I saw, the average speed was 50k/hour. A little bit like a TV program with writers talking about their books: not the real stuff but interesting!

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