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The twilight criterium: wheel wars heat up urban streets

April 21, 2014
Julian Kyer (Bissell) leads the Pro 1 2 field in the 2013 Louisville Criterium

Julian Kyer (Bissell) leads the Pro 1 2 field in the 2013 Louisville Criterium

Imagine a version of West Side Story where instead of two street gangs on hot summer pavement parrying with switchblades, over twenty teams fight it out on bicycles.

These twilight criteriums, like the men’s races in the national USA Crits series, typically begin as the last rays of sun lie horizontal; the riders stream around downtown circuits where thousands of spectators lean over barriers to find out who will be crowned the king of the night.

Drew Christopher describes how the atmosphere compares to racing during the day. “The feel of the race at night is definitely much more electric than ones in the daytime. This is especially accentuated in the Pro-1 race which falls as the last of the day and has all the build-up of the previous races. By the time the race starts at around 7:30 p.m., there is a large crowd built up and the whole of the course is alive with sounds of the cheers.”

Drew Christopher finishes second in 2013 men's Pro-1-2 CO State Criterium Championships

Drew Christopher finishes second in 2013 men’s Pro-1-2 CO State Criterium Championships

Christopher is 29 years-old, a member of the Primal-Audi Denver Cycling Team, and a USA Cycling certified coach who works at the Inspired Training Center in downtown Denver. He’s been competing across the country this spring for the Primal team as well as guest-riding on the Seasucker/Guttenplan Coaching team and recently shared his perspective on night time racing with ProVéloPassion via email.

Earlier this month Christopher finished eighth in the Sunny King Criterium, a full day of racing and street festival in Anniston Alabama that ends with an evening contest for the pro men’s field. Sunny King led off the USA Cycling National Criterium Calendar (NCC). It’s not part of the USA Crits schedule but one of 18 NCC races in 2014, some of which are USA Crits competitions.

Sunny King concluded its twelfth edition this year. Like other communities with long-standing evening criterium events, Anniston takes pride in the race and festival that invites visitors into town, especially its designation as one of the state’s top ten events in 2006, 2010, and 2012.

When Christopher describes Sunny King, he cites the support of the community. “The starter of the race is the mayor of the town and he stresses the importance of the event to the overall health of the community,” notes Christopher. “It is also really well attended by locals who come out in droves to cheer on the competitors. Another really great accomplishment of Sunny King is its broadcast quality.”

He mentions organizers streamed the entire day of racing live online. In this coverage of the women’s and men’s pro races, the women’s finish occurs at about 1:03 and the men’s at 2:51 into the video.

So how does taking fast corners at night compare to railing the same lines in daylight? In addition to the charged atmosphere, Christopher says “The feel of the race inside the peloton is different at night as well.” Even though the entire circuit isn’t lit, the pack’s speed doesn’t slow down. Racing a crit after sundown requires more trust. And nerve.

“The speed in combination with the limited lighting makes for a very fast feeling out on course. Just like in a daytime race, the twilight crit requires riders to trust their fellow racers but to a further degree than the level of trust during the day,” Christopher writes. “There are lights on the course but they do not cover every meter and sometimes you ride through particularly dark sections. During these times your eyes adjust as quickly as pupils can move, but you have to trust that the riders around you will continue to move in a smooth and predictable fashion.”

It’s a unique experience for riders and spectators. “You will be able to enjoy some of the most exciting and interesting racing that can be found anywhere in the world.”

With four of the eleven races in the USA Crits series now wrapped up, the fifth and next stop is the 35th edition of the Athens Orthopedic Clinic Twilight Criterium on April 26th.

Next on the National Criterium Calendar is the Dana Point Grand Prix on May 4th in California.

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