By Phyl Newbeck
Published June 20, 2008
Round and round and round the cyclists went, leaning sharply on the curves but not losing speed along the flat, 1-kilometer course.
Tuesday was the fourth scheduled criterium in a series run by the Green Mountain Bicycle Club. Rain earlier in the day and a less than promising forecast cut down on the number of riders who made their way to Gauthier Drive in Essex Junction. Previous races had attracted more than 40 riders, but only 30 visited the course this week. Organizer Claude Raineault said that aside from the Green Mountain Stage Race, a four-day cycling competition held in September, the practice crits (as they are known colloquially) are the only officially sanctioned road event in Vermont.
The series began in the early 1990s with cyclists doing loops in the vacant Taft Corners area where Wal-Mart is now located, said GMBC president Kevin Bessett. When construction began, the series recessed before beginning again in 2000 in two different locations. Raineault took over running the series four years ago.
Organizing the races is no easy matter. Raineault has to obtain permits and permission from local businesses to close the road, and volunteers are needed to sweep the course before the race and act as marshals during the race.
This year, in addition to the “A” and “B” races, Raineault has added a “C” race for those who are either new to racing or to criteriums. C racers are assigned mentor who ride alongside them, providing pointers for the first half of the race. During the second half, the riders are on their own. All racers are required to be members of the U.S. Cycling Federation, although non-members can purchase a one-day license for $10. In contrast to most GMBC events, which are free, there is a $5 fee for the races, which includes a USCF surcharge. Riders are required to wear helmets . Because of the inherent dangers of taking turns at sharp angles, races are canceled in the event of rain or other unsafe weather.Tuesday, low attendance and damp roads caused Raineault to combine the B and C racers for a later start. Initially, the 11 riders stayed in a tight group, but eventually some were dropped from the pack. The pace quickened toward the end of the race, and in a sprint to the finish, John Painter, 33, came across the line first. The B/C group finished 29 laps in 29 minutes.
The A group started shortly thereafter. One of the marshals, Andre Sturm, pointed out that these experienced riders were working more strategically. They stayed in closer pace lines, taking turns “pulling” the group. Isaac Howe, 22, had a breakaway early. He was pulled back into the pack, but broke free again later in the race to finish first. The A racers completed 57 laps in 46 minutes at an average speed of 27 mph. The fastest lap time was just under 32 mph.
Raineault said attendance has increased every year he has run the series. Ages range from juniors to those in their 50s. Although men greatly outnumber women, Raineault said this year has shown an increase in female ridership. Tuesday, however, there were only two female cyclists. Many racers are local, but others come from as far as Burke, Castleton, and Plattsburgh, N.Y. This week, there was one rider from Montreal and another from Denver. Coloradan Mike Welker was visiting his girlfriend’s Vermont family and had investigated his racing opportunities ahead of time, planning his trip in part around the race. Welker finished third in the B/C race, despite the fact he was using a rented bike and unused to sea-level air.
Greg Tomcyzk was riding in his first crit of the season and had forgotten to take the rack off the back of his bicycle. No extraneous parts are allowed on bikes, including the aero bars, which are popular at time-trial races. Since these are informal races, riders took an extra practice lap, while Tomcyzk found an allen wrench to remove the rack. The races are low-key enough that riders who drop from the pack are allowed to coast until the pack comes around and jump back in. The only proviso is they are then not allowed to take part in the final sprint.
Raineault says criterium racing is more exciting than other forms of racing such as time trials where riders start at one-minute intervals and ride alone. He said the close quarters in which crits take place provide a real adrenaline rush. Unlike time trials where you are alone and have plenty of time to focus on your pain, in criterium racing, the close quarters allow you to continue past your pain threshold as you concentrate on staying with the pack. Raineault noted that there are more crashes in criterium racing than other forms of bike racing, but the series has not had any serious injuries. Sturm said most of the crashes are the result of flat tires causing chain reactions among cyclists.
At 51, Bruce Bell is one of the older criterium racers. He hopes to compete in the Green Mountain Stage Race this year. Bell said there aren’t many sports where those older than 50 can compete with people half their age or less. “Or beat them,” chimed in Jared Katz, 41, who was standing nearby.
Katz said criteriums are his favorite event because “there’s something about riding at speed in a group and having somebody, or a group of bodies, go off the front at 5 or 6 miles per hour faster than the rest of the field and knowing you just have a couple of seconds to decide whether to chase them. In those couple of seconds,” Katz said, “everything can change.”