Criteriums. Heaven or hell? For some, a savage, lung-bursting, hellfire hour on wheels to be endured under duress. For others, they are to be relished, enjoyed even – if it is possible to enjoy a bike race that leaves the taste of blood in your mouth and in danger of losing your lunch.
Being talented in the discipline helps, of course: capable of repeated efforts, rapid recoveries, with sublime bike handling and a fearless approach to rubbing elbows with the opposition while taking 90-degree corners at 40kph.
We wanted to talk to a bunch of professional riders to get their takes on crits, so we went to Girona – well, someone’s gotta do it. Not that any of them would be racing, you understand. The Girona Nocturn is a strictly amateur affair, running around the stunning cathedral that dominates the skyline of the historic old town.
The organisers of Girona Cycling Festival assured us there’d be a host of local pros in attendance – not many women, though, as the Women’s Tour was in full flow in the UK – so off we went, in search of crit criticism, circuit race superlatives and nuggets of wisdom.
But first, the all-important coffee wagon needed winching into position – no mean feat in the narrow confines of Girona’s alleyways and tight turns. And this is no ordinary coffee wagon. This Piaggio beauty, known as The Broom Wagon, is owned by Daisy and Robert Gesink.
Perhaps Robert will be our barista for the evening? Hard to imagine the man who finished sixth at the 2015 Tour de France having any affectionate anecdotes about the short blast thrash mode of racing, but you never know. We keep our eyes peeled for Mr Gesink, to no avail.
We were, admittedly, somewhat side-tracked by the drum corps who opened proceedings. Loud, tight, perfectly drilled, and mighty fine looking. Amazing…
Right, back to the bike race. First, a bunch of tiny kids came clattering over the cobbles for an early taste of crit life. It’s fair to say that, much like the pros, their enjoyment level was split down the middle.
This is Dave from Bike Breaks. He and his wife Saskia organise the whole week-long festival and provide invaluable assistance to the many pro riders living in the city, alongside their long-running bike hire and holiday business in this increasingly cycle-centric city. They are the beating heart of the cycling community in Girona.
So far, so lovely. But what about those pro riders? Hang on, this kid’s surname is Impey. That sounds familiar… and he’s wearing Orica kit. Daryl is riding the Tour of Slovenia, though, so we won’t be seeing him.
We turn our attention to the assembled throng on the dramatic cathedral steps. Bang in the middle, a group of skinny young men with serious cycling tans are gathered. Sensing a kill, we home in.
Bingo. Dion Smith, the 25-year-old Kiwi riding for Wanty-Groupe Gobert, seems a likely candidate. So, Dion, when did you last ride a crit?
“Last time was probably 2016, national criterium championships. Third, I think… I’ll say third! I enjoy the atmosphere if there’s a good crowd, but it hurts. A lot. This is cool, though, isn’t it? A good event.”
Jeez, he can’t even remember where he finished. Moving on. Next we find Freddy Ovett (Australian Cycling Academy) and James Oram (One Pro Cycling). Freddy swiftly passes the buck. “This guy does crits on a regular basis,” he says, pointing to Oram. “For me, the last one was about a year ago. I’m useless at crits, I hate them. Maybe back in Oz I might have got a result, getting in a cheeky breakaway when I first started. But I’m not a fan, to be honest.”
This is not going well.
James? Any crit wins on your palmarès? “A few years ago, eight maybe. I can get round them all right. We had quite a few back in Australia. I’ve been going okay in the Tour Series in the UK.”
Eight years? He’s only 24. Questioning his grasp of mathematics, we turn back to Freddy. Who’s going to win tonight? “There’s a lot of show but I’m not sure how much go. We’ve got all sorts down there. Actually, I’m backing my Brazilian mate that we met at dinner last night. He’s an absolute legend. All the way from Brazil, so he must be serious.”
Another face in the crowd is James Knox, Quick Step’s British new recruit putting in solid work with the Belgian team and surely destined for great things in the future.
“Last time I rode a crit? Probably Saltaire in 2014.” But surely, circuit races are where we all start racing, aren’t they, especially in the UK? “I only started racing when I was a junior, but I never really got on with them. Went down to Preston Arena one year, broke my arm, so never went back there. That’s it.”
Fair enough, James. A broken arm sounds suitably off-putting. We give up with this lot. Climbing the steps, we see a likely-looking candidate striding in our direction. Wouter Wippert (Roompot-Nederlandse Loterij) is Dutch. Surely, he’s going to be a fan? At last!
“I love them. It’s part of cycling. In my younger years it was a crit almost every weekend, and I still enjoy them. Some of the pro’s don’t like them, but it’s something different. Our nationals this year is almost a crit race – 16 laps of 10km.
“If it was up to me, I would even put one in a Grand Tour. Not a crazy one but a three or four-kilometre loop. A two-hour crit could be the hardest stage of the tour. But it is as much a part of cycling as TT’s, climbing and all the rest. It’s not easy.
“A good pro racing with the amateurs will not win, because they are up and down the whole time. We don’t do that in a race. It is totally different.”
Finally, a fan of the format. Flushed with success, we stop a passing Aussie who looks the part. Ever won a crit, mate?
“Yep, I’ve won a couple.”
Great. Big ones or just local fish’n’chippers?
“I’ve done all right. Won the national title a couple of times back in Oz, so pretty good.”
Ah, right… It’s only Steele Von Hoff, the man with the coolest – and hardest – name in cycling. He’s warming to the subject.
“And I’ve done the Tour Series a few times back in the UK and loved that – really fun racing. My favourite race though is the Japan Cup criterium. I’ve won that twice as well. Japan is amazing, my favourite country. The crowds are so fanatical about the sport. And they give you gifts. It’s great, such a good atmosphere.”
Any advice for the amateurs out there tonight from The Hoff?
“You have to get lucky. It’s all about being patient, playing your cards right. For myself, I have to leave it until the final, as I’m a sprinter, but at the same time, I have to make the selection to be there in the final. But the other guys obviously want to drop the sprinters. They are not too happy to carry me along. Sprinters are always unpopular.”
And who will win this evening? “My pick is the guys on the tandem. They look the most fun.”
The skinny guy wearing the nose strip turned out to be quickest on the night, but the tandem lads definitely won in the fun stakes. We retired to the event village, downed some beers and watched the category winners spray bubbly and stagger away with their prizes – legs of local jamon all round.
Serious racing? Not particularly. Seriously good fun? Absolutely. And that’s to be celebrated.
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