What to Look for in a Criterium

Every year since 2005, when West Chester held its first day of professional racing and family-friendly activities, thousands of spectators – whether devoted cycling enthusiasts or newcomers looking for a fun day – have come to expect the unexpected. This year promises to be even more exciting when the Benchmark Twilight Cycling Classic celebrates its 15th year, taking to the historic streets on August 10th.

Technically speaking, the Benchmark Twilight Cycling Classic, sponsored by Benchmark Federal Credit Union, is a criterium. But since the race route is only .6 of a mile, riders must circle it numerous times, providing fast, full-throttle action that is fun for the whole family!


How to Watch a Criterium:

Unlike multi-day stage races and grand tours like the Tour de France and single-day circuit races like the late Manayunk Bike Race, this unique form of American-style bike racing is non-stop racing, furious and relentless, never letting up until the racers have completed 100 laps in under two hours. 

Most criteriums held throughout the United States do not have the excitement that a location like West Chester has, with its narrow streets and tight 90-degree turns. Here, spectators are so close to the action that they feel the rush of the wind and hear the whirl of wheels as nearly 100 riders speed by, separated by mere inches.

The concept behind the pro races is similar to the Formula One Championship Series. Both use a points system and a set of rules to which all participants must comply. Riders are awarded points primarily based on placement, with the winning rider earning 200 points. Additional points are awarded for sprinting prowess, lap leads and other criteria. Separate cash purses of equal value will be awarded in both the Iron Hill Pro Men’s Criterium and Wilmington University Pro Women’s championship races.

Like any other team sport, the Iron Hill Pro Men’s Criterium and the Wilmington University Pro Women’s Criterium are each composed of teams numbering between 15 to 20, each with five or six riders. The goal, of course, is to make sure one of their riders crosses the finish line first. The team leader is selected in advance, and the rest of the team must protect that rider, even if it means exhausting themselves to the point that they have to pull out of the race. But first and foremost, they have to keep him or her out of harm’s way by staying with the rider through the thick of it.

Team members must also help the team leader conserve energy until that last sprint for victory. They do this by riding at a fast tempo while the team leader drafts their teammates. The faster the tempo, the greater the chance to wear out the opposition. Conversely, the strongest rider at the end has the best chance of taking the victory.

The key for the spectators is to look for the breakaway, then expect another and another. That’s the way it happens – and no one knows how it will end. Will the breakaway sustain itself? Will someone catch the lead group? Stay tuned. The only thing that is predictable is that the finish will be unpredictable…