Bicycle racing takes on many forms depending on the type of bicycle and the intensity of the race. Perhaps one of the most intense and spectator-friendly forms of road bike racing is the criterium – or crit, as it is called in cycling circles. The criterium takes place on a short course, typically on a few city blocks that have been closed to motor vehicle traffic. Courses are typically three miles or shorter, or less than 5 kilometers or shorter, and during the criterium racers do several laps around the course at high speeds. The course often includes challenging corners and short climbs.
The criterium is a much shorter version of a multi-stage road race, typically lasting forty five minutes to an hour. While structure may vary from race to race, a criterium usually has racers riding the course for a certain amount of time plus a set amount of laps – for example, forty five minutes plus five laps. The tempo of the criterium race picks up in the last few laps as racers position themselves for the final sprint.
In order to keep the rest of the race at a competitively high speed, racers will compete for prime laps, in which the winner of that particular lap will win a small prize or recognition. The prime lap in a criterium serves to ensure racers do not sit back and ride slow to save themselves for the final laps, and it also serves to sort out the different types of racers in the group: some racers will compete solely to win prime laps, while others will race for the overall win. Other racers may perform a "helper" function, aiding a teammate in his pursuit of the win.
A criterium race tests the racer’s ability as a bike handler. It is vital that a racer be able to handle his bicycle in tight and often dangerous situations with fellow riders in close proximity on all sides. Cornering ability is vital in a criterium race, as is jockeying for strategic positioning in the group throughout the race. Criterium racers must also be at the peak of physical fitness and possess an ability to go on the attack as well as chase when other riders attack. This dynamic makes for a physically intense race. Because the criterium race takes place on such a short, compact course, they are perfect for spectator viewing and have become extremely popular in the United States and throughout the world.