You’re worn down. The sting of sweat dripping into your eyes makes it nearly impossible to see. Even if the sweat wasn’t causing problems, you still wouldn’t be able to see because you’re blown and practically breathing through your eyes. You’ve been on the bike for nearly an hour and all you want to do is slurp down whatever warm liquid is left in your bottle. You can’t, though.
The pace just picked up and it’s not going to slow down until this thing is over. You want to get off this damn bike right now. It’s the last 5 laps of a crit and you’re in contention. All you need to do is stay towards the front, and kick it into overdrive when the time is right. Sounds easy. If you’ve ever tried it, you know it isn’t. If it were, the internet wouldn’t be filled with race reports that were “I rode great and stayed up front,” but ended with a disappointing finish.
You don’t have to be shuffled to the back of the pack at the end of every crit. With a little bit of skill and a little more brains you can start finishing stronger in the pack. All you need is somebody to show you.
Legend in the crit game.
Enter Rahsaan Bahati. Bahati is a man who should need no introduction. If he did need an introduction, though, it would contain a long list of things which would include him being a former national pro criterium champion, the founder of the Bahati Foundation, and a man who was once featured on People’s “most eligible bachelor” list with Prince William, Simon Cowell, and Aston Kutcher.
For today’s purposes, though, we’ll focus on his cycling. You don’t win a pro crit championship without being a bit of a criterium ninja. Recently Bahati put his crit-ninja skills on display for the entire world to watch. If there is a “must see” video for anybody racing crits, it’s his video and commentary of the last 5 laps of the 2015 Manhattan Beach Grand Prix:
It’s a wealth of crit-knowledge. Bahati not only talks you through what he’s doing, but demonstrates how to keep your nose towards the front of a tough crit when the chips are on the felt:
Never Fall Too Far Back.
There’s a saying in racing crits that if you’re not moving forward you’re moving backwards. Anybody who’s raced a crit or two knows that. Not everybody knows how to stop moving backwards and start moving forwards, though. About 1:22 into the video Bahati demonstrates an important and subtle ninja technique to minimize the damage and get yourself into the guys moving forward.
Watch as he has space to his right and feels the field moving up besides him. Once a rider passes, he slowly and consistently (so everybody behind can react- including taking at least one glance in that direction) starts steadily moving out into the line of oncoming riders. When the field swings back to the right, he hasn’t lost 20 positions and he’s sitting nicely in the pack behind the National Criterium Champion (Bonus tip: sitting behind and emulating guys in champion jerseys is usually a good idea).
Don’t (always) listen to people on the internet.
If there was ever a piece of internet advice that’s both great and terrible at the same time, it’s internet rule of bike racing #1: stay off the front. There’s an exception to every rule, and later in the race when he’s slipped back too far for his liking he perfectly demonstrates the exception.
When the pack slows on a downhill into an uphill, Bahati gives it a little kick and coasts (watch how low his power is) right through the right side of the pack. Once the uphill starts, he’s on the front (much less of an issue on slower uphills) and pulls normal watts. By the time he hits the turn he lets a few guys slide in front and he’s in perfect position again without burning a match to get there.
There’s another blatant (but) good violation of Internet rule #1 with about a lap and a half left. With the pack slowing and Bahati feeling he’s about to get swarmed, he jams up the hill. Finding himself on the front, he just stays there. It’s ok, though. His wattage is low enough that he’s recovering. While he’s not getting the benefit of the draft, his effort is low enough to justify the great position. Another great reason to know your power zones inside and out.
Map Your Finish Out Well In Advance.
Listen to Bahati talk about that last turn. He’s taken the entire race (or several races here over the years) to know every little characteristic of it. It’s his entire race.
- It’s the most critical turn of the course.
- It has a dip at the exit that is enough to throw you off course.
- There’s a tailwind on exit.
- It’s 225 meters from the corner to the exit.
- There’s a slight bend to the right the whole way (closest/fastest line will be on the right).
Using all of that he’s put together a plan. He’s not rolling around at the front of the pack looking to sprint when the sprint is on. He knows exactly where he’s going to be, when he’s going to be there, and where he wants to jump. He’s eliminated as many variables as possible and he’s trying to replace “chance” or luck with a good plan and better execution.
He’s Got a Plan, He’s Sticking To It.
Earlier in the video Bahati said he’d tested his legs and was feeling good. He’d spent the race knowing the course conditions and dialing in his bid to finish storng. While he’s sitting on the front, though, with only a couple of laps to go a “dangerous” rider jumps and gets a good gap. What’s he do? He does exactly what 90% of the cat 4’s feeling good in the closing laps don’t do. He sticks to his plan. He lets somebody else run that guy down, and takes the free ride along the way.
Is that to say that you should always sit in, never “go for it” and be screwed unless you are a sprinter? Absolutely not. It is to say that Bahati is in a situation where he knows his course (a couple technical turns), he knows the conditions (wind direction), he knows his competition (4 riders already up the road, Astellas lined up on the front and most of the pack playing for a field sprint) and he knows that at that point nothing is going to get away. He doesn’t know that by accident. He’s been thinking his way through the entire race… even as he just rolls along in the pack.
It’s Not About Putting Down Power. It’s About Conserving.
You want to be Jens Voigt. Maybe not that Jens Voigt but there’s no reason you can’t be the Jens Voigt of your local 57+ Cat 3/4 weekend crit, right? And what’s Jens do? Jens attacks. So, you’re going to attack.
We’re not talking about Jens Voigt here, though. If we were, we wouldn’t be bringing you up. We’re talking about thriving in the last few laps of a crit when you’re destined to wind up rolling in with the pack. We’re talking about riding up front and staying up front.
And Bahati? he’s talking about conserving energy. He mentions it several times, almost as though it’s really important. He’s concerned about it to the point that he thinks moving his bike six inches to the right is worth mentioning. Probably because it is.
Bahati takes every opportunity he can to conserve while maintaining position- even if that means being in the wind.
“I Want To See The Good Guys…”
It’s getting close to money-making time and where’s Bahati in the pack? 3 wheels back? 6 wheels back? What’s ideal?
It’s not about wheels or numbers.
He’s safely tucked in- completely out of the wind. He’s got a mental checklist of guys he knows always finish strong. He’s not as worried about how many wheels back he is as he’s worried about knowing where those guys are. Those guys are always in the race. Those guys are the race. Ideally he wants to keep an eye on them. He knows they’re not far back so he’s letting riders slide by hoping he sees the important riders. He’s not going to slide back too far, though.
Winning a Fight Means Knowing Where the Punches Are Coming From.
Bahati was wanting to know where the “good guys” were because they knows how to close these races out. Going into the last lap he’s waiting for UHC to “come over the top with a blaze of speed” and look how he’s prepared:
He’s behind a rider he trusts. He’s got room to move up the inside which is, coincidentally, the shorter line around the course. When he sees UHC coming on, he doesn’t wait. He moves immediately. As he works his way to the front of the pack and around the turn, he’s right on the UHC sprinter, getting a free lead-out.
Patient, calm and confident to close it out.
Even though Bahati ended up being exactly where he wanted to be when he wanted to be there, things went south quick. The UHC leadout came on early- possibly too early- and seemed to let up leading to every well placed-rider’s worst nightmare: the swarm. Not only did he get swarmed, he got pinched, shuffled back, and boxed.
He’s got a plan, though, and he’s not going to give up just because the end of this crit is going down like… the end of every crit. He stays calm, stays patient and just keeps driving because he knew a door would open- as races get strung out closer to the finish they nearly always do.
That’s exactly what happens here. Things open up, he opens up the legs and manages to get to the front just in time to take the turn he’s been breaking down, studying and analyzing for the entire race. Of course, he wins the field sprint.
But, you’re not Bahati. You don’t have Bahati’s legs?
None of us do. So what? You don’t have to be Bahati to be better at closing out crits. Even if you’re not going to win every field sprint (or any field sprint), you don’t have to get shuffled to the back and ground to a pulp in the closing laps. Use the race to learn your course and develop a good plan. Predict what your competition is going to do. Conserve your energy. If things start going bad, don’t panic. Keep driving forward. Stay patient and calm.
This isn’t a primer on winning a crit- Bahati didn’t even win the one here. The video is an excellent lesson on getting better at closing crits out, though. You don’t have to be a crit-ninja to finish better consistently. You just have to take the free lessons from Rahsaan Bahati.