Are criteriums becoming a lost art in the U.S. pro scene?

As international races and domestic stage races take priority, crits take a backseat for U.S.-based squads

Photo: Casey B. Gibson

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STILLWATER, Minn. — When USA Cycling announced the formation of the National Criterium Calendar in 2011, many riders and directors thought it would be a good way to help promote cycling.

An overall decrease in team budgets for 2013, however, has meant that domestic squads, which used to send teams to criteriums when they were on the National Racing Calendar, now only race them as one-off events, or if they are part of an NRC stage race like the Nature Valley Grand Prix.

“The idea of splitting the NCC from the NRC sounded like a great idea to begin with, but a lot of teams aren’t going to the crits anymore,” former professional criterium champion and Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies director Jonas Carney said. “Some teams don’t even have sprinters.”

Carney and Iona Wynter-Parks, director of the Colavita-Fine Cooking women’s team, both cited budgetary and logistical issues as challenges the new national calendars present.

“The NCC seems to be scattered all across the country. Sometimes the conflicts are unmanageable unless you have a bigger team,” Parks said. “If I had to guess, looking at my budget, it’s going to work out to be more expensive for us to have done the NCC than if we choose to do the NRC.”

Parks evaluates her calendar on a regular basis with her sponsors who have been in cycling a long time. Understanding that her squad is in a rebuilding phase, Colavita has signed off on a schedule, which may have fewer short-term sponsor benefits, but it will aid the program further down the road. As a result, Park has picked a list of races for her team, which is similar to the old NRC schedule, since she believes it creates a better mix of races for a rider’s development.

Shelley Olds (Tibco-To The Top) and Brad Huff (Jelly Belly-Kenda) were the only former criterium champions in their respective fields at the Nature Valley Grand Prix over the weekend. For riders and teams looking to race at the international level, the lack of UCI points at criteriums presents a serious challenge.

Olds has spent the previous two years in Europe, and though she’s a fan of the U.S. criterium scene, it no longer has a place in her program. Because the NRC overall title is one of her team’s primary objectives, Olds now only attends a criterium when it is part of an NRC stage race.

“When your ambitions are to race in world championships and the Olympic Games, that’s where you need to race, the UCI races,” Olds said. “That’s where you get your points, that’s where you get the nation’s ranking, that’s where you get your individual ranking.”

The men’s domestic pro teams are in a similar situation.

“Unless you have enough money to truly run a double program, it’s really hard for us to stay focused on the Tour of California, and say we want to have an impact on the race,” Carney said. “In order to do that we have to do all the other stage races, and international races, to prepare for it. We just don’t have the bodies or the budget to hit all the great criteriums across the U.S.”

With only a few professional programs, like UnitedHealthcare and Team Smart Stop-Mountain Khakis, spending any resources on the NCC schedule, the criterium is in danger of becoming a lost art in American professional cycling.

“I think that we need to figure out a way to get all the U.S pro teams to start attending the criteriums again,” Carney said. “We are as at fault as anyone else for that. We haven’t been spending very much time hitting up the NCC races ourselves because we are so busy with UCI and NRC stage races.”

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