It takes a special kind of rider to succeed in a criterium. Crit specialists must be fearless, possess incredible bike handling skills, and of course, have the finishing kick to win at the end. This month marks the unofficial start of criterium season in the United States, so as part of Cyclingnews' ongoing Bell Lap Series criterium coverage, we broke down which riders we expect to see at the front of the races this year, where to see them, and who might surprise in 2018. From sprinters to breakaway experts, these are your 2018 criterium favorites.
Arguably the criterium king of the United States, Daniel Holloway (Texas Roadhouse) will return as a heavy favourite as he targets the USA Crits series this year. The 2010 pro criterium national champion and three-time elite criterium national champion spent his winter racing on the track with the US National Team, where he earned a gold in the Omnium at the UCI Track World Cup in Santiago, Chile.
Watch for repeats at early season races like Athens Twilight, a race that Holloway has won twice - out of a two-man breakaway in 2014 and in a chaotic field sprint in 2015 - proving his versatility in any situation. The Colorado-based sprinter is also known to target big money races, so the $25,000 prize list for the Atlantic City Resurgence Fest Criterium in September should prove enticing at the end of the season as well.
Reigning criterium national champion Erica Allar returns with her Rally squad for a full season this year, with plans to start her criterium and Pro Road Tour (PRT) campaigns at the Sunny King Criterium, a race she won in 2012 and was second in last year. Allar is in a unique position on the team, as Rally, like many teams, has placed increased focus on UCI road and stage races in recent years, spending more time in Europe and less time racing in the US. But Rally has allowed Allar to maintain a fairly healthy criterium schedule, often racing by herself or with just a few teammates but still finding results.
Allar is unique in the fact that she can sprint but also survive difficult races, as demonstrated during the national championships last year, which saw Allar in a two-rider break with Lauren Stephens, only to have the race neutralized and restarted with six laps to go. The two stayed away despite the short restart, and Allar outsprinted Stephens for the stars and stripes jersey. Watch for Allar at races like Tulsa Tough this year; she won the Blue Dome Criterium there in 2017 and took second in the iconic River Parks Criterium featuring Crybaby Hill.
Australian Champion Peta Mullens is back in the US with the Hagens Berman Supermint team this year after storming the American circuit in 2017. The former Australian road champ picked up big wins at races like Athens Twilight and Tulsa Tough last year, where she won the omnium after two second-place finishes and a win on the final day. Consistency was perhaps Mullens' most impressive trait last year, racing over 20 criteriums in the US but never finishing outside the top 10.
Mullens was typically well supported by her Hagens Berman Supermint team, and rarely had to race alone. In just four months of racing in the US, she collected 28 total podium finishes. Mullens will target many of the same races this year, but notes she would like to improve on her result at the Winston Salem Cycling Classic, where she was 10th in the 2017 criterium, one of her worst criterium results of the year.
As far as career wins, few Americans rival Tina Pic, who has racked up six criterium national championships in her cycling career, which enters its 22nd year in 2018. After a few years of hybrid directing/racing, Pic is back on the bike full time with the Colavita-Bialetti team. She will race the USA Crits series with just two full-time teammates; the young Payten Maness, and veteran sprinter and lead-out rider Christina Gokey-Smith, who proved to be an important part of Pic's success on the Pepper Palace, Happy Tooth Dental, and Papa Johns racing teams over the last 4 years.
Pic doesn't need much to succeed and thrives in chaotic races where big teams can't control the front and she can use her experience and patience to find the right wheel and wait for the sprint. If she finds herself up against a full train from Rally or UnitedHealthcare, it could be trouble. Pic's expertise for timing difficult sprints shines in short, tight races like Athens Twilight or courses with long, uphill finishes like Gateway Cup's Giro della Montagna or the Wilmington Grand Prix.
Few riders have shown a commitment to criterium racing the way Ryan Aitcheson has over the last four years. The Canadian joins the first year domestic elite Levine Law Group team as a part-time sprinter after stints with Astellas and First Internet Bank. Aitcheson's biggest win was at the 2016 Athens Twilight, but his consistency has been most impressive, proving he has the natural talent to find top 10 finishes on just about any course.
This year, Aitcheson won't do a full criterium season with the team, instead focusing on USA Crits races and the Armed Forces Cycling Classic. Watch for Aitcheson at the Clarendon Cup there - the brutally long and hot race is a good fit for riders that know how to suffer, and Aitcheson proved he isn't afraid to dig deep when he placed third there in 2016. He chose to race Tulsa Tough last year (the two races share a date) but found disappointing results there, so the return to the Armed Forces Cycling Classic could give him a chance to finally stand on top of the podium in DC. Aitcheson will also return to Athens Twilight with the team, hoping to repeat his 2016 victory.
Despite a road-heavy calendar with the newly classified Pro Continental Holowesko Citadel team, star sprinter John Murphy will still make his way to some select criterium events in the US, targeting Athens Twilight and the National Championships. Murphy has the biggest outright engine of anybody on the list, but he may be taxed by the team's ambitious stage racing calendar. He picked up early season wins at Sunny King, Rock Hill, and Athens last year before shifting focus to winning stages at the Colorado Classic and Tour of Utah. This year, Murphy's schedule looks much different, with the team currently racing a block in Europe. He won't be back stateside for Sunny King but plans to race Athens, and it will be exciting to see if his European campaign brings fatigue or speed to the US criterium scene.
Few riders will be as closely watched this year as junior standout Megan Jastrab. The 16-year-old out of California has shown promising sprint potential, beating out some strong talent in field sprints at races like Redlands and San Dimas, all while racing on limited junior gearing in accordance with USA Cycling rules. As a junior, Jastrab has to pick her battles carefully. Downhill sprints create an issue for riders on junior gearing, as she discovered at last year's Colorado Classic where she finished mid-pack after spinning out in the final sprints. It may be a couple years before we know Jastrab's true potential, but her trajectory and talent are reminiscent of the early careers of riders like Skylar Schneider or Coryn Rivera. Jastrab has made it clear she has WorldTour ambitions, but she'll need to continue her consistent sprinting this year, and criteriums will offer her the perfect platform to hone her skills.
The Aevolo development team will also race a criterium campaign this year, with a roster of young riders that could produce some surprising results. All-rounder Michael Hernandez has shown great promise as a versatile crit rider but has yet to pull off his first big win. He's still just 21 years old and came tantalizing close in 2016 when he finished second at Sunny King and went on to a silver at U23 criterium nationals later that year. Hernandez's strength is not in the pure sprint like many successful criterium riders. He has a sharp ability to read races, deciding when to follow moves and when to sit back, helped in part by director Michael Creed. Hard races favour him more, where selections can be made and he can get himself into a break or stay near the front of a race that thins riders out. A crash at Tour of the Gila in April last year derailed the middle of Hernandez's season, but a return to full strength and a renewed focus on criteriums by his Aevolo team could spell some big results for Hernandez this year.
McCabe may be the best sprinter not racing in the WorldTour right now, which makes him one of the most feared riders when he lines up at a criterium. He beat out Eric Young (Rally) and Ty Magner (Holowesko-Citadel) for the professional criterium national championships last year in a drag race to the line. We may not see the stars and stripes jersey much this year, as McCabe and UnitedHealthcare continue to focus on UCI road races as a Pro Continental team, but expect McCabe to be back with good form at the National Championships. A new schedule this year combines the US road and criterium championships into one weekend, so as long as McCabe doesn't decide to sit out the crit to save his legs for the road race, we might see the first men's repeat criterium champion since Kevin Monahan in 2002 and 2003 (Theresa Cliff-Ryan won women's titles in 2011 and 2012.)
Pro Continental Wildcards
One of the consequences of American teams moving up in the sport is that criteriums become less and less important to their mission of getting UCI points and securing invitations to big stage races. Just look at last year's criterium national championship podium - Travis McCabe (UnitedHealthcare), Eric Young (Rally), and Ty Magner (Holowesko-Citadel) are all racing at the Pro Continental level this year.
None of last year's podium will race a full criterium schedule, and fitness and logistics often dictate which races can score Pro Continental talent. The National Championships will be the biggest wildcard race of the year, with the criterium and road championships being held on the same weekend in Knoxville, Tennessee. With plenty of heavy hitters on hand, it may be one of the fastest national championships in recent history.