Crashes are a scary, but a very real, part of racing. When you race in bigger events with larger fields the likelihood of seeing or dealing with a crash only increases. Knowing how to protect yourself in a tight field, and when you should go to the pit, can help you safely stay in the race. 

For more on race tactics check out our Race Analysis YouTube Playlist.



Protecting Yourself From a Crash

The nature of Criteriums can leave athletes especially vulnerable to crashes. When the race is shuffling and athletes are making aggressive passes there is always a chance that another athlete will bump their handlebars with yours or move into your line. Watching for the unpredictable and maintaining composure when things go wrong can help you stay out of a crash.

While some crashes might be out of your control, you should always implement preventive measure that keep yourself and the athletes around you safe. Here are some things you can actively do to decrease the likelihood that you’ll be involved in a crash:

  1. Be aware of your surroundings and the movements of the athletes around you.
  2. Make predictable movements.
  3. Don’t panic or make sharp movements if another athlete bumps into you. 
  4. Use your shoulders and your arms to protect your handlebars from other athletes.

Maintaining composure when another athlete bumps into you can be the difference between going down and staying up right. When things get tight, and the passing gets aggressive, focus on maintaining these principles.

Should I Go to the Pit?

When an athlete crashes in a race, anyone involved in the crash or held up by the crash has the right to go to the pit and take one free lap. If you ever crash or are actively involved in a crash, you should go to the pit and take a free lap to recover.

With that said, you don’t have to be actively involved in a crash to go to the pit and get a free lap. If a crash physically interferes with your race in any way you can go to the pit and sit out for one lap. When the field comes back through the pit, you can jump back into the position you were in and keep racing.

While the free lap rule is pretty straightforward, athletes often wonder what actually merits a free lap if they weren’t involved in a crash. It’s pretty simple. When your race is held up by a crash and you lose the group you were riding with, you can go to the pit. Coming to a full stop, putting a foot down, getting off your bike, or being forced off course are all things that might warrant going to the pit. When you exit a crash and find that your group is un-catchable, or you need time to gain composure from a scary encounter, then get to the pit and take your free lap.

Recover and Stay Safe!

Taking a free lap isn’t just a rule that helps you stay competitive in a race. It’s also an opportunity to evaluate your psychical and mental state so that you can help keep yourself, and the other athletes safe. Take your free time to evaluate whether or not you can safely continue racing.

Above all prioritize the safety of yourself, and the athletes around you. If you make your way to the pit, you should only reenter the race if you feel mentally and physically fit to continue racing.

If you do decide that you are fit to stay in the race, use the remaining time to re-group, check your bike, and get back into your racing head-space.

USAC Criterium Pit Rules

While most races allow athletes to go to the pit in the event of a mishap, there are exceptions. At a USAC sanctioned event the Free Lap Rule must be set in place in order to take a free lap. A race director can elect not to have a Free Lap Rule in their crit. With that said, if there is no announcement that there is no Free Lap Rule in place, athletes can automatically assume that the Free Lap Rule is in place. 

If a Free Lap is in place here are the main rules and takeaways that should be considered:

  • When given a free lap, you are required to return to the position you were in prior to the crash. 
  • A referee will be posted in each pit to decide whether or not an athlete should get a free lap. 
  • You need to re-enter the race before the final 8 km, otherwise you’re considered to be losing time against the field. 
  • On a course shorter then 1 km, the referee may grant up to two free laps for an approved mishap.

If you’re looking for more information on these rules the Criterium pit rules can be found in Chapter Three, Section D Part 5 of the 2020 USAC Rule book. You can find Chapter 3 here.


For more cycling training knowledge, listen to the Ask a Cycling Coach — the only podcast dedicated to making you a faster cyclist. New episodes are released weekly.



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Meghan Kelley

Meghan Kelley is a writer, XC MTB racer and all around fan of trails, rocks, dirt and the desert. Her years spent racing XC and working at TrainerRoad has translated to a passion for all things cycling.