The bicycle is celebrating its 200th birthday this year, marking the introduction of the earliest velocipede in Germany in 1817. Since then, one thing has remained constant: Put three or more cyclists together, and a race will likely result.
Massachusetts has a long history in bicycle racing, highlighted by Worcester’s adopted son Marshall “Major’’ Taylor. In 1899, Taylor became the first African-American to win a world title, capturing the 1-mile world championship in Montreal.
Over the decades, bike racing has branched into several disciplines, including long, point-to-point routes as seen in the Tour de France; track events popular in Taylor’s day; off-road mountain bike treks; and cyclocross.
Then there’s criterium, or “crit’’ racing, a madcap road competition that features multiple laps around a relatively short (usually about a mile), closed-loop course with dozens of racers jostling for position. Races last about an hour, and consist of several “races within a race,’’ called primes (pronounced “preems’’), ensuring nonstop action.
“Crit racing has become a quintessentially American thing,’’ said Scituate’s Aaron McCormack, a native of Northern Ireland. “Crits were very rare back in Europe for amateur racers, and remain so to this day. If you enjoy racing your bike in the United States, you better become comfortable with them, as they’re the most popular form of racing on the calendar.’’
Favorite events are designed for downtowns, and all have one undeniable attraction.
“The best part of criterium racing is the speed,’’ said Milton’s Chris Ryan. “When you’re racing a short course, there is always someone in the pack who will try to get away from the other riders, and this constant attacking keeps the speeds high for almost the whole race. There’s a lot of satisfaction just being able to be in good enough condition physically to stay with the other riders.’’
The discipline is similar to another popular American pastime, said Somerville’s Erin Faccone.
“The best way to explain crit racing is it’s like NASCAR, but on bikes,’’ said Faccone, who has raced since 2011. “It’s an analogy people seem to understand. Laps on a fast course, everyone starts together, first across the line wins.’’
Criterium racing is a big draw in Eastern Massachusetts. The North Shore will feature two state championships in the coming weeks, with the Gran Prix of Beverly hosting the men’s race on Wednesday, July 26, and the Witches Cup in Salem following with the women’s race on Aug. 9.
“Both the Witches Cup and Gran Prix of Beverly are excellent races, made more awesome by the twilight racing environment,’’ said Dorchester’s Lydia Hausle, who started racing while at Boston University. “Racing at night is a fun time.’’
“These races generally have big crowds that really add to the excitement. The courses are very different. Beverly is one of the most technical courses of the season, while the Witches Cup is seriously fast, but has fewer and less challenging corners.’’
In addition to single-day races, like the Shoe City Pro Circuit in Haverhill on Aug. 27, there are a number of training races, notably the Boston Road Club’s Wells Avenue Training Criterium in Newton (held on Sundays through September) and the Mass Bay Road Club’s Wompatuck Tuesday Night Criterium Training Race in Hingham (through the end of August).
“We started the Wells Ave. series with the intent of offering races that would let riders start racing without feeling like they just couldn’t handle racing,’’ said Ryan. “We offered introductory races, with an instructional period included to let new racers get some idea about what racing was, and stressing that anybody could race and that eventually every rider would be able to keep up. It’s proven to be very successful, and we just celebrated the 36th anniversary of the founding of the series.’’
That instruction is critical, since criteriums produce a certain element of risk.
“The pitfalls are that there can be crashes, although crit races get a bit of an unfair reputation as being unsafe,’’ said West Bridgewater’s Brian Merrill. “The course really dictates that. A course like Wells Ave. is pretty straightforward and simple. There’s no sharp turns and it’s pretty flat. A really technical course with a lot of tight turns would probably have a higher likelihood of crashes.
“A crit can be dangerous, but so can any race. Crits can have pretty high average speeds and some pretty fast sprints, but you’re not going to see the screaming fast descents like you could see in a hilly road race.’’
Still, there’s no shortage of competitors.
“New England is one of — if not the best — cycling community in the country,’’ said Brookline’s Sam Rosenholtz. “We’re a tight-knit bunch who race hard, but leave it on the ice, so to speak. That camaraderie finds its way into the racing in a real way, and it makes it really special.’’
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