What Is A Crit, Anyway?

Bicyclists racing in The Mass Ave Crit at Momentum Indy
The Mass Ave Crit

IF THERE’S ONE thing Indianapolis knows how to do well, it’s host a race. Of course, the racing in question is usually done by cars. This month, the Racing Capital of the World will live up to its title by hosting a bike race of national significance.

USA Cycling named Indianapolis’s Mass Ave Crit the ninth stop of the American Criterium Cup, a new 10-race U.S. crit series. This is big news—if you’re one of the few noncyclists who are familiar with crits.

A criterium, or crit, is a multi-lap bike race on a closed course. The Mass Ave Crit and Indy Crit combine to create IU Health Momentum Indy, a two-day bicycle festival in downtown Indianapolis on August 27 and 28. The downtown location means cyclists will race through closed-off urban streets while zooming past festival activities, restaurants, bars, and apartment complexes. Momentum Indy founder Jennifer Cvar compares crits to IndyCar races on bikes due to the multi-lap, high-speed format that often leaves riders biking elbow-to-elbow.

Cvar knows the Mass Ave Crit’s new status as a stop on a national race series will attract more elite cyclists than ever, and she hopes the number of spectators will follow.

“The caliber of competition for the pro races will be through the roof,” Cvar says. “This really elevates the level of competition and the stature of the event. Just like hosting a major golf tournament or NCAA tournament, this criterium series is the equivalent for bike racing.”

The courses are designed with spectators in mind, Cvar says. The short length of each lap, .64 miles for the Mass Ave Crit and .71 miles for the Indy Crit, means cyclists will pass the crowd as frequently as every two minutes. The sharp angles of the turns, some even sharper than 90 degrees, add difficulty and drama by increasing the likelihood of accidents. Choosing locations such as Meridian Street, Mass Ave, and New York Street ensures spectators can enjoy Saturday night’s Mass Ave Crit while out at the bars or watch Sunday’s Indy Crit while brunching at local restaurants. Cvar even invites crowds to feel the rush of air from cyclists speeding past by standing directly against the barricades blocking off the course.

Damon Richards, executive director of Bike Indianapolis, says people underestimate the excitement of crits. When people think of bike races, they think of the Tour de France, where crowds stand around all day waiting for a single, brief glance of the cyclists. The short-lap format of crits means riders sprint past spectators again and again. The exhilaration, not to mention the free admission, leaves Richards confused why anyone wouldn’t attend Momentum Indy.

“This is a free event for spectators, and it’s as exciting as going to see the Indy 500,” Richards says. “Of course, the cyclists are not going as fast, but you’re a lot closer to them. People don’t generally think of bicycling as a spectator sport, but crits are designed for spectators to enjoy and have a good time. Basically, crits are a really fun way to see riders going really fast.”

A person winning the Momentum Indy race
The Mass Ave Crit finish line

Momentum Indy offers two ways for spectators to enjoy the races. The Mass Ave Crit, founded in 2008, and the Indy Crit, founded by Cvar in 2010, combined under the Momentum Indy festival name in 2021 to offer a weekend-long cycling attraction that accommodates all ages and cycling abilities. The Mass Ave Crit caters to a more adult audience, with the Women’s 3/4/Novice racing kicking off the afternoon at 3 p.m. and the Men’s Pro 1 race concluding at 8:30 p.m. While there are categories for a variety of cycling abilities, the Mass Ave Crit does not include any junior or kids’ races. Spectators can listen to music from the Red Bull DJ truck and mill around the bars lining the course.

The Indy Crit offers a family-friendly environment on Sunday, as does Saturday morning’s Honor Major Taylor Ride. The free community ride, open to anyone who brings their own bike and helmet, honors the memory of Marshall “Major” Taylor, a trailblazing Black Indianapolis cyclist once known as the “World’s Fastest Man.” The Mini Major Taylor Ride for families with small children follows. The age inclusivity continues throughout the day, with competitive crit racing categories for kids (ages 3–9), juniors (ages 9–18), and those above 40, 50, and 60 years old. The Indy Crit route surrounds University Park, where Momentum Indy offers a festival complete with food vendors, BMX stunt shows, bicycle obstacle courses, games, and more.

a kid riding their bike at the Mass Ave Crit during Momentum Indy
The Indy Crit

“If a family is looking for something free to do on a Sunday, they can come out and entertain their kids for three or four hours with bike obstacle courses and a lot of other fun, free activities,” Cvar says. “More people than ever are out biking, and whether you’re a serious cyclist who is suiting up in a kit or if you just like to take your kids for a bike ride around the neighborhood, biking just builds community.”