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The Difference Between a Criterium Bike and Road Bike

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The humble bicycle has come a long way since its initial introduction in 1817. And while the first bikes were designed to help people get around more quickly, modern bicycles are made for all kinds of pursuits. Consequently, there are dozens of bike types and styles.

A criterium bike (crit bike) is designed for fast-paced races on paved surfaces with typically four to six corners on the course. These bikes have stiff frames, deep-section wheels, and sharp angles. Most are built from road bikes. Criterium bikes and road bikes share many similarities, but road bikes aren’t as capable of making sharp turns or accelerating.

Have you wondered how a criterium bike and road bike differ? This brief comparison guide will reveal everything you need to know about how these two bicycle types differ and what makes a top-notch criterium bike.

Are Criterium Bikes and Road Bikes the Same?

Nearly any road bike can become a criterium bike. But few road bikes start as ideal crit bikes. That’s because most criterium bikes (also called crit bikes) are specially upgraded by their owners.

Understanding the fundamental differences between these bicycle types is crucial to ensuring your bike can handle everyday road use or a competitive criterium race. So, let’s take a few moments to discuss these bike types and discover what features might distinguish them from one another.

Road Bikes

Road bikes are some of the most popular types of bicycles, especially among adult riders. That’s because road bikes are designed for speed and performance, particularly on paved surfaces. 

These bicycles are available in many sub-styles and are often used for commuting to and from work. However, they’re also used for recreational and sporting purposes. For example, many racing bikes are road bikes.

Still, road bikes tend to have a standard set of features. For example, the majority of road bikes have:

  • Lightweight frames
  • No suspension forks
  • Short wheelbases
  • Thin, tall tires
  • A drop handlebar

Most of these common characteristics are also found in criterium bikes. That’s because the bulk of crit bikes start as road bikes. In fact, it’s almost impossible to find criterium bikes available from bicycle retailers.

Nearly every criterium bike is customized and upgraded by the rider, and the base bike style is that of a road bike. Consequently, it’s not uncommon to find crit bikes that look nearly identical to the average road bike. 

But many bicycles built to withstand criterium races feature some notable differences from your standard commuter road bike.

Criterium Bikes

Criteriums are high-speed races that take place on paved roadways, typically on tight-knit city streets. These races occur over a closed circuit and usually involve a predetermined number of laps. 

The best bikes for these races tend to be lightweight, stiff, and relatively low to the ground. They’re built for fast acceleration, tight turns, and stability. As a result, most criterium bikes have a similar set of features.

Some of the most common characteristics of a crit bike include:

  • A stiff, lightweight frame with a short wheelbase
  • A steep head tube angle
  • Deep section wheels
  • A high bottom bracket

These features assist in making a criterium bike faster and more capable of handling sharp turns. While participants can use a standard road bike for criterium events, a customized bicycle designed for crit races is likely to perform better and offer a more enjoyable experience for the rider.

What Makes a Good Criterium Bike?

Road bikes and criterium bikes have several similarities, but a pro-quality crit bike will always feature several significant components and characteristics. These features are what make a road or racing bike a good criterium bike.

The most crucial features of an exceptional-quality criterium bike include:

  1. Stiff Frame
  2. Deep Section Wheels
  3. Higher Bottom Bracket
  4. Steep Head Tube Angle
  5. Compact Wheelbase

If you’re unfamiliar with the anatomy of racing bicycles, some of these aspects might be a little confusing or unclear. To fully understand what features make or break a criterium bike, we’ll need to analyze each of these components in greater detail.

Stiff Frame

When you’re searching for the best criterium bike, you’ll want to start with the frame. A high-quality criterium bicycle should have a lightweight, stiff frame. This feature is crucial for stability, especially when taking corners or making gains over other racers.

Deep-Section Wheels

Your wheels are going to be what carries you through a criterium, so it’s crucial to choose wisely when outfitting your bike with a new set of wheels. After all, the wheels that come with a road bike aren’t designed for tight turns and close spaces.

Most racers prefer deep-section wheels for criteriums, as they produce less wind drag than shallow wheels and thin tires. The average tire depth for crit bikes is 60mm, though this sizing varies depending on rider preference. 

Higher Bottom Bracket

The bottom bracket is what holds and rotates your bicycle chain. Your pedals attach to this point. Bicycles with low bottom brackets can be problematic at best, but criterium racers should pay close attention to their bike’s bottom bracket height.

Unlike longer, single-lap bicycles races, criteriums involve fast-moving groups of bicyclists powering around corners and through slim city streets. If your shoe or pedal catches on the ground or another rider during the race, there’s a good chance you’ll lose control of your bike.

Ensuring that your bottom bracket is relatively high up along the frame can keep your feet away from potential obstacles and help prevent crashes.

Steep Head Tube Angle

Your bicycle’s head tube is part of the frame that connects to the handlebars and to the fork and influences how the bike responds to steering. The steeper the head tube angle, the more responsive the bike.

Road racing bikes have a steeper head tube placing the front wheel further under the bike. This design feature makes the bike more responsive and nimble when taking corners.

The best criterium bikes have steep steering angles. Be sure to look for bicycles that have sharp tube angles and compact frames. Otherwise, you may struggle to navigate corners and catch up to fellow racers.

Compact Wheelbase

A bike’s wheelbase is the distance between its wheel hubs. Mountain bikes and cruisers tend to have a long wheelbase. This feature helps with handling and suspension, spreading any impacts or bumps along a longer frame line. 

However, you’ll want to choose a road or racing bike with a compact wheelbase if you plan to race a criterium. That’s because bicycles with shorter, more compact wheelbases tend to be far easier to guide around sharp turns.

Because criterium races occur in cities, many of which have tightly spaced streets and sudden sharp corners, it’s crucial to choose a bike that can handle these small spaces without wobbling or crashing.

Are Criterium Bikes Faster Than Road Bikes?

Though crit bikes are built for speed, they’re not necessarily faster than road bikes. Generally, criterium bikes are ridden in large groups during races. This means that riders have to take advantage of drifts and pack aerodynamics.

Road bikes, on the other hand, are often used for personal transport or recreation. They’re naturally designed to move quickly over paved surfaces, though their thin tires can generate more wind resistance and drag.

Essentially, a crit bike may be slower than the average road bike if ridden beside it along a flat, paved roadway. But crit bikes moving in groups can reach higher speeds than single road bikes. It all comes down to rider aerodynamics and drag.

Can You Create a Crit Bike Using a Road Bike?

You can create a crit bike with a road bike. In fact, nearly every criterium bike begins its life as a road bike. That’s because many of the most beloved features of road bikes are also beneficial aspects of crit bikes.

However, there are a few crucial things to keep in mind when choosing this route. Firstly, you’ll want to choose a road bike base that already features many of the best characteristics of criterium bicycles. 

For example, road bikes with lightweight frames, short wheelbases, and raised bottom brackets easily convert into criterium bicycles. The only thing you may need to change with such a bike is its tire/rim depth and possibly the crankset, both of which are relatively simple upgrades. 

Of course, you can also choose to purchase road bikes or racing bikes designed for events like criterium races. The Canyon Aeroad CFR is an excellent example. Its aerodynamic carbon frame weighs about 16lbs, making it an incredibly light and stiff high-performance racing bike. 

This option also features a sporty, compact wheelbase that makes sharp turning a breeze, and with a raised bottom bracket, this bicycle was made for high speeds and tight spaces. Even better, this bike comes with pro-level, deep-section wheels.

How Do You Choose a Great Crit Bike?

Selecting the best possible criterium bike can be tricky, especially if you’re caught between a road or a racing bike base.

Fortunately, there are a handful of significant factors that can help guide you toward the ideal option. When choosing a criterium bike, you’ll want to think about:

  • Your Height
  • Frame Material
  • Wheel Depth
  • Bracket Height
  • Wheelbase Length
  • Upgrade Potential

To calculate the ideal frame size for your height, you can utilize some helpful frame height charts or visit a local bicycle shop. Both will help you determine the perfect size for your new criterium bike. But when it comes to choosing a lightweight frame, you won’t need to do much research.

Carbon fiber frames tend to be some of the lightest and most durable options, making them an excellent choice for racing and criterium bikes. In fact, the heaviest component of any top-notch criterium bike might be its wheels.

That’s because deep-section wheels tend to work best for criterium races. These reduce drag but add a significant amount of weight to a bike. It’s also a good idea to look for a bicycle with a higher bottom bracket and a shorter wheelbase.

A lifted bottom bracket can help you avoid pedaling into fellow riders and add clearance between your toes and the pavement. A shorter wheelbase adds stability to your bike, helping you ease around sharper corners.

When choosing a criterium bike, you can either opt for a ready-to-ride racing bike with all the bells and whistles or a standard road bike that requires a few upgrades. If you’re serious about owning a top-tier criterium bicycle, building your own may be the better long-term choice.

Do Criterium Bikes Cost More Than Road Bikes?

Criterium bikes are almost always pricier than the most budget-friendly road bikes. Crit bikes often contain many pricey components, such as deep-section wheels, which can cost upwards of thousands of dollars.

The higher-quality the bicycle, the more expensive it’s likely to be. This unwritten rule is true of both road bikes and criterium bikes. However, road bikes are available in a far more comprehensive price range.

The typical road bike can cost anywhere between $200 and well over $12,000. Criterium bikes, on the other hand, start at around $1,500. Their maximum price varies depending on the type of components added to the bicycle.

Consequently, the most affordable criterium bikes are almost always pricier than the most budget-friendly road bikes. Therefore, riders hoping to save money may want to customize their own criterium bike by starting with a solid road bike base.

That said, many top-notch crit bike components can cost thousands of dollars. As such, building a criterium bike can be just as costly as buying a crit-ready racing bike.

Final Thoughts

Road bikes are designed to move quickly across paved surfaces. As such, they’re an ideal base choice for those hoping to race a criterium event. That said, riders should take the extra steps to customize their bicycle and make it ready for participation in a high-speed crit race.

This means adding deep, carbon rims and investing in a stiff-yet-lightweight frame. These features can make a standard road bike easier to maneuver in tight turns and easier to handle. These characteristics are crucial to any top-notch criterium bike.

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