criterium (krī-ˈtir-ē-əm): a bicycle race of a specified number of laps with at least four corners on a small course over public roads closed to normal traffic.
By its very definition, a criterium - or crit - is a race, yet the Underground Crit, one of the Valley's most popular group rides, is showing that a crit can be ridden under the same conditions while removing the moniker of "race."
Held on the wide streets of a yet-to-be-developed business park off of 7th Street and Deer Valley Road, the Underground Crit is easily one of the most intensely ridden yet safe group rides in town with nothing more at stake than bragging rights and a chance to go shoulder to shoulder on a challenging course with some of the Valley's very best. See also: - Cycle: Ride, Photograph, and Share South Mountain Sundays - Cycle: 10 Reasons to Love Cycling in Phoenix
The ride started in April, 2011 when ride organizer Tim Fleming sent an email to 17 of his cycling buddies inviting them to gather on a Tuesday evening to ride the course that is also used for the Arizona State Criterium Championships. With each passing week, the group expanded through word of mouth and Fleming gathering more and more emails for his distribution list.
Now, a typical Tuesday night sees 70 to 100 riders lining up to spin around the nearly one mile loop, attracting all levels of riders from recreational spinners to pre-teen junior racers to local pro and 2012 El Tour de Tucson winner Eric Marcotte.
"The best thing about this ride is all of the different kinds of people who come out, from pilots to CEO's to blue collar workers to these young kids," said Fleming, who also rides and sponsors a local team. "This ride is on city streets and we have had good support and communication with the city, plus we usually have a couple of local police are riders."
Each Tuesday night crit is split into two group rides. The "B" group rolls off the line at 6:30 p.m. and usually warms up over five neutral laps before opening up for five race-pace laps. The B group is for all riders regardless of ability allowing anyone a chance to get a feel for safe group riding at a fast speed.
The "A" group then rolls at 7:30 for two neutral laps before allowing the strong men and ladies to unleash their fury on the glassy tarmac for the next 30 minutes.
And because of the crit circuit course, if a rider gets dropped at any time, the group comes back around offering another chance to either hop on the train or pick up a few stragglers who also couldn't hold the pace. But that's not to say the course doesn't have its challenges. There is an uphill draw along the start/finish straight that can put a real strain on the legs while working to hold speed.
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The course is quite possibly the safest in all of metro Phoenix as it has just two roads that lead into the otherwise closed loop, and there is little to no reason for any cars to come in on either street because of the total lack of development on any of the land in or around the loop. While neither road is outright blocked during the rides, Fleming and other bystanders make sure that cars don't just slip onto the course.
The ride often does more than provide local roadies a chance to drill it on a Tuesday evening. Throughout December, all riders will need to contribute at least one can of food to get on the course with donations going to a local food bank. Over Halloween, the ride featured costume and pumpkin carving contests.
And on Jan. 19, Fleming and the Underground Crit will hold the Not So Underground Crit, a true-blue official criterium race on the course with actual prizes and officiating, with proceeds going to a local non-profit.