Road race, criterium and kermesse – if you’ve ever signed up for a bike race, you’ve probably seen these words used to describe different events. And if you’re like me, they probably confused the heck out of you. I thought all these bike races took place on roads – so why aren’t they all just “road races”?
Introduction: similar but different
All three belong to the broader discipline known as “road racing”, as distinct from track racing, mountain biking, etc. Therefore, the three categories share basic similarities. For example, all of them take place primarily on paved roads using road bicycles with drop handlebars and skinny tires. Generally, all riders start together (i.e. they are mass-start events, unlike time trials). At the end, the winner is the rider who crosses the finish line first.
However, understanding the differences between categories will better prepare you for a particular race. By knowing what sets a road race apart from a criterium and a kermesse, you can predict the tactics that others will employ, the kind of training you’ll need and the type of rider who will likely excel in your race.
For a comparison at a glance, refer to the following table. Figures are approximate, but they give a general sense of the differences:
|Circuit length||8km+ or point-to-point||3-8km||<3km|
|Terrain||Varies: flat to mountainous||Flat or undulating||Mostly flat|
|Physiological demands||Endurance||Hybrid||Repeated sprints|
|Lap out allowed?||No||Sometimes||Yes|
|Example (elite)||Grafton-Inverell||Race Melbourne*||Bay Crits|
|Example (club)||West Head||Orica Kermesse||HART|
Adding to the confusion, the three words are used inconsistently across the world. As we’ll find out, a Belgian “kermesse” looks different from an Australian one. Then there’s the whole “criterium” versus “critérium” thing. This post will clarify the differences between a road race, criterium and kermesse as understood in the Australian cycling landscape.
So let’s get into it. Firstly, the most well-known format: what’s a “road race”?
A road race is a longer-format race conducted on normal roads. It’s what most people think of when they think of bike racing, because it’s the format used in the Tour de France.
At the elite level, most road races are longer than 100km, with the longest close to 300km. They are fundamentally tests of endurance, typically lasting four hours or more. At club level, especially in lower grades, road races can be much shorter. Some are as short as 25km, finishing well within one hour.
Road race courses
Road races may take place on point-to-point courses, starting at point A and finishing at point B. Otherwise, they consist of multiple laps of a circuit. These circuits are typically longer than 8km in length. Riders complete a predetermined number of laps, and the rider over the finish line on the last lap is the winner.
Of the three categories, road races have the most varied terrain. Courses can be completely flat, like the desert roads of Dubai, or extremely mountainous, crossing over alpine passes.
Road race traffic controls
Sometimes, the roads are fully closed to traffic. At club level, roads are usually only traffic-controlled, meaning they’re still open to the public. Riders therefore must obey normal traffic rules, such as riding on the correct side of the road.
Examples of road races
In Australia, winter is the traditional road racing season – from April to October. However, in modern times January has become the peak of elite road racing in Australia. Nowadays, international events such as the Tour Down Under take place during the summer months. The National Road Championships also take place in January.
Road races more commonly take place on quiet rural roads. Due to the difficulty of obtaining road approvals, there are only a few regular road races in Sydney, all of them being circuits:
OK, so that’s a road race. Now, what’s a criterium?
A criterium or “crit” is a race conducted on a short circuit, typically less than 3 kilometres in length. The course may be a dedicated off-road criterium track, or it may be a section of public road that’s temporarily closed to traffic.
Criteriums typically last no longer than one hour. The race length may be a preset number of laps, but it’s more commonly determined by time plus laps. For example, a criterium of “30min + 1 lap” means the riders race for 30 minutes. Then, officials ring a bell to signal the start of the final lap. The first rider to cross the line at the end of that final lap is the winner. The total number of laps covered is irrelevant.
While some criterium courses include short, steep climbs, most courses are flat. Because of the small circuit, criteriums usually involve tight corners, repeatedly requiring riders to sprint out of each turn. Crits tend to favour sprinters with strong anaerobic fitness and fast recovery as opposed to the endurance-oriented nature of a road race.
The “lap out” rule
The “free lap” or “lap out” rule is usually available during criteriums. According to this rule, if a rider suffers from a mechanical mishap or crash, they may wait by the side of the circuit and rejoin the bunch on the next lap.
Examples of criteriums
Summer is Australia’s traditional criterium season. In modern times, club criteriums happen all year round, with the shorter format suiting busy lifestyles.
The criterium is the most common form of road racing in cities due to the availability of dedicated off-road circuits. It’s also easier to obtain traffic approval for a crit because only a small section of road needs to be closed. Examples of Sydney criterium venues include:
Now, let’s look at the third category of race – the kermesse.
In Australia, a kermesse is a loose term used to describe a race halfway between a criterium and a road race.
A kermesse is a circuit race on a course that’s longer than that of a criterium, but shorter than that of a road race: usually 3-8 kilometres per lap. At elite level, they typically last between one and two hours – again, longer than a criterium, but shorter than a full road race.
A kermesse circuit won’t include any long climbs, but some can be undulating with short hills. Compared to a criterium, there is less emphasis on cornering and short sprint efforts. However, compared to a road race, the shorter duration means that intensity is high. Repeated attacks and anaerobic efforts are common.
Kermesse traffic controls
Like road races, kermesses often take place on traffic-managed roads. Sometimes, the circuit is completely closed to traffic. Many such kermesses take place on motor racing circuits.
Free laps in kermesses?
Sometimes, the “lap out” rule from criteriums applies to kermesses as well. Check the rules of each individual race for confirmation.
Examples of kermesses
Examples of Australian kermesses include:
- Orica Kermesse, a NSW State Open held on an undulating 12km circuit at the Hunter Economic Zone (HEZ) in Kurri Kurri
- Uraidla Kermesse, held by Norwood CC on a 5.3km circuit on open roads near Adelaide, South Australia
- *Towards Zero Race Melbourne – the curtain-raiser to the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race, held on a 5.3km circuit in Melbourne’s Formula One venue. Note that the race organisers describe this race as a “criterium” and, from 2019, this is a teams event based on points rather than a traditional race.
A loose categorisation
As you may have surmised, the boundaries between the three categories are fuzzy. The word “kermesse” doesn’t have a strict definition in Australia. Unlike the road race and criterium, there is no Australian championship for a kermesse, reinforcing its status as a general descriptive term rather than a specific category. As such, some races that are referred to as “road races” could be categorised as “kermesses” instead.
For example, the NSW Country and Metropolitan Road Championships (aka Sydney Road Titles) take place at Penrith’s regatta centre on a 5-kilometre circuit that’s more like a bike path than a road. Penrith CC holds weekly club races on the same circuit, which they sometimes refer to as “road races” and sometimes as “criteriums”, depending on whether they race for a set number of laps or use the “time plus laps” format.
The length of Penrith’s circuit is consistent with a kermesse, yet races there are never described as such. The club admits on its website, “[s]trictly speaking these are kermesse races because our course is longer than the usual 3km crit circuit length”.
For another example of apparent inconsistency, the Orica Kermesse is held on a 12-kilometre circuit in Kurri Kurri. That’s longer than the circuit at the Australian Road Race Championships in Buninyong. We can explain this discrepancy by the different total distances of each race. The elite men cover 96km at the Orica Kermesse, compared to 185km in Buninyong.
In summary, most people loosely use the word “kermesse” as a sub-category of “road race”, where the circuit or overall distance is shorter than normal.
This post has only dealt with the use of these terms in Australia, but it’s worth touching on their different meanings overseas.
Kermesses in Belgium and the Netherlands
While “kermesse” is a loose term in Australia, it refers to a specific style of race common in Belgium and the Netherlands. Towns take turns to hold a kermesse (or kermis) as part of their local festivals, meaning there is a race almost daily during the cycling season. These kermesses attract elite amateurs due to their high intensity, low entry fees and decent prize-money.
Similar to their Australian cousins, European kermesses are on-road circuit races, with laps around 5-10km long and total race distances of around 90-140km. Since kermesses occur frequently and tend to be raced at a frenetic pace, Aussie amateurs like to travel to Europe just to gain overseas experience at these kermesses.
Fixed criteriums (and Critérium)
In pro cycling, the word “criterium” can refer to an exhibition race held on a short circuit, just like the Australian concept of a criterium. However, the key difference is that these criteriums are fixed. The finishing order has been pre-ordained by the race organiser. As such, they are more like scripted stage shows than sporting contests. Criterium promoters (often town mayors looking to boost their popularity) pay handsome appearance fees to lure top riders to their events.
Many of these exhibition criteriums take place soon after major races like the Tour de France. The best riders, like the yellow jersey winner, can earn thousands of euros from riding these post-Tour crits. For a modern example, the organiser of the Tour de France holds end-of-year criteriums in Shanghai and Saitama. These fixed events yield nonsense results like Geraint Thomas outsprinting Marcel Kittel in a flat finish.
Finally, there’s a professional multi-stage race in France called the Critérium du Dauphiné. It’s a week-long series of road races that go over some of the toughest mountain passes in France. The Dauphiné is the most important warm-up race for Le Tour de France, but despite the name, it’s most certainly not a “criterium” in the usual sense. Apparently, it gets its name because in French, “critérium” can refer to any sporting competition.
Hopefully, this article has helped you understand some of the characteristics of road races, criteriums and kermesses.
As we’ve seen, criteriums are short, intense races on short circuits, while road races are long, endurance-based races held on the road. In Australia, “kermesse” can describe any circuit race that falls between the two in distance and duration.
Now that we’ve clarified all that, hopefully you’ll be less confused when you sign up for your next race!