There's a thread over in the Road Racing forum at bikeforums asking what Category 5 criteriums are like. It's largely some banter about Cat 5 racing. In cycling, listening to people talk about Cat 5 racing is kind of like listening to high school sophomores talk about freshman. There are a couple of convenient put-downs and it makes people feel like they're a bit more advanced. I mean, come on - calling Cat 5 the "Crash 5" isn't even a good play on words!
I read this thread and I sat back, wondering why I felt a little bit defensive. I'm currently a Cat 5 - I spent my first racing season focusing on track racing, with a handful of road races thrown in here and there, mostly for fun. Now I've got some racing experience under my belt and I'm gearing up for a full season of road racing, but still a Cat 5. I guess that I'm proof of something - hey, I know what I'm doing when I'm racing! Not all Cat 5's have no idea how to attack a field or sprint or...
Where'd I learn that racing stuff?
Hint: it's a bumpy banked oval out in Queens (side note: I recently learned that "Kissena" means "It Is Cold" in Algonquin - which fits all too well VeloCity '08, mentioned in this post (video at the end)).
Which brings me to my advice: want to learn how to race? Race at the track. The logic is simple. You can hop in a road race and spend some time groveling at the tail end of things and not even see how races develop. Or you can straddle your bike at the velodrome during an omnium, hop on to the banking, race in a smaller pack where the race happens faster, right in front of you, over and over. And when you get off, spent and exhausted, coughing and grabbing for your waterbottles, you can watch the other fields - specifically, the more experienced riders - do the same races.
And you can learn: oh, that person made a move stick on a faster field because of how he came off the banking on turn 4 (lesson: attacks have to be fast). If he would have done it on turn 2 he would have been going into the wind (lesson: be aware of the environment and terrain). And those riders two work together (lesson: make secret teammates). And that guy's a sprinter who can turn it up on the last 200m, so in this race format they're wearing him down, fast (lesson: just because somebody's faster than you, doesn't mean you can't beat them).
I'm entering the road season feeling like I know what I'm doing. I'm planning to be consistent at some early-season criteriums with a friend or two (Plainville and Bethel), and I'm already developing a couple of different plans on what to try when in different races.
Of course, plans will only take you so far. Time to get out the rollers.
And a parting word of advice - if there's a velodrome within a few hours of where you live, borrow a track bike or buy a cheap one, and go hit the banking.