Normally, when you race a criterium, you line up on the start line a few minutes before the official start time. The commissaires will give you instructions such as how long the race is, how many sprints there are, warning bells and whistles etc etc. It's generally quite important to listen to these instructions as they can help you time your attacks to give you the best opportunity to pick up points or a sprint bonus along the way.
On the weekend, I did a criterium here in Germany, except with some small differences. Almost every criterium race in Germany is a points race of around 70km with about 35-45 laps. Every 5 laps there is a sprint in which the top 3 get points with the person with the most points declared the winner at the end. In between these sprint points are other, random sprints for small cash rewards or prizes such as wine. There is usually no specific lap that these sprints occur, the judges just decide to throw them in whenever they feel like it.
As I lined up at the start, the commissaires shouted out instructions over the loud speakers, of which, I could understand nothing. I looked around at others to see if anyone else was as confused as me but I am pretty sure I was the only non-German speaking person in the field. As I looked around, the race suddenly started. No count down, no hoo-rah. Everybody clipped in and away we went.
The course was a typical four corner circuit just over 1km long with only one corner that required any real braking. After a couple of laps, the bell sounded. Knowing this was not for points, I half-heartedly sprinted through at the front of the bunch, just wanting to hold my position. As we came across the finish line for the sprint, the bell rang again. I was a little bit surprised but thought the sprint must have been for points. I contested the sprint and crossed in 3rd positon only to be met by another bell. By this stage, I was feeling a bit of burn in my legs and had to drop back for a rest. Two laps passed by and the bell rang again. Again, I was sure this was not for points so did not sprint but as we crossed the finish line the bell rang again.
This continued on for the entire race and for the entire race I was so confused as to whether I should sprint or not. A couple of times, purely by luck I managed to lead my team mate out to collect some points but if anyone asked me, I could not say if they were sprint points or not. To me, it seemed like the bell rang almost every lap and I could never tell what it was for! Instead, I spent the race making sure that break aways did not escape and tried to set things up for someone that knew what was going on.
In the final laps I was well positioned at the front and finished in the top ten for the sprint but this has no effect on the final results. After the race I checked to see if any of the sprints I went for were actually worth any points and as at turned out, they weren't. Fortunately, my team mate managed to get it right a couple of times and finished up in 4th place overall.