For many spectators and passersby today's 12th annual Washington Capital Open Criterium bicycle race will provide a vivid display as brightly clad competitors swirl around the Ellipse on their many colored mounts. For the oficionados, bike-riding provides a revolving drama in which inches separate the rider from triumph and tragedy, where the leaders must plot with and against each other to gain the fleeting edge which provides victory and where the audience often provides cash incentives to encourage optimum performances.

The 21-race Campagnolo Prestige Classic series, a nationwide tour of Pro-Am race meets, will begin today at 11 a.m. with four competitions which finish at 16th Street and Constitution Avenue NW. The action starts with the 25-kilometer (15.5 mile) Senior Men's Category III followed by the 30-kilometer (18.6-mile) Junior race for 16-and 17-year-olds and the 25-kilometer Best All-Around women's circuit event at 1 p.m.

The featured 50-kilometer (31-mile) Men's Category I-II commences at 2 p.m. with the victor taking home an expensive set of racing tires, paid expenses to next week's Campagnolo event and $200 of the total $1,000 cash awarded to the top I-II finishers.

"It's very colorful. The jerseys and the bikes are brightly colored," said Peter Swan, promoter of the event. "There is a strange sound as the riders go by. It's not the loss of air, but the tires make a strange sound as the bikes go by. It's a silent type of whoosh.

"There will be a tightness of the pack -- there can be 100 riders within inches of each other. They ride perilously close. Therefor, when there is a calamity, 10 or 14 riders go down. But typically, the injuries are just skinned knees and occasionally a broken collarbone."

Strategy is as important as speed in criterium racing where the riders travel between 25 and 40 miles per hour. A competitor who decides to lead the race without enlisting the help of others will be battling the wind as well as his opponents.

So the leaders invariably trade off breaking the wind, riding first a lap, then allowing others in the front back to do likewise waiting for the moment, usually in the closing laps, when it is time to leave everybody behind.

"You concentrate first on the person in front of you. You have to be sure you have good position in relation to the pack," said Rick Burnett, one of several members of the local National Capital Velo Club who will participate in the I-II class. "It is always important to be near the front without being in front. Positioning in this race is three-quarters of the race. By the last five laps (of a total 50), you want to be getting into the top 10."

To spice up the earlier portions of the races, added incentives called primes (prounounced preems) are offered. These are gifts or usually small amounts of money, perhaps $5, which are collected from the viewers and awarded for special achievements, such as leading the race at the end of a certain lap or winning a sprint among a pack leading the race or even in the middle of the field.

Primes can be designated before a competition or concocted by the race announcer during an event, often aften he's lured watchers to donate money. "The announcer will exhort the crowd and a guy will go around and pass the hat," Swan said. "We hope to raise a couple hundred dollars that way."

Approximately 325 competitors are expected in total today. Many of the big names nationally will be among the 100-110 entrants in the featured Category I-II event. Leading that field will be 1970 national champion Bobby Phillips of Baltimore, defending champ Leonard Nitz, and national team members Tom Prehn of Annapolis, David Ware, Bruce Donaghy, national track racing titlist, Leigh Barczewski and Jim Ochwicz. Ochowicz, a 1976 Olympian, is married to Sheila Young, a cyclist who won three medals in the 1976 Winter Games as a speed skater.

While the men's races will be won by the first riders over the line, the female title will be awarded on a system in which the top two women in each lap, and the top five at the end of certain laps will be awarded points and the top five at the finish will get double points.

Defending champ Betsy Davis, Mary Jane Reoch, holder of eight national records (established in Washington in 1977) and Leslie Moore Nitz, Leonard's wife, are top contenders for prizes of merchandise valued at $600.

Records are expected to be shattered if there is good weather today on the Ellipse course, considered the fastest in the nation because it is "flat, no turns, just continuous travel," Swan said, "All speed records for more than 10 kilometers (in this type racing) are set on this course."

But because the track is oval rather than having straightaways with turns in the corners, also makes it more dangerous. "It's dangerous because you'd always turning . . . you have to be conscious," Burnett said.