Breaking away in Brooklyn: The Red Hook Criterium bike race sees pros, messengers, and amateurs testing their skills
9:47 am Mar. 28, 2012
On Saturday night starting at around 6 p.m., hundreds of people began to descend, mostly on bikes, upon the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal in Red Hook.
They came from all over the city, some having just arrived from as far as the West Coast and other cities all over the world, not to board a cruise ship set to embark against the gray sky, or to attend an indie concert or a food fair. The men and women wearing short shorts, spandex, and a conspicuous number of those little bike messenger hats made their way among big plastic barricades and orange traffic cones.
There were bikes everywhere. The people were there to watch, and some to race in, something called the Red Hook Criterium (the "Red Hook Crit" to those in the know), an unofficial bike race that, in its five-year existence, has grown organically from a late-night ride for locals around the potholed industrial waterfront neighborhood to an international phenomenon drawing sponsorship from Eastern Mountain Sports, and competitors from as far as Italy and Spain.
The race has expanded past Brooklyn's borders, too, with founder David Trimble organizing an annual RHC Milano beginning in 2010. There he added a parallel event, a 5K run, which was instituted in Brooklyn for the first time this year. But the bike race was the big draw.
The Red Hook Crit has essentially one golden rule: competitors must ride fixed-gear track bikes. If you’ve ever watched bike messengers thread their way through crowded Manhattan streets or scanned the dozens of cycles chained and U-locked in Williamsburg, you’re probably familiar with the “fixie” trend; recognizing the term, however, doesn’t mean knowing the specifics—namely, that fixed-gear bikes generally don’t have brakes. They also don’t have freewheels and so can’t coast. Racers must be extremely experienced (and strong) to be able to control them.
“What it does is makes the race a lot more technical," said Trimble of the fixed-gear rule. "It separates the really skilled and strong riders from the more amateur riders. If anything it actually makes the race safer, because the field is spread apart—it requires a lot of skill to be competitive. In a race in Central Park, you’d have 120 guys in a tight pack, and if one guy crashes, he’s going to take out 30 guys. In the Red Hook Crit, if one guy crashes, he’s only going to take himself out.”
INSIDE THE CRUISE TERMINAL, CRASHING WAS ONLY one obstacle on the minds of the cyclists, who were gathered with their gear in a makeshift room just off the entrance. Bikes, PowerBars, rollers (contraptions consisting of three cylinders on which bikers can ride in place), and more bikes filled the carpeted space. The atmosphere was distinctly testosterone-heavy (there were only four women racers out of 100) but congenial as men outfitted themselves in team-branded spandex suits, stretched, made jokes, and tuned up.
Beyond the obvious desire for glory, the biggest concern among many first-time Red Hook racers was simply finishing—and crashing isn't the only way to go. Unlike races that run from a point A to point B, criteriums are completed in laps on a closed circuit. In the Red Hook Crit, as in many others of its kind, a rider who’s lapped is eliminated.
“It’s a personal goal to finish,” said Jason Clary, a first-timer from Oakland, California. Clary is a former bike messenger who won San Francisco’s Red Bull Ride and Style last year, landing him a spot on a company-sponsored team. “It’s pretty much the biggest thing of its kind,” he said of the Red Hook Crit. “I’ve been wanting to do it for a year.”
Others echoed Clary, citing the prestige of the event and the chance to ride with big-name cyclists as a draw.
“I’m here for the simple fact that I’m going to race against the best in track bikes and street racing,” said Josue Acosta, from East Palo Alto, California. Colleen McLaughlin, a cyclist from San Francisco, admitted to feeling anxious and a bit intimidated. “There’s all this mystique behind it. There’s all these pro racers here, there’s guys from Spain and Italy. It’s a big deal.”
This mix of pros, semi-pros, hobby racers, and gutsy messengers is in fact what makes the Red Hook Crit distinct. Trimble proudly advertises the fact that the race isn’t sanctioned by USA Cycling, the national organization that sends bikers to international competitions. Consequently, anyone with a helmet, the right kind of bike, and the money for the $35 registration fee can enter.
“This race brings together a really interesting mix of people," said John “K-Tel” Kniesly, a veteran Red Hook rider who placed third in 2009 and second in 2010. "Guys who race the alleycat scene [informal and largely illegal city races], guys who ride the street, who might not be as comfortable with corners. There’s always a wild card. That’s what makes this race unique. There’s no single favorite—there’s a lot of guys with really good fighting chances.”
OUTSIDE IN THE INCREASINGLY COLD NIGHT, SPECTATORS drank Six Point beers (the race may not be sanctioned by USA Cycling, but it is by the Red Hook brewery!) and lined up along the barricades, waiting for the race to commence. People staked out spots on either side of a long stretch near the start and finish line, which included the curves of the first tough part of the circuit, a quick succession of three corners. The 1.25-kilometer track extended past the crowd in both directions, following the road northwest towards the water and terminal building, then looping back, past the starting line and into a hairpin turn. Patches of brilliantly floodlit pavement alternated with spans of darkness. The droning hum of a nearby factory seemed to relentlessly anticipate the start of the race.
Just after 9:30, the signal finally sounded, and the pack of riders sprang to life. They whizzed by in an exhilarating burst of speed and, a minute later, flew past again as they completed their first loop. The crowd rattled cowbells and yelled out racers’ names; at the first of a handful of painful-looking crashes (which, as Trimble predicted, involved few riders in each instance), it issued a collective gasp.
A few days earlier when we spoke on the phone, Trimble had emphasized this communal spirit and the race’s “spectacular setting.”
“It’s a very simple and accessible event,” he said. “We try to make it appeal to spectators.”
Frank Warren, a second-time Red Hook rider who lost a wheel and went down in one of the crashes, had called it, on the phone a few days prior, “a performance-based race.”
At some point during the fourth lap, Daniel Chabanov (pictured at left; photo Chris Henry), winner of the Crit for the past two years, broke away from the leading pack. For the next twenty laps Russian-born Chabanov, who started out as a messenger racing in alleycats, rode alone. He seemed to move at a superhuman pace, keeping ahead of the closest followers by a margin of 10 to 15 seconds.
In the end, then, there was no wild card: Chabanov easily took first place, clocking in at 43:53.56. Second place went to Rainier Schaefer, from San Francisco, who finished in 44:02.85, and third to Red Hook vet Evan Murphy from Providence, Rhode Island, with a time of 44:03.02. Chabanov also scored the fastest lap, completing a single loop of the circuit in a minute and 43 seconds.
On the podium, Trimble called Chabanov’s race “the most insane performance” he’d ever seen. “Someone’s got to beat him next year,” Trimble said. “If he wins every year, I’m gonna cancel the race.”
Chabanov himself almost seemed to agree. When asked how this Red Hook Crit compared with his previous two, he answered, “It hurt a lot more, because I was by myself. Riding by yourself is always hard…but it’s the kind of hurt you can go through.”