By Daniel McMahon
“He has completely and utterly thrown all caution to the wind!”
That, as many of you will immediately recognize, is an oft-repeated exclamation of famed Tour commentator Phil Liggett, one that has come to mind several times this week as I talked to racers in Brooklyn about the tactics, cunning and risk-taking that will be on display during the two-wheeled battle that is the Red Hook Criterium.
An unsanctioned race deep in the belly of New York’s biggest borough, the Red Hook crit, now in its third year, is held on a course that race founder and promoter David Trimble tries to keep secret till race-night registration. So riders have to show up and pay their entry fee to learn the course’s whereabouts.
Last year the NYPD showed up but did not stop the race.
The race takes place in a derelict part of the city, a postindustrial area a stone’s throw from the waterfront, where at night it’s decidedly empty of people. One Brooklynite spoke of the “eerie feeling in the air there late at night with the mist coming off the water.”
So what better a venue to host an under-the-radar bike race?
The real deal
The Red Hook Criterium, which takes place this Saturday at 11 p.m. on a .75-mile course, features winding, windswept roads, lots of corners and a tricky, cobblestone chicane. Whoever completes the scheduled 20 laps first gets to ride to the after party with the much-desired cobblestone trophy in hand.
But let’s be clear: Although Brooklyn may be the nation’s capital of helmet-less hipsters in tight-legged jeans, cruising on elaborately painted fixies, the Red Hook is a real race.
“It ain’t no hipster show,” Trimble said. “The first two winners have gone on to pro contracts. I think that speaks to what kind of talent is required to win.”
Trimble was referring to Kacey Manderfield, who went on to Team Lipsmacker, and Neil Bezdek, a new signing at Mountain Khakis-Jittery Joe’s.
Manderfield, winner two years ago and a former collegiate national champion, took advantage of the street rivalries among locals and followed wheels until the finish, when she blew by the unsuspecting male-dominated field in a powerful sneak attack.
Bezdek, winner last year and a former messenger, used his combination of street skills and a big engine to complete laps on the technical course in the rain at an average speed of 27 mph.
Come one, come all!
In its short existence, the Red Hook has attracted a happy jumble of riders, from messengers to Wall Street roadies, those who compete in alley cat races on the streets of Manhattan as well as those who battle it out at weekend races in Central Park.
Alfredo Bobe, a messenger and a race favorite, likes that Red Hook offers such a deep field and the opportunity to really rip through the backstreets of Brooklyn.
“It’s an urban spin-off from what’s going on in the track-bike community,” Bobe explained. “You have the messengers and the passionate racers who may even ride at the Kissena Velodrome in Queens. Both groups love to get their race on, albeit under very different conditions.
“One group thinks the other type of racing is boring, the other that the alley cats are borderline suicidal. But both groups share a passion for the track bike, which allows this race to have a place.”
Bezdek agrees, explaining that the race fills a void between racing culture, the messenger scene, and urban cycling. “It’s a unifying event that doesn’t seem to be repeated elsewhere,” he said.
Another race favorite is Russian-born Brooklyn messenger Dan Chabanov, an up-and-coming cyclocrosser. Chabanov’s plan for Red Hook is simple: to make it hard. He said he was drawn to the race because there were “no fancy bikes, no licenses, no categories.”
A young race’s brief history
About three years ago, Trimble found himself doing a lot of alley cats in the city but wanted a race that challenged not only his “urban skills” but also his road racing ability. He said he “grew tired of entering messenger races with a huge navigational disadvantage,” and that eventually led to dreams about what he would do differently if he had his druthers.
“A crit in Red Hook was just a fun idea, and its growth has been organic,” he said. “I’ve approached this as a chance to collaborate with many creative and talented people. The process, from designing the race poster, finding sponsors, coordinating the volunteers and writing the race rules, is as rewarding as the race itself.”
With almost no operating budget, the race depends on a well-orchestrated collaboration of many volunteers and friends. To achieve the attention to detail that Trimble strives for, while asking people to work hard for free, has been a real balancing act.
For the third edition, Trimble started searching for new sponsors in December. Sponsors include Cinelli, Rapha and San Marco as well as the Bicycle Film Festival, the Brooklyn Brewery and Brooklyn Bicycles.
A great night out
The spectators are an integral part of the event, too, and the crowds around the start/finish can get as loud as those at cyclocross races. They come out in droves each year, even in inclement weather so typical of mid-March in Gotham.
“In the large regional road races, there isn’t much of a crowd cheering you on,” Trimble said. “A bigger crit might have a crowd, but it’s for the pros. At Red Hook, everyone’s in the main event.”
Then there’s the after party, a highly anticipated event in itself. In addition to brand-new bike frames, jerseys, and saddles, there are the cash prizes — $250 for the winner — awarded in sacks of one-dollar bills.
But Trimble’s not only the race’s founder — he’s also one of its fiercest competitors. He was second both years and aims to improve this time around. Asked if he considers himself a favorite, he just lets out a smile.
“The best thing about this race is that it puts the best alley cat racers in the world against some of the most talented local road and track racers,” he said. “It’s the meshing of scenes on an equal playing field.”
So while no license is required, helmets and track bikes are. And, of course, brakes are strictly verboten.
As for me, I’ve never so much as sat on a track bike, so I’ll be on the sidelines cheering on the riders. Maybe offer up a cyclocross-style heckle or two. I’m thinking the prime at the end of lap 1 should get things off to an entertaining start. And, yeah, I’m picking Trimble for the win.
Daniel McMahon is editor of cyclingreporter.com, a contributor-based blog devoted to road and cyclocross racing in the New York City area. He will provide VeloNews.com readers with a race report following the Red Hook.