By Daniel McMahon
It was just past 10:00 Saturday night as I made my way down the dark, cobbled lane near Erie Basin in Brooklyn. In search of the staging area for the third Red Hook Criterium, a 20-lap race for track-bike riders with a penchant for unorthodox racing, I hoped to spy some of the participants at registration before things got underway.
In a dimly lighted space near the water I came upon on a crowd of cyclists, some making a last inspection of their fixed-gear machines, some joking in little groups, others just hanging out, as if meditating before the competition.
Everywhere there were bikes, dozens of them hanging on fences and hand rails, many laying on the ground. And every two-wheeled rig before me appeared polished and well tuned, ready for the 11:00 start.
Before the race, art for bikes’ sake
Inside a sooty brick building that looked like an old factory, I made my way up to the second floor and found myself in a makeshift art gallery, in an exhibit titled “The Unifying Machine,” organized by David Trimble, also founder of the Red Hook Criterium.
The pieces hanging on the walls all celebrated the bicycle. One featured photos of Tony Maisto, a cop with the NYPD and a Cat. 3 roadie, another a gilded BMX bike with bat wings coming out of the handlebars as if in flight.
True to its reputation, the Red Hook crit was an extraordinary cycling event, with the best part, the race itself, about to start.
After the 50 or so registered riders had been pinned with numbers, gathered a block away from the start/finish, and briefed about course details, race director David Trimble — who opted not to race this year — led the starters around the course for a neutral lap.
Just when everything looked to be going according to plan, New York’s finest rolled up in a squad car and parked right in front of the racers, sending scare of a shutdown among race organizers and spectators, whose numbers had swollen to a few hundred by now. But after some peaceful negotiating on behalf of Trimble and others, the cops drove away and the race was back on.
Racing gets underway
Once the course marshals, placed at each of the half-dozen corners, gave the green light, the whistle blew and race favorites such as Al Barouh and Kacey Manderfield bolted from the line, sending a clear message to the field that the racing was on.
But Manderfield, the 2008 winner and a professional rider with Team Lip Smackers, met with bad luck early, double-flatting on the first lap after being forced into a gnarly pothole. She managed a change of wheels, but it was not fast enough to get her back into the lead group.
Favorites shatter the field fast
Meanwhile, the cream rose to the top quickly as local big guns Pavel Marosin, Chris Thormann and a handful of others forced a selection after just a few laps. Gaps opened up fast and in no time the riders were strung out and motoring along single-file.
John Kniesley, third in 2009, got caught up early in some traffic but bridged to the leaders after some strong solo riding. He joined what would become the lead group for the rest of the race. That selection was made up of Dan Chabanov, Al Barouh, Chris Thormann and Kniesley.
The leaders worked well together, establishing a comfortable gap on any chasers and sharing the work in the long straightaways where they met strong head winds.
Behind, other favorites like John-Taki Theodorakopoulos and Japanese rider Izumi Kuremoto tried to organize the chase and worked well together. But as the lap cards quickly turned and midnight neared it became clear to the cheering crowds lining the course that the leaders were not going to be brought back.
All the while, the so-called lesser riders battled to stay ahead of the leaders and not get lapped, though several did. That meant the leaders had to contend with slower-moving traffic in the corners, especially in the tricky chicane, which added some tension and confusion in the run-up to the finish.
But to the engrossed onlookers, the race provided a real show of backstreet bike racing, with the sheer variety of riders’ strength, speed, and bike-handling skills offering up a rush on each stretch of the course.
One rider, who refused to pull off the course after being lapped several times, eventually earned the heckles of the crowd, even though some seemed to find it a welcome diversion from the fierce competition, as if he were more rodeo clown than savvy cyclist. It’s part of the Red Hook scene, some say.
With the bell ringing at one lap to go, Dan Chabanov, though riding strong the whole race, looked to be in some danger. His three breakaway companions, especially Al Barouh, were faster finishers in a sprint, at least on paper. Before the race, Chabanov, who’s more of a big engine than a power sprinter, had said he’d likely have to make more of a cyclocross-style effort to try to finish solo.
But as the lead group entered the chicane on the last lap, a lapped rider crashed and caused a gap in between the break’s first two riders, Chabanov and Kniesley, and Barouh and Thormann, forcing the latter two to jump up and ride on the sidewalk before chasing the leading duo. who had already moved up the road.
Between corners five and six, Chabanov attacked and got a gap, then motored through the final turn — and some lapped riders — in full-tuck position. On the long home stretch, he kept going full gas and held his advantage to the line. Kniesley, who tried in vain to catch the Russian’s wheel, just beat a surging Al Barouh for second. Manderfield managed to finish soon after, winning the women’s competition.
Red Hook confirms
On a night that saw a great hour of street racing, Dan Chabanov, the Russian native who resides in Brooklyn and works as a bike messenger, was too strong a finisher. After the race I reminded him that the first two winners went on to the pro ranks. In his typical fashion, Chabanov downplayed any implication.
“I’m still a Cat. 3, bro,” he said with a smile.
Of course, last year’s winner, Neil Bezdek, was a Cat. 3 when he won, too.
Look for Chabanov on the cyclocross scene this year as he moves up to the elite level and races against the like of Tim Johnson and Ryan Trebon.
As the crowds walked a few blocks over to the after party, there was a clear consensus that the Red Hook Criterium again confirmed its status as one of the coolest races in town.
1. Dan Chabanov
2. John “K-Tel” Kniesley
3. Al Barouh
4. Chris Thormann
5. Pavel Marosin
6. Matthew “Tio” Arleck
7. Brean Shea
8. John-Taki Theodorakopoulos
9. Izumi Kuremoto
10.Joshua “Robot” Wright
Daniel McMahon is editor of cyclingreporter.com, a contributor-based blog devoted to road and cyclocross racing in the New York City area.