Fixed gear bicycle racing took a few pedal revolutions forward on Saturday night as Brooklyn’s Red Hook Criterium attracted a smattering of European cyclists and a thousands-strong crowd. Despite the international flavor, two-time Red Hook winner and Brooklyn local Daniel Chabanov defended his 2011 title by stretching a fourth-lap (of 24) attack into a convincing solo victory.
“In 2010 we had to have people stop busses so they wouldn’t run us over, and now we have thousands of fans and a fully closed circuit,” said Chabanov, a local Cat. 1 racer who also races pro cyclocross. “Now guys come out from everywhere. People take it seriously.”
Indeed, teams from Italy and Spain flew in for this year’s race, with squads from Lees McRae College, MASH San Francisco and State Bicycle Company in Scottsdale, Arizona, rounding out the traditionally local peloton. And gone this year were tight jeans, sneakers and the other garb synonymous with “alley cat” style races. Skinsuits and matching lycra were the styles of choice for participants.
Red Hook boasted a smattering of other highs. The 100 spots sold out in just 15 minutes once the registration page went live on March 1. Organizers held a 5km running race on the 1.25km circuit before the event, with several hundred runners participating. A small army of videographers and photographers shot portraits and interviews with athletes before and after the race. Fans lined every foot of the 1.25km circuit, with crowds five-to 10-deep at the finish line.
The race also showed it has ample room to improve. A bizarre power outage killed the lights at the start/finish line, delaying the start. The fast speed and swollen field meant many racers were pulled after only a handful of laps. Race announcing came in spurts. Medical officials took painfully long to attend to one racer, Gabe Lloyd, who crashed at the finish line and lay on the pavement as organizers put orange cones around his body.
Race director David Trimble, who first organized the race in 2008 as a celebration of his birthday, said he consciously tries to balance the race’s grassroots feel with its growing popularity.
“As for people saying the atmosphere is getting more mainstream, it’s not like we have a bank sponsor,” Trimble said. “It’s gotten bigger but believe me, it’s grassroots. It’s a labor of love.”
Trimble believes the event will benefit from more serious racers attending. “It’s true, there are alley-cat [racers] who used to be competitive who can’t hang anymore,” he said. “They should train more if they feel left out.”
None of the racers interviewed for this story said they viewed the event’s progression as a negative. Several Red Hook veterans said the race’s quick start, frequent crashes and tight corners actually favor experience over leg strength. Adapting to the fixed-gear format and 9 p.m. start time, these racers said, also helped weed out newcomers.
Al Barouh, a local Cat. 3 cyclist and participant, described the racing as “fricking sketchy.”
“One little mistake and you’re going to crash, it doesn’t matter if you’re at Cat. 1 or a Cat. 5,” Barouh said. Two racers crashed during the neutral rollout before the gun even went off. During the opening lap, one unlucky racer screamed “Oh Sh-t, Oh Sh-t, Oh Sh-t!” before careening into the barriers and snapping his fork.
Kacey Manderfield, a track pro and the defending women’s Red Hook champion, said the format is trickier than most elite cyclists realize.
“I think most of the track guys scoff at it; I think it’s really hard,” Manderfield said. Racing alongside the men, Manderfield rode her way into the lead group, which by the race’s midpoint was trying unsuccessfully to chase back the streaking Chabanov. Infighting and tiring legs doomed the chase, and Chabanov stretched the advantage to nearly 20 seconds by the race’s end.
As he greeted the cameras at the finish line, Chabanov said he was retiring from the event.
“Three Red Hooks is enough for me,” he said.
To the surprise of some racers and fans alike, the European riders did not factor into the finale. Matteo Zazzera, a former Italian mountain bike pro, brought five racers from Modena, Italy, to this year’s race. Zazzera, who built the team’s neon-green frames, said the trip was more about investigating the sport of fixed-gear bicycle racing than winning.
“It is like mountain bike culture was at the beginning,” said Zazzera, who wore a long beard and curly hair. “It is about making worldwide partnerships. I prefer that evolution.”