Off the Hook

A spectrum of bike culture is on full display for a day of racing. Jeff MacGregor/ESPN

The Italian came in from the dark bleeding and swearing. This was right at the end. Down his left leg ran a fishnet of bright red blood. Same at the elbow and at the hand. Like lace. He stepped off his bike and threw it against the fence. A carbon fiber Pinarello Xtrack as fast as it is exquisite. Museum of Modern Art by way of the Jet Propulsion Lab. He looked down at it in disgust. Then he picked it up and threw it against the fence again. The winner was already on his way to the podium.

* * *

The Red Hook Criterium may be the greatest bicycle race in America. Or the hippest. Or the strangest. Or the strangest, hippest, greatest bicycle race in America.

And Saturday night it gathered on the docks of Red Hook, Brooklyn, New York, more handlebars -- actual and mustache -- than might have been found at that moment in any other out-of-season cruise ship terminal in the world. It is a porkpie-wearing spandex homage to fixed-gear bicycle racing and skinny jeans, to hipsters and impossible fitness and small-batch bike builders, to excess and minimalism and hoodies and bros, to tats and cowbells and winter-white legs, to rat bikes and custom oversprays, to locavores and messengers, to iPhones and gigantic bent-gate carabiner key chains, to lip rings and track stands, and to hitting every manhole cover on the course as hard and as fast as you can in the dark.

There's still hurricane debris in the fences and trapped in the pilings, and the Manhattan skyline still throws stars across the harbor as the ferries slide by. For every bike on the track there are 20 in the crowd. But one hears no Animal Collective. Sees no PBR. Are there many tallboys of Coors heavy in frame-mounted water bottle holders among these spectators? Yes. Yes there are. Is the lighting of several ceremonial spliffs on the far end of the course by these same spectators timed to coincide with the parade lap? Yes. Yes it is.

This is a sporting event for people who likely disdain sporting events. Who shun stick-and-ball and empty spectacle and mainstream brand strategy. Who knowingly conform to the new, knowing nonconformity. If Lena Dunham were a bicycle race, this would be it.

Understand, this isn't a race like the grand tours of Europe or the one-day classics like Sunday's Tour of Flanders, or this coming Sunday's Paris-Roubaix. Red Hook is both more and less. Twenty-four laps of all-out closed-course racing through a parking lot and a taxi stand, past a cruise-ship gangway and a loading dock, it won't last 45 minutes. No gears, no brakes, no big money. But there's an entire culture here, too, or at least a subculture. Maybe a counterculture. The whole thing is a Venn diagram of overlapping interests: fixed-gear bike and bike messenger and bike racing and machine age mechanical aesthetic (bike porn) and outlaw bike and Belgian waffle and neckbeard and the new Brooklyn and the old New York. For an afternoon and a night, this is the meet-up for everything you've ever read in Vice or Wallpaper or the real estate section of the Times.

* * *

Is it serious? There are teams here from Italy. Riders from the Olympics. But there's also the dude who runs the bike shop up on Avenue B. He's a genius wrench and Alphabet City entrepreneur and is hustling back to the terminal to change up the gearing for the team he entered.

"I brought my guy in from Portland," he says, walking fast. "Half a ringer. Two-time national champion. He could win it." Like a lot of them, the ringer's a former bike messenger.

Of whom there are many in attendance. Courageous tattooed lunatics who deliver your time-sensitive legal documents while Bluetoothing, brainstorming their next app, and trying not to get doored by a Yellow Cab. To ride the streets of New York City for a living is to spend your days trying hard not to die. The race honors them. Sort of. Or at least anyone who can outpace or keep a hand on the M15 express bus all the way up First Avenue. The race was founded and ridden in 2008 by David Trimble, whose original idea was "to create a race that would bring cyclists from many different genres and put them on equal ground." It was straight-up badass back then, a late-night outlaw birthday/street party with a sprint to the finish. Crazy.

The inaugural was won by Kacey Manderfield, who turned pro the same year. Handful of contestants. "The race requires an equal combination of skill, strength, and bravery."

* * *

This year they run qualifying heats all afternoon to weed out the slows: 200-plus entrants for 100 spots. Best times in the afternoon move through. Each heat is a 25-minute cardio blowout. And even raced in broad daylight, the course is technical and scary enough that several riders go down in the turns or ride straight through the hairpin and off the circuit at speed. Between the last bicycle heat and the night race, a couple of 5K footraces keep the spectators interested. Fans get dinner from the waffle truck or the lobster roll truck or the taco truck. The temporary lights start to come on in the corners.

From sunset to 9 p.m. the riders are mostly resting in the empty cruise-ship terminal. They eat bananas and PB-and-J and drink their oddball rehydrators. They tug down their bib tops and sprawl on the floor with their feet up on the chairs. Skinny, but thick as an oak through the quads. Some bluster and strut and talk trash while the lactic acid builds up and their wives and girlfriends do immaculate track stands in the lobby. By 8 o'clock the real cannibals are already spinning up on the trainers and the rollers and pouring out sweat and ambition and smiling their competitive death grins. They're ready.

The mechanics hurry and fume.

It's not about the bike. Except when it is. And to walk here is to walk and watch and see others walking and watching and everyone checking out everyone else's ride. It's like a track bike key party. A bike porn peepshow. All avidity and expertise and wanting.

Are those the sheriff star hubs? On that frame? Oh man. That's just filthy. Is that a '78 Masi pista with the full Gipiemme gruppo? [Reverent silence.] Did you see what he did to that Moth? How is that, like, even possible?

This is a machine so perfect the design hasn't changed in more than 100 years. To name the makers and to name the parts is both a gearhead rosary and an exercise in lust. Colnago, Cinelli, Cervelo. Dodici, de Bernardi, Bianchi. Shimano, Pinarello, Felt. 3Rensho. FSA. Phil Wood. Independent Fabrication. Campagnolo. The "Amatore;" the "Vigorelli;" the "Paramount." A catalog of wheelsets and cranks and seatposts and pedals; bottom brackets and sprockets and headsets; forged, cast, spun, hammered, polished, stitched, drilled. Titanium, aluminum, steel, composite, leather. Vintage. Space age.

It has always been -- at least a little -- about the bike.

* * *

The next thing you hear is the sound of 100 riders locking their shoes onto their pedals. A sharp snap of affirmation. As if every one of them had made a decision. Then quiet. Then, even at the farthest corner of the track, out by the water, you can hear the anthem. There are thousands of people here now. It's cold.

A few seconds later the pace motorcycle comes out of the dark like a locomotive from a tunnel. It can't make the turn by the terminal that fast but it does, and right behind it faster than you could have imagined is the lead pack of riders. They spin past in a blur of jerseys and helmets and arms and legs. Into the light at the corner, then back into the dark, past the empty warehouses and beneath the lattice of cranes and gantries. The best here will average more than 30 miles an hour for the next 40 minutes.

The crowd is five deep at some of the fences. Hundreds more stand on the loading dock and the roof of the loading dock and the roofs of the trailers still parked at the loading dock. The riders flash past. The crowd roars.

Under the tin umbrella of a propane heater at the start/finish line, a man turns to a woman and says, "With these bikes they can't stop pedaling even in the turns. No coasting." He waits a few seconds, then adds, "It's really dangerous." More seconds pass as more riders stream by.

"I've been meaning to tell you how much I like your sunglasses," she says at last.

It's hard to take in a race from a single vantage, especially without a trackside announcer or an assist from television. The racers pour into the light and out of the light like water and the lead changes and changes and changes again. With 13 laps to go, a single rider breaks to the front. Two laps later he's been reabsorbed by the group.

Sometimes, up by the hairpin, the crowd gasps and you'll know a racer has fallen.

The motorcycle roars past and the teams and the riders spin by and the laps count down and the seconds tick away, and just after 10 p.m. in the cold and the dark of the Red Hook waterfront, Neil Bezdek wins. He will collect a few hundred dollars and a new bike and an armload of bike equipment and a galvanized bucket full of odds and ends. He is a former bike messenger. The ringer from Portland finishes 3 seconds and seven places behind him.

The next race in the series is June 8 at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Then August 24th in Barcelona, Spain. October in Milan.


The Italian throws his bike. Neil Bezdek collects his prizes. Then everyone walks across the street for the party.