NEW YORK -- At 8:30 p.m. on April 29, roughly 60 women lined up under the lights to race fixed-gear track bikes with no brakes at the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal. Spectators lined the technical bike course -- a narrow, winding 1.13-kilometer course with two hairpin turns -- cheering and ringing yellow cowbells.
Soon after the race started, a rider clipped the edge of the course and fell. Like dominoes, a mass of riders were soon on the ground, tumbling on top of one another. The Lycra-clad athletes helped each other get up, returned to the start, fixed their bikes and started again.
Welcome to the Red Hook Crit.
Ten years ago, a group of friends gathered to celebrate cycling enthusiast David Trimble's 26th birthday by racing bikes through the cobblestone streets in Red Hook, an industrial neighborhood in Brooklyn. Trimble never expected this gathering to morph into a wildly popular four-city, world-class track bike criterium (crit for short) circuit. Now he's Red Hook Crit's director and produces races in London, Barcelona and Milan, in addition to Brooklyn, creating the equivalent of Formula One for bike racing.
The race merges traditional track racing, road racing criteriums and the rivalries of the urban cycling scene into a high-stakes, fast-paced race with an underground block party atmosphere. Unlike road racing, it's unsanctioned and not governed by a cycling organization. There are no categories or rules to say who's allowed to race, resulting in a diverse and eclectic field of participants that pits pro cyclists against bike messengers.
The unconventional format, and Trimble's commitment to creating a spectator-friendly event, is reaching new fans who might not be interested in traditional cycling. "It's bringing in new people, and they can follow what's going on. There's an emphasis on the people and the stories," says Ash Duban, the winner of the coveted circuit title last year.
While men have traditionally dominated the cycling scene, the Red Hook Crit is playing an important role in elevating the women's field. Not only did it start a women's race four years ago, it pays an equal purse too. "To have a women's field on the same level as the men -- the attention and payout -- is amazing. It's moving the sport forward," says Duban. And it's introducing more women to the sport.
"There are barriers to getting into road racing," says Jo Celso, winner of the inaugural women's Red Hook Crit in Brooklyn in 2014. "Road racing is so focused on the bike and less on the community. As a woman, it's scary to get into that. A lot of women get into [fixed-gear] racing because it's friendlier. They have this community. It's OK to fail, and they don't need to have expensive gear or a ton of experience to jump in." And from there it's easy to transition into other kinds of racing.
Out on the course, it feels like racing inside a live video game, and cyclists need a high level of fitness, sharp bike-handling skills, a solid strategy and nerves of steel. Coming into the final sprint of this year's final, pro cyclist Colleen Gulick took the lead and held on for the win.
To most people, the race sounds insane. Why would anyone want to compete? We talked to five top athletes in the women's field and asked them what they love about the Red Hook Crit.
Ash Duban, 31; Austin, Texas
The first time Ash Duban walked out on the Red Hook course in 2013, she felt like a rock star. "It was a feeling I never felt before. You get an adrenaline rush from all these people cheering and the energy of the crowd," she says. That year, Duban was one of four women who competed in the final against 96 men. "It was pretty intimidating. After that, I had no desire to do it again," she says. But the next year, Trimble called Duban to tell her he was starting a woman's race. "I wanted to support women's racing. I told him to count me in," she says. In that inaugural race, she finished third in the rain. Since then, she's been a fixture on the circuit, winning the coveted series title last year and finishing fifth in this year's final.
Duban loves that the Red Hook Crit brings both speed and rush to the racing circuit. Plus, she gets to spend time with friends. "You hang out and don't think of them as competitors. When you're on the bike, you're in a different mode," she says. "It's cool that you can separate relationships on the bike and off the bike."
Sammi Runnels, 25; Austin, Texas
When Sammi Runnels moved to Austin, Texas, she was given a bike and told that this was the way to get around the city. From there, she quickly became immersed in the cycling scene. "It makes me so happy to race my bike," says Runnels, who also competes in mountain biking and cyclocross. But it's not just the excitement that drives her. "When I found bikes, it really empowered me. I realized I can do this. There's this space for me to be aggressive and push my body to the limit," she says, a different message than she heard growing up in Mississippi.
She especially loves races like the Red Hook Crit. "It's very mental, obviously. Staying in the zone and not psyching yourself out" is key to keeping the pace fast, which makes the race safer, she says. While she's in Brooklyn to race (she won her heat and finished seventh in the final), she's also there to have a good time. "Red Hook is so inclusive, like everyone is invited to the party," she says.
Jo Celso, 28; Oakland, Calif.
When Jo Celso didn't qualify for the final of the Red Hook Crit in 2013, she watched from the sideline. The sheer speed of the bikes and the crashes left her heart racing. "I race on the road a lot, but there's something unique, energetic and engaging about Red Hook," she says. "There's something about the production value of the event." She left thinking she would never race Red Hook again. But the Californian lined up in the starting grid for the inaugural women's event in 2014 and won.
"Part of the reason I stay racing is I'm inspired by how much female participation there is, especially in comparison to road racing. There's so much growth and positive participation on the women's side. It's just a great community," she says. "From beginning to end, it's a whole weekend of bikes, racing and friends."
In fact, it's the relationships that brought her back to this year's event. Celso wasn't sure she would compete in Brooklyn, but Duban called to see if she would race with her. "That was cool, the idea of an American squad of women, especially trying to get Ash back to defend her championship from last year," she says.
Francisca Campos, 31; Barcelona, Spain
Halfway through this year's final, Francisca Campos jockeyed for position. Her yellow jersey finished the ninth lap first, winning the midrace prime and earning extra points toward her overall standings.
Campos started racing crits only about two years ago. She grew up riding mountain bikes and represented her home country of Chile in the 2008 Olympics. "Red Hook] is totally different from all of the things I've done. You don't have brakes. You don't have gears. You go fast. It's a little scary because you can crash and 50 other people can crash into you. But I like the feeling and sensation," she says. "Everyone is so nice. You have so many different riders but not many mountain bikers. I think I'm the only one!"
Unlike mountain biking, where crowds can be sparse, Campos loves that the crowds are up close and loud. "It's a really special feeling when you're racing," she says. "It's the most important race in the fixed-gear world. I'm proud to be part of it."
Erin Goodall, 27; Portland, Ore.
Erin Goodall was so stoked for her first Red Hook Crit that the energy trickled off her words. "I just want to go and tear it up and help my teammates. And if I crash, I crash. It's just bike racing," she says.
Goodall is a seasoned road and track racer who's been riding for the past eight years. She lives for the thrill of racing. "With track racing and crit racing, there's action from the go. You start the race and it's immediately fast. You're scrambling to get clipped into your pedals. The crowds are slamming on the sides of the barriers. The energy is so high, and that's what I thrive on," she says. And the Red Hook Crit takes it to another level. "It's overwhelming to be part of this experience, and I'm kicking myself for not doing it sooner," says Goodall, who finished 14th in the women's final.