At 9:30 p.m. on Saturday night, 85 cyclists lined up at the start of a 26-lap, 30km high-speed fixed-gear bike race in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Moments later, nearly half of those riders were on the ground, tangled and mangled under a mess of bike frames, broken wheels, and errant chains after a race motorcycle stalled on course. The race was halted as seven of the racers were rushed away by ambulance.
After giving racers 90 minutes to fix their bikes and bandage their wounds — and wait for empty ambulances to arrive — the remaining riders lined back up, ready for a re-do. And again, just seconds after crossing the start line, there was another pileup, this time taking down 10 riders. When it finally got off to its third start of the evening, the field of 85 had already been narrowed to 70. But for those cyclists, choosing whether or not to line back up each time amidst the wreckage was never a question. The seemingly insane and masochistic nature of the Red Hook Crit is what drew the racers there in the first place.
“It’s chaos,” says David Santos, 32, who rides for Aventon Factory Team in San Diego and finished 14th in the men’s race. “But it’s pretty awesome, and totally unique.”
In spite of the actual blood, sweat, and tears — not to mention the shattered bones and bike frames — there’s no doubt this year’s racers, whether or not they made it to the finish line, will seek to return to next year’s race. But why?
“The draw for this race has gotten huge,” says 24-year-old bike messenger and street racer Cooper Ray. “It’s created a whole cycling discipline: the track bike criterium.” While track bike racing around closed velodromes was one of the earliest forms of bike racing, and fast-paced road criteriums are the most popular form of road racing in America, the two events were never merged and popularized until the first Red Hook Crit in 2008.
Though the event has spread to London, Barcelona, and Milan, the Red Hook Crit remains unique and without imitators. It has a special race dynamic, says Ray, who’s used to busting through intersections and riding through traffic in alley cats — urban, fixed-gear races through checkpoints, started by messengers. “But a lot of these guys don’t ride track bikes most of the time,” he says. “There are people who ride internationally and compete in urban events, there are professional road racers from the European circuits, and there are guys like me.”
Ray raced at the first Red Hook Crit when he was 14, placing fourth. But at its inception, the open-street race was just a 25th birthday celebration for race director David Trimble. Today, the event takes place at the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal on a closed course, and is backed by sponsors like Strava and Specialized. The daylong competition consists of nine qualifying heats, open men’s and women’s 5K running races, and women’s and men’s criterium finals in the evening. Registration for the men’s criterium sells out almost immediately each year, drawing a strong contingent of international competitors representing nearly 50 countries. In the qualifying rounds, 250 male cyclists competed for 95 coveted spots in the main event.
Jeremy Santucci, 35, was one such rider who didn’t make it to the finals this year — though he probably should have. With three laps to go in a strong qualifying race, Santucci found himself sitting comfortably in sixth position when the rider in front of him crashed. Santucci went down with him, taking a pedal to the face and then getting hit from behind. His Cinelli Mash frame was destroyed and he was suddenly out — but he’ll be back. “The Red Hook Crit is the wildest, most adrenaline-filled race you could ever be involved in,” the New York City–based cyclist says. “You have the fastest track racers from around the world coming to battle it out on an F-1 course without any brakes. We’re all just a bunch of adrenaline junkies who want to go fast.”
The 10-turn course is highly technical and includes back-to-back 180-degree hairpin turns. So it comes as little surprise that there were crashes throughout the qualifying and finals — not to mention the consecutive pileups during the men’s race. “The hairpins get the guys with the technical ability, but the straightaways bring out the big power riders,” says Santos. “You have to be able to handle your bike going fast, but you have to be really strong at the same time.”
The Red Hook Crit is also a chance for competitors to feel like rock stars (fitting, as the event is presented by Rockstar Games), racing under the lights, with screaming, cowbell-ringing spectators lining the entire length of the course. “Even as this event continues to grow, it still has a total underground vibe,” says Gian-Paul Caccia, a runner for New York Athletic Club who placed sixth in the men’s 5K. “The course is really tight, and everyone’s yelling at you the entire time. There’s never a dull moment, and you’re never out there by yourself.”
As the heats get more competitive each year, so do the spots on the sidelines. With a bevy of trendy food trucks offering Belgian waffles, grilled cheese sandwiches, and kimchi tacos, and Other Half Brewing serving up its Red Hook Crit Pale Ale, the event is part race, part block party — just the way it originated.
“Every year the guys get faster, the competition gets tougher, and the race gets harder,” says Brandon Gritters, 36, from Mission Viejo, California, who made his fixed-gear crit racing debut at this year’s race, finishing 43rd. “You know it’s going to be technical and that everything is going to feel really difficult for those 45 minutes. There are a lot of corners, and a lot of slowing down and speeding way up. But man, you’ve gotta try it.”