Leave your brakes—and gears—at home. Yes, it's a criterium, but only track bikes are allowed.
Oh yeah, and the race starts at 11 p.m. in relative darkness. In uncomfortable weather. In New York City.
What may be the most interesting bike race in the world takes place every March under the stars in Brooklyn. It's called the Red Hook Criterium, and nothing about it is typical.
It's an unsanctioned race. The March weather is completely unpredictable, particularly in the middle of the night (the 2011 race had temperatures in the 20s with high winds). Nothing but fixed-gear track bikes are allowed despite a winding 3/4-mile course that can be difficult to navigate. Twenty laps complete the race, with the best riders finishing in about 45 minutes. Winner gets $500 in $1 bills and a collection of custom bike gear.
The race attracts bike messengers, fixed-gear junkies, a few pros and a whole lot of people who just love cool events. Countless cycling publications have covered it. A short indie documentary titled Racing Towards Red Hook brilliantly captures the 2011 race, which ended in a thrilling 3-way photo finish.
The question is, why has this quirky race won the hearts of so many?
"It's a new format," said David Trimble, founder and organizer of the event. "There's one race a year. If you mess up, you have to wait a whole year to have another shot. And using the track bikes makes it a close competition. No matter how strong you are, you can only push so big of a gear. You'll never have one guy crushing the field. It will always be a pretty tight race."
Trimble has a background in motorsports and go-kart racing and in the past had signed up for alleycat bike races around New York City. Back in 2007, he decided to stage an unsanctioned, unsupported criterium in Brooklyn's Red Hook district to mesh the different fringes of cycling. It was also a way to celebrate his birthday (which is why the race is in March every year).
The underground, unsupported aspect of it is why the race started at 11 p.m. at night—that's when the roads in the post-industrial district were the emptiest. And it was the perfect pre-party leading into Trimble's annual birthday bash later in the night.
The first three years, the race was done without any permits, and the NYPD showed up a couple of times.
"The second year they came out, there were 15 cars and a paddy wagon," Trimble said with a laugh. "But at the end of the day, they just parked on the corner and cheered on the race."
The growing popularity of the event forced Trimble to work closer with the city. Though it's still not sanctioned by USA Cycling, the Red Hook Criterium is now permitted and insured. To accommodate permits, the race was moved off the neighborhood streets and into the nearby cruise ship terminal area.
The event is evolving as the popularity grows. The 2012 race will have a 5K running race preceding the criterium. Trimble organized a similarly structured bike race in Milan, with visions of bringing the format to other American cities in the near future.
But Trimble is also holding firm to the event's roots. Though the race is big enough to offer more than $500 cash to the winner, "we don't want the race to get too serious. If you go over $1,000, you'll start getting organized pro teams coming out."
Registration for the March 24, 2012 race opens on March 1. With the small field and the bulging popularity, the event will sell out within minutes.
"The date is good because people have been cooped up all winter and they're really eager to race and there are not a lot of things on the calendar," Trimble said. "If you did a race in June, you'd be up against other races. Having it early in the year is one of the reasons it's been successful."
Sure, that's one reason. But with all of the other unusual aspects of the race, perhaps the biggest secret to its success is that there's nothing else quite like it.
"Most people who come out to watch are not actually cycling fans," Trimble said. "They want to go see something that's cool. And there's a party afterward."
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