Racing Red Hook Crit London
I’m curious by nature and that makes for an interesting life. Sometimes things go wrong, in fact they often do, but it never puts me off trying. The past year has been pretty tough, filled with upheaval and plenty of disasters but undeterred, this summer I took on a brand new challenge – racing the Red Hook Crit.
The Red Hook Crit races are widely regarded as the most challenging (and yes, potentially dangerous) track bike criteriums in the world. The now wildly successful series of international fixed gear circuit races grew from grassroots events held by bike messengers in Brooklyn’s Red Hook Crit area and these days are a seriously big deal, with hundreds of competitors, big name sponsors, thousands of spectators and professional riders taking part.
But even though the racing is now very serious, the atmosphere really isn’t. Yes, these events are about riding hard, but they’re also a celebration and meeting people, cheering loudly and having a seriously good time are of equal importance.
Having witnessed firsthand just how much fun the Red Hook Crit looked last year in Milan, when I heard it was coming to London I thought it was the perfect opportunity to get involved as I wouldn’t need to fly anywhere to find out how I’d fare.
As I’ve detailed in previous posts, I only decided to race a month before the event, and not coming from a racing background or having EVER done any training before, I threw myself into getting as fit as I could. More on training later, but for now, I’m going to skip straight to the action.
Arriving at the event, in the grounds of London’s 02 arena I felt no nerves at all. I was so goddam tired that I couldn’t think straight, because the previous night our cats had been such badly behaved rat bags that I couldn’t sleep at all. After getting extremely annoyed with them and their shenanigans, eventually I’d stomped off in a huff and tried to sleep in a cupboard away from their noisiness.
So much for race prep; I felt like a zombie.
After signing on and grabbing my race chip and rider number I donned my new Assos skinsuit and hopped on the rollers to warm up, or at least I tried too – having not ridden rollers for a really long time, I had a lot of trouble getting going and started getting flustered as everyone kept trying to help me. You know when you just want everyone to leave you alone to get on with it? Well, yeah, that…
Incredibly, about 70 women had signed up for the race; amazing considering the organisers only added a women’s category last year. Upon lining up at the start line for the qualifications it became apparent that many of them hadn’t turned up – last minute nerves perhaps – so we were down to 39 riders, which is still a good field.
To kick things off we rode a ceremonial lap behind the motorbike, and as we rolled slowly round the circuit as one big gang I felt quite emotional.
I’ve been following the Red Hook Crit for years and now I was a part of it!
I felt at once calm and excited, if that’s possible. Calm, because I knew I’d worked as hard as I could for the month I had to prepare and there was nothing left to do but enjoy myself, and exited because it was the Red Hook Crit, goddamit!!
With all the women going into the finals, the qualifications were there as a way of determining your start position on the grid and also a chance for us to get to know the circuit safely. I decided to ride a few slow laps to begin with as the course was extremely tight in parts and very technical, with varied surfaces, cambers and corners to keep riders on their toes.
Someone crashed straight away, which made me glad I’d played it safe.
But there came a time to stop riding so slowly – the qualifications last 20 minutes and during that time you have to set the fastest lap you can – so I decided to put the hammer down and go for my ‘hot lap’ before any hold ups such as people crashing, barriers blowing down, people giving birth (that happened in Dave’s qualis!).
My tactic of holding back backfired as I ended up catching people in front of me and getting stuck as I was too polite to yell at them – I realised afterwards that shouting ‘rider’ and ‘outside’ are de rigeur when coming through, and that being timid gets you nowhere fast! Nonetheless I qualified 15th and wasn’t displeased with as it meant I could start on the second row from the front in the main race.
And with that done, I lay on a blanket in the shade for the rest of the afternoon. Bloody cats!
Several hours later and fueled with plenty of pasta, it was time to begin warming up for the main event. My coach for the last month, James had turned up to cheer me on, so he hovered next to me whilst I jumped on the rollers and made me feel very pro, handing me my waterbottle and timing my workout whilst I warmed up and did an interview for The Cycle Show at the same time.
Lining up at the start, I felt good – I knew I could only do my best and whatever result that gave me would have to do. I knew my bike handling skills would be my strong point and that fitness would be the main factor in determining where I’d finish. Realistic about my competition and the experience and speed of some of the well-known riders, what I was hoping for was a group of women of a similar standard to race with in a bunch. I was also hoping to finish the whole race without being lapped or pulled off.
As we sped off through the start line, I cranked hard and muscled my way into the lead group, hoping that a big push at the beginning would help me get away with them, after which the pace might settle in. I soon realised that I’d blow up very quickly if I stuck with them, so lungs already screaming I watched the lead riders pedal away with several others in pursuit.
The bunch I wound up riding with was for the main part composed of solo riders like myself, so it was sometimes a bit of a battle to get everyone to work together and share the lead. I got stuck on the front for a bit, as did a couple of other riders, and once that’s happened to you and you’ve tried very plainly to get people to ride through and take a turn, it puts you off doing it again. Ideally, I reckon we should have switched around more often but hey, we did our best – I’m new to this game and I know some of the other riders were too so I think we did good in the grand scheme of things!
The pace was very fast from the get-go and demanded a lot in terms of skill and fitness. I found the corners and technical parts worked to my advantage and I was able to get a very slight rest in those sections, but the fast, straight sections were difficult for me and I had to fight hard to stay with the little group I was riding with. The race was such a thrill, so very, very tough that I was never sure if I’d be actually able to complete it, but I couldn’t stop smiling all the time because I absolutely loved every single minute of it.
And I did it! I did complete it! And not only that, when it came to the final lap after 30 minutes, I gave a final push, winning the sprint to the line against the riders in my group. As I went through the line I threw my fist in the air in delight – I’d raced the legendary Red Hook Crit, I was home safe and sound and I felt proud of how I’d done. When I saw Dave waiting for me I nearly burst into tears.
It took me a while to even check the results, because I didn’t actually care where I’d come, but when I saw I was 18th out of 39 riders I felt proud. I’d entered out of curiosity at what I could achieve if I tried really hard and with no background in racing, and only a month of training, finishing in the top twenty of the toughest track bike criterium in the world felt pretty good! Red Hook Crit Barcelona, I’m coming for ya!
All images: Dave Noakes