Last night, I had the good fortune to stumble upon the Red Hook Crit, an “illegal” fixed gear bike race in the neighborhood that borders my apartment.
Held in the parking lot of the Red Hook Cruise Terminal, which on a normal night is lit only by the hulking white abandoned storage facilities that buffet the parking lot, the race is an international event that will travel to Barcelona and Milan later this year.
I just wrote a long introduction contextualizing the race, but I’m not feeling clever, so it sucked. Suffice it to say that the Red Hook Crit, which started out six years ago as an informal competition between a handful of bike messengers, has become the embodiment of the present-day Brooklyn — heavily sponsored, well-organized, hyped via social media, and capitalizing on the fetishization of a Brooklyn archetype. In this case, the archetype was the bearded hipster who rides a $3,000 Italian track bike, but still lives in squalor in Bushwick.
That didn’t make the event any less awesome. Almost entirely ignored by the mainstream media, the race still managed to attract what Caleb estimated was 10,000 people. They streamed into Red Hook on their bikes in the twilight hour, just after the sun set over the New York harbor, in long lines marked by blinking safety lights.
Without the crowds, the location would have been impossible to find, tucked away as it was in an abandoned naval yard.
Let’s be honest, anyone could have found the location on fucking Google Maps — I’m just trying to convey that it was sort of shrouded in secrecy.
By 9pm, the crowd was three deep on the perimeter of the track, a 3/4 mile stretch of pavement stamped into a series of perilous turns by barricades bearing sponsor logos. We established ourselves on a hairpin turn at a far end of the track, on the backside of the finish line. We figured it would be the best place to catch accidents.
A little after 9pm, the 200 cyclists who had qualified for the final event — there had been time trials all day — gathered at the starting line, and began their pacing lap. Led by a dude on a BMW motorcycle, it took them minutes to reach us. Then, the race began, and the frontrunners seemed to pass by every few seconds. They fucking flew.
The race itself was 24 laps long. The contenders, from what I’m read on the site, were mostly bike messengers, semi-professional racers, or urban athletes. In case “fixed gear” means nothing to you, as it did to me before Caleb, it means that they rode bikes without brakes or gears. At first, it looked like there were a bunch of girls mixed in amongst the guys — all contenders were lithe and small. From the back end, with their bushy ponytails and pink spandex, certain genders seemed unmistakeable — then, when we saw them from the front, we realized that the majority of the riders we mistook for females were sporting moustaches, and were in fact just bearded hipsters.
There were but a few girls in the race — all but one lagged behind fairly quickly. By lap 5, the pack had thinned. As riders got lapped, they were tapped out. By the end of the race, only 1/4 of the contenders were left on the track.
The race itself was fucking exhilarating. The frontrunners were true athletes — they moved across the pavement like they were on well oiled tracks. The ones who lagged behind were less graceful — as their legs got tired, their bikes wobbled, and their paces became choppy and truncated.
On the hairpin turn, many a top rider was taken out. Most would knock down four or five other riders with them — as brutal as their falls were, they would all get back on, and continue riding, with one exception. That exception was a man who flew off of his bike, and landed on the back wheel of another, slumped in half like a wet towel. He was dragged twenty feet like that, and had to be pulled off the track on his ass.
I screamed and cheered and made eyes roll. The guy standing next to me, I’m pretty sure, went home and told his friends that he was stuck next to the most annoying person alive. But I was caught up in the moment — the speed of the riders got into my nervous system. My friend Jess was with me, and she said that the Crit reminded her of Nascar races; only rather than the roar of motors, all we heard the scrape of pedals as the riders bent into the perilous hairpin.
The crowd cheered for the winner, but they cheered most for a lonely rider caught somewhere in the dead space between the frontrunners and those who were getting lapped on the tail end. Every time he came around, everyone lost their minds. “He probably thinks the crowd is cheering for everyone like this,” I said to Caleb. But then he came around during the cool down lap, and slapped high-fives to the hands that reached out over the barricade at him. He was the only rider out of 200 who acknowledged that the crowd existed. It was a mutual admiration society sort of thing.
The winners were posted online today, but I didn’t recognize any of their pictures. Give me the color of their Spandex, or their bike frames, and it would have been different. I Google-stalked the top five ranked riders, and found they were even more precious than I could have hoped. Four out of five had blogs; one posted pictures of his girlfriend reading The New Yorker.
After the race, the crowd bled onto Van Brunt Street which even on a normal Saturday night, is pretty sleepy. Red Hook is cool, but super inaccessible. Without a bike, it takes hours to get there via public transportation, even from other neighborhoods in Brooklyn. On the side road leading to the main strip, there were ice cream sandwich vendors and taco food trucks, and even a fucking light installation. By the time we arrived, the crowds at the two neighborhood bars — the Ice House and Bait & Tackle — were ten deep. I felt a brief flash of ownership — “All of you fuckers are at MY spot,” I wanted to tell them, given that the Ice House is actually quite literally where my best friend David Everitt Howe lives 75% of the time — but realized quickly how soon the sentiment would make me feel like any other blowhard Brooklyn hipster.
So Caleb and I went back to our car. Next to where we had parked, there was a party raging inside of a warehouse. I tried to peek my head in to see what was going on, but was blocked by a bouncer carrying a clipboard with a guest list.