Red Hook Criterium

There's a notorious race on the pro cycling tour, the Paris-Roubaix, which adds additional insult and danger to the already brutal demands of world-class bike racing. Known as l'enfer du Nord, the race is a savage, kidney-jangling, off-road torture chamber run over as many remaining stretches of cobblestoned road as the organizers can fit into the route. The trophy is a chunk of paving-stone. 

Taking a page from this storied event is the organizer of the Red Hook Criterium, a race of which I was entirely unaware until yesterday afternoon when I spotted a patron at the fabulous Fort Defiance, sporting cycling shoes and a shirt advertising it, emblazoned "March 20th, 2010." I imagined he was relaxing over a cocktail after having just raced. Not in fact. The event was to be held later in the evening, at 11PM. 

After enjoying a first barbecue of the season in the local community garden, we wandered on down towards the water to have a look. Nocturnal bike races are few and far between. Beard St. was clogged with cycling aficionados. There were many dozens of people, I suspect, who had never set foot in Red Hook before, but illicit sporting activity is always a powerful draw. The Red Hook Criterium is unsanctioned. It's a guerilla race ridden on brakeless, fixed-gear cycles originally created for use only on dedicated cycling tracks. Unfortunately these bikes, popular for decades with messengers and hipsters, have now become an entire cyclery subculture unto themselves. This is why a woman at the corner of Beard and Richards streets, part of a crowd trying to prevent a bus driver from continuing his scheduled route, was screaming "they don't have any brakes!"

I'm all in favor of guerilla actions, especially bike-related ones like the monthly Critical Mass rides, which are essentially joyous political manifestations that draw attention to the desperate lack of cycling infrastructure in our city. But the Red Hook Criterium is not one of those. Also, "it ain’t no hipster show,” founder-organizer David Trimble told Velo News. “The first two winners have gone on to pro contracts." This is a high-speed, top-level amateur criterium, which is a particular type of short-course cycle race. In contrast to a road race, which goes from point A to point B (Paris to Roubaix, for instance), a criterium is made of multiple laps of a tight loop, usually about a mile or three, which is repeated over and over again, in this case 16 times.

This is a race, it seems to me, trapped between its gangster, outsider ethos, its growing popularity, and the very real demands of providing a safe riding environment for the racers and  large crowds of cheering spectators. The dilemma is evident. It is hard to imagine that the city would ever officially permit a nocturnal cobblestone criterium. The police are on twitter, just like you, so they were aware of the race, and they cruised by a few times, apparently deciding to choose their battles and let this one happen unimpeded. But this is quite literally an accident waiting to happen.

In his Velo News story, Daniel McMahon managed to convince me that, if he has ever set foot in Red Hook before, it must have been at least ten years ago. "The race takes place in a derelict part of the city," he wrote, "a postindustrial area a stone’s throw from the waterfront, where at night it’s decidedly empty of people." That romantic description was more or less accurate until the Fairway opened at the end of Van Brunt St. and the IKEA opened on Beard street. The race organizers must know about the IKEA, since they put the finish line of their race at the entrance to its parking lot. Thanks to that big-box store, the stretch of Beard making up the southern flank of the racecourse is now also the terminal leg of the B-61 bus route. The B-77 bus route has also diverted to Beard St. to bring in shoppers, and runs along it in both directions. As for being decidedly empty of people, that might have been true had there not been a bike race....

During the Red Hook Criterium, a fast and short race which probably took the winner about 25 or 26 minutes to complete at speeds between 25 and 30 miles per hour, no fewer than four bus drivers had to be begged, wheedled and cajoled to pause and prolong the Saturday-night completion of their duty, which is to provide low-cost, highly energy-efficient transportation to New Yorkers. (Naturally, the bus never seems to run this frequently when I want to take it, let alone at eleven PM on a Saturday night, but  I was there, and I counted four).

Part of the problem is the nature of the criterium format. Another was an unevenly matched field. With a repeating loop of only three-quarters of a mile, it took only three or four laps before the gang of racers was entirely exploded. There was no tight pack, whipping around the course en masse, with long pauses in the action. Instead there were riders widely spread around the entire loop of the course, with the result that the hapless volunteer flagmen could never find the time safely to allow the buses to go through on their route. (This could have been greatly helped had anyone who was "lapped" --overtaken by a full rotation of the race leaders--been immediately forced to stop riding, but as far as I could tell that wasn't happening). Surrounded by people, with the roads blocked by pedestrians, the buses were huge and inert; even when an opportunity to move presented itself, it was impossible to get people out of the way fast enough. More than once a bus finally began to move, only to roll right into the path of more riders careening around the corner. At risk of sounding like a premature curmudgeon or a sandbox supervisor, this is going to be great fun, right up until someone gets hurt.

Night of the zombie shoppers at the "derelict" and "post-industrial" finish line.


CLOF said...

Some beautiful pictures Rich.

Tyler Reed said...

Great post, and great photos! I was out of town last night, so couldn't go see it. Thanks for capturing it so well!

David Trimble said...

Nicely written article. They safety concerns of the author are valid and make a good point. The event has grown increasingly larger each year and has now reached the point where more safety precautions are needed. As the organizer I would love to work with people from within the community of Red Hook to make this happen (I am a former resident of Red Hook and plan to move back). Perhaps the Bus's can be rerouted for 45 minutes during the race and permits issued. We have a whole year ahead of us to plan. Everyone I spoke to in the neighborhood really enjoyed the spectacle and I welcome any additional feedback

David Trimble

They say it's a cold world said...

I just got to meet Mr. Trimble, a year and half later, as he has indeed moved back to the neighborhood and also has storefront / Criterium office on Van Dyke St. It inspired me to look back at this post; I see I never responded to his thoughtful comment, although I think any sensible suggestions I might have were implicit in the original post. Nonetheless, it was nice to hear from him that his race is now sanctioned and insured and almost providing him with full-time employment via race sponsors who want a piece of the Red Hook mystique!