Red Hook Rising: How the Brooklyn race launched a cycling revolution
In the hours before the 9:30 p.m. start of the 2016 Red hook Criterium, Cooper Ray, a bike messenger from Manhattan, slumps in the Brooklyn Cruise terminal and surveys his surroundings. Nearby, racers warm up on their fixed-gear bicycles, mechanics complete last-minute adjustments, and a video crew from Italy interviews athletes. Outside in the brisk April air, fans stand five-deep alongside the racecourse and crowd around a Jumbotron.
Ray, 24, is a rarity — one of just 15 people to have raced at the inaugural Red Hook Criterium back in 2008. As he adjusts his skinsuit, he describes scenes from that event. The race was held on open streets, he recalls, so riders had to dodge parked cars and buses. The only spectators were bewildered locals. Nobody crashed. “Pretty much everyone knew how to ride [fixed-gear],” he says. “It was just a bunch of friends racing their bikes.”
In the nine years since, the Red Hook Criterium has unexpectedly grown into one of the most successful events in the history of American cycling. Today, the Brooklyn event is part of a four-race series under the Red Hook label, along with stops in Milan, Barcelona, and London. The London race will be held this Saturday, July 9, on the Greenwich Peninsula.
Each race attracts more than 10,000 spectators, as well as international media. The series enjoys a six-figure operating budget, and its sponsorship portfolio includes mainstream companies Rockstar Games, Intelligentsia Coffee, and Levi’s Jeans.
Current and retired professionals show up in greater numbers each year, lured by the media and buzz. Demand to enter the race is so high that organizers hold time-trial qualifiers for the finale. The increase in speed has created an uptick in spectacular crashes, which are beamed across the world via social media. The 2016 race produced a crash that was featured on mainstream news casts and media websites.
The competition has gotten so intense that few of the original participants can even qualify. “These days I just try to hold on,” Ray says. “I used to contend for the podium.”
Crashes and sponsorship aside, Red Hook’s most impressive feat has been the worldwide propagation of the fixed-gear criterium format. These days, cyclists compete in fixie crits in San Francisco, Austin, rural Italy, and Japan.
Organized trade teams with names like F.A.S.T. Amsterdam and MASHSF (San Francisco) bring mechanics, gear, and full racing squads to these events. Boutique brands specialize in fixie crit bicycles. Websites devoted to the format promote events, athletes, and the racing culture. There’s even an artist who paints watercolors of the action.
The format has yet to gain the blessing of cycling’s governing bodies. Instead, race promoters purchase their own insurance, or offer no coverage at all. But with more fixed-gear races appearing on the calendar each year, and more top-level cyclists flocking to the format, the Red Hook Criterium could be on the precipice of its own cycling revolution.
Way out on the fringes of American cycling — far beyond gravel grinders, junkyard cyclocross events, and even chain-less mountain bike races — sits the underground urban racing scene. Comprising bike messengers, commuters, and cyclists who simply reject mainstream racing, this subculture has swelled in recent years. Though there’s no governing body collecting official data, there are now hundreds if not thousands of fixie races around the world, supported by brands and shops catering to this very special culture.
It was after participating in New York’s underground racing scene that David Trimble developed the idea for the Red Hook Criterium. An Alaska transplant whose father had built carbon fiber bikes in the 1980s, Trimble originally competed in New York City’s popular road cycling races. But after finding that culture too cliquey, he says, he gravitated toward the city’s underground racing culture.
Trimble wanted to bring both racing styles together around one event. In celebration of his 25th birthday, in 2008, Trimble decided to throw an unsanctioned race on the backstreets near his apartment in Brooklyn’s industrial Red Hook neighborhood, pitting roadies against messengers.
Believing that road riders would hold an advantage in strength and endurance, Trimble tried to even the odds by requiring everyone to compete on fixed-gear track bikes, which would cater to the messengers’ handling skills. “There wasn’t any race back then that combined the athletic side of road cycling with the fixed-gear culture,” Trimble explains. “ The idea was to unify the two groups at one event.”
Without knowing it, Trimble had launched the Red Hook Criterium. The first event was, as Ray described, unquestionably grassroots. The winner was pro road and track racer Kacey Manderfield, who had won under-23 and elite national titles in road, cyclocross, and track. Trimble finished second.
“There wasn’t any race back then that combined the athletic side of road cycling with the fixed-gear culture.”
Trimble says he had so much fun at that first race that he immediately decided to hold it again the following year. He began spreading the word about a month before the 2009 event. In preparation, he also did an interview with a local blog dedicated to New York’s bicycle culture. That was the extent of his outreach. Yet several dozen racers turned up, as did 100 or so spectators and a film crew. A story on the event appeared in The New York Times.
The following year, 2010, Trimble inked gear sponsorships with Cinelli, Rapha, and the Brooklyn Brewery. He moved the start/finish in front of Red Hook’s most iconic landmark: New York City’s only Ikea. Again, though, he did no marketing, beyond inviting friends and promoting the event on social media. More than 500 spectators showed up, and volunteers had to hold back traffic.
Also in 2010, in support of the Bicycle Film Festival, Trimble threw what he thought would be a small extension of the Red Hook Crit in Milan. Similar to the original Red Hook Criterium, the Milan race was held on open streets. Again, promotion was almost entirely word-of-mouth. To Trimble’s surprise, 70 racers and 300 spectators attended the event.
“We had no idea how many people would race,” Trimble says. “And then all of a sudden all of these spectators and racers showed up.”
After 2010, Trimble realized he was at a crossroads. The Red Hook Crit had become too big to operate as an unlicensed race, and Trimble did not want to test New York City’s police department. Additionally, in the lead up to the 2011 event, he’d sold a cash sponsorship to outdoor company EMS. The move from only gear sponsorships to cash put pressure on him to professionalize the event, he says. But when Trimble applied for permits, he discovered New York City had a moratorium on new events. “It was the end of the road,” Trimble says. “It was either do whatever I could to save the race, or quit. There was no way we were going to get street closure.”
In a last-ditch e ort, Trimble reached out to his network of friends and got a bite from a contact in the New York Economic Development Corporation, who put him in touch with the managers of the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal, a 200,000 square-foot space on Red Hook’s eastern shore. Trimble agreed to pay $3,000 to use the terminal’s closed, twisting roads and cavernous terminal building. It proved an ideal venue for the race.
Trimble began promoting his race as a mixture of sport and art, and he attracted local artists to display their work alongside the competition. There were food vendors, blaring music, and a late-night party at a local Red Hook bar followed each race. It had a distinctly Brooklyn feel.
Trimble hired an artist to design splashy retro posters for each event. He promoted athlete rivalries on the race’s website and hyped local riders, such as multiple-time winners Neil Bezdek and Dan Chabanov, as heroes.
In 2011, 1,500 spectators came to watch. There were 2,000 in 2012 and 5,000 the following year. In 2015, more than 10,000 showed up.
And instead of attracting hardcore cycling fans or other racers, the Red Hook crit accomplished what every bicycle race in the world sets out to do: entice regular people to come and watch. “It’s pretty simple,” Trimble says. “We put on a spectator-friendly race and do it in a major urban center. People show up.”
As Red Hook weathered its growing pains, videos and images of the race flooded blogs and social media. Almost immediately, underground racing communities in other cities began staging their own events. Promoters reached out to Trimble for advice on how to stage fixie crits. In 2013, Trimble says, he knew of 40 other fixed-gear criteriums across the globe. By 2016, his list was in the hundreds and included more than 200 in Italy alone.
One of the promoters who reached out, in 2013, was Don Ward, a graphic designer and member of Los Angeles’s Midnight Ridazz, a 2,000-person group that does nighttime rides around the open roads of LA. In 2007, Ward had organized an underground drag race under LA’s iconic 6th Street Bridge. He called it the Wolfpack Hustle.
More Wolfpack events followed, many of them point-to-point races. But when Ward saw Red Hook’s fixed-gear criterium format, he saw an opportunity to create a sustainable event. “There was a point where I just didn’t feel comfortable throwing street races anymore — there is real danger there,” Ward says. “The fact that [Red Hook] was attracting sponsors and looked legitimate was really inspiring.”
A big part of the appeal was the way fixed-gear criteriums presented a friendlier format for novice spectators. In regular road criteriums, riders often sit in the bunch for most of the race and then show themselves only for the final sprint. In fixed-gear racing, riders who hope to win have to stay near the front during the entire event. The group rides single file for much of the race, because there is often only one safe line through corners. So any rider who drops too far back risks missing his or her chance to return to the front.
The Red Hook Criterium always includes one 180-degree hairpin, to further string out the action. When Ward began designing his own fixed-gear criterium, he made sure to include a similar course design.
“The fact that [Red Hook] was attracting sponsors and looked legitimate was really inspiring.”
But Ward’s vision took the Red Hook course and placed it in downtown Los Angeles. He wanted his race to circle the iconic City Hall building and showcase downtown’s most recognizable buildings. “I wanted it to be an iconic race,” Ward says.
For months he met with various city officials and business owners in the area. He purchased an insurance policy through the Chicago-based group American Bicycle Racing, which sells coverage to bicycle races that are unsanctioned by USA Cycling. He convinced The L.A. Times to agree to close the road in front of its offices. “It was an insane process,” he says. “It’s one of the proudest achievements in my entire life.”
The Wolfpack Hustle’s Civic Center criterium attracted several thousand spectators in its first year. Ward leveraged that success into holding additional Wolfpack Hustle criterium races in Long Beach, Huntington Park, as well as Austin, Texas.
But unlike Red Hook, the Wolfpack Hustle has yet to win over mainstream sponsors. Ward’s sponsorship portfolio predominantly features fixed-gear-centric brands, such as HeavyPedal bicycles and Conquer Elite components, though Castelli apparel has also signed on.
The rising cost of the events — the Civic Center permit requires a healthy five-figure payment to shut down roads and pay police — matched with his modest sponsorship, requires Ward to cut costs at every corner. There is enough money that he is able to work on the races full-time, he says, but just barely.
“I’d love to pretend that sponsors are banging on my door, but I’m still small potatoes,” Ward says. “I haven’t found that presenting sponsor to come on board and really make it work.”
It’s not As If the Red Hook Criterium was an overnight financial success. Even though the race attracted thousands of spectators, Trimble struggled to keep his race afoat. From 2011 to 2012, he didn’t earn enough to pay rent and instead surfed couches in Brooklyn. His budget to operate the New York and Milan races was barely $20,000, he says. In 2012, he nearly canceled the Milan race due to a lack of cash.
“I was just kind of surviving at that point,” Trimble says. “It was a rough period for me.”
In 2013, Trimble became riding partners with Paul Yeates, a designer and artist at Rockstar Games, manufacturers of the popular “Grand Theft Auto” video games. Through Yeates, Trimble eventually met with the company’s sponsorship representatives. The company already sponsored the Harlem Criterium in Manhattan. Some of the company’s employees had already attended the Red Hook Criterium, and they liked what they saw.
“I showed them they had an opportunity to make the race bigger,” Trimble says. His vision was to expand the event into a four-race global series. But he needed more than $100,000 to do so.
If the Red Hook Criterium was Trimble’s rocket, then Rockstar’s sponsorship sent it to the moon. After agreeing on the deal, Trimble launched Red Hook races in Barcelona and at the Brooklyn Navy Yards, eventually replacing that event with one in London. He hired four employees and paid for amenities like beer vendors and the Jumbotron.
Rockstar, in turn, assigned employees to help Trimble with marketing, public relations, merchandising, and even event production. The company’s social media feeds beamed out advertisements for the race, which, in turn, attracted even more spectators.
The swelling crowds and Rockstar sponsorship also helped Trimble gain traction within mainstream cycling. Before the deal, Trimble had sponsorship deals with cycling brands Giro, Castelli, and Timbuk2. In 2016, he added Strava and Specialized.
Chris Riekert, road brand manager at Specialized, says Red Hook’s popularity with casual cycling fans and urban commuters separates it from traditional bike races. While mainstream cycling faces help companies sell product to racers, the Red Hook Criterium presents a branding platform for reaching a new audience.
“The thing Red Hook does better than any bike race is the culture and vibe,” Riekert says. “It has the street cred that traditional bike racing is missing.”
Red Hook’s success means Trimble can now work on the race full-time and not worry about his next meal. But he has no immediate plans to grow the Red Hook format into multiple cities across the United States. Promoters often ask Trimble to sanction their races under the Red Hook brand. He is wary of safety problems at other events and has declined all such offers.
Further up the sanctioning food chain, neither Trimble nor Ward has tried to align his respective races with USA Cycling. Kevin Loughery, USA Cycling’s communications manager, says the organization will only sanction the events on a case-by-case basis. “There are a few factors that will determine whether or not a [fixed-gear criterium] can be sanctioned, and safety is the No. 1 concern,” he says.
The separation means the events will maintain their outlaw reputations within the cycling world for the foreseeable future. They will always have to hunt for their own liability insurance or operate without offering some type of financial safety net for their riders — which, of course, could leave them vulnerable to personal-injury lawsuits.
“We put on a spectator-friendly race and do it in a major urban center. People show up.”
Without an organization tallying data on fixed-gear participation, race organizers will always struggle to understand the size of their customer base. Trimble and his contemporaries know the population is growing, but how quickly is anyone’s guess. At least anecdotally, though, the scene is exploding well beyond the Red Hooks and Wolfpacks of the world.
Milan now supports a weekly fixed-gear series with more than 100 participants. Kym Perfetto, a spin instructor in Los Angeles, says she’s able to race almost every weekend in the So-Cal Fixed Series, which runs from May through February. The scene, she says, boasts a diversity that is unseen in traditional road races, with young Hispanic and African-American fixie racers competing against mainstream road racers.
Alonso Tal is a 24-year-old Los Angeles native who is climbing through the amateur road ranks. He says he never would have started competing in road bike races if it weren’t for the Red Hook Criterium. Tal, who hails from Los Angeles’s Leimert Park neighborhood, began riding a fixed-gear bicycle during college as a commuter. He participated in alley cat races in his early 20s but says he grew out of the format due to the dangers of racing on open roads. After competing in the Red Hook Criterium and Wolfpack races, he says, he decided to give road cycling a go. He hopes to advance to the Cat. 2 level this summer and has also begun competing in cyclocross. But he says fixed-gear races still take priority, as he competes on the popular Leader-Undefeated fixed-gear team.
“A lot of the guys riding at the front of [mainstream] races now are fixed-gear guys,” Tal says. “We like to go fast.”