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Red Hook at 11: Fixed-gear series focused on growth

By Fred Dreier • Published
The Red Hook Criterium's Brooklyn race kicked off on Saturday. Photo: Karl Ockert

BROOKLYN (NY) — Diego Yépez Jr. stood along the Red Hook Criterium’s twisting course this past Saturday and thumbed through results from the race’s early rounds. Yépez, 21, finished 37th in his qualifying race — a good first result, but just shy of the finals.

A few steps away stood Iván García, 22, Spain’s next great hope to win a cobbled classic. García recently rode 200km in the breakaway at the Tour of Flanders, and last year won the Milan round of the Red Hook series. A thumb injury at Paris-Roubaix kept him from racing in Brooklyn.

García and Yépez represent the outer limits of riders who now flock to the Red Hook Criterium, yet both men share a similar history with the race. Red Hook played an integral role in each rider deciding to ever race a bicycle.

“I was 15 and my friend told me about [Red Hook], and I have wanted to do it ever since,” García told VeloNews. “In my hometown I used fixed gear bicycles to ride around the city. Every year I ask my team if I can come do this race and finally they say yes.”

That’s where the Red Hook Criterium finds itself in 2018. It’s been 11 years since the race was launched on the dark city streets of this industrial Brooklyn neighborhood, and five years since it blossomed into an international series with stops in London, Milan, and Barcelona. During this time an entire generation of cyclists—García and Yépez included—has grown up with the Red Hook series and, more importantly, fixed-gear criterium racing as a part of their cycling lives. These riders now fuel fixed-gear racing series across the globe, from Los Angeles to Milan, and help drive a burgeoning industry of bicycles and flashy custom kits designed for the fixed-gear scene.

Red Hook’s international growth is tied to the efforts of its founder and owner, David Trimble, who launched the event alongside his birthday party in 2008. Trimble took Red Hook to Italy in its third year, and created the international series model in 2013. Every year Trimble enacts some new change in hopes of keeping the event fresh, often changing the course design, qualifying format, or overall media footprint. Each tweak is aimed at keeping the series fresh in hopes of boosting its stature.

For 2018 Trimble debuted a new one-kilometer course with eight sharp corners that mimicked one used by the auto racing series Formula E last summer.

“Every year I know it’s going to be bigger and more expensive than the year before—if we have 10 light towers then I want 20,” Trimble said. “Where the race is at any point is a point that I’m not happy about. I want it to be further along than it is, always.”

Iván García (Bahrain-Merida) won the 2017 Red Hook Criterium in Milan. He attended the Brooklyn race but did not compete. Photo: Fred Dreier

There are other forces pushing fixed-gear racing forward. The format has attained major momentum across Europe, where fixed-gear series have popped up in the Netherlands, Germany, and Italy. Italy’s Crit Italia and Italian Fixed Cup series let riders compete in fixed-gear events multiple times a month. Of Red Hook’s top 50 finishers this year, 11 were from Italy, including winner Filippo Fortin. Trimble said that approximately 60 percent of the event’s total 390 registrants were from overseas.

Bike industry sponsors have also bought in. Cinelli has sponsored a team since the series’s early days. Specialized is in its third year of sponsoring Red Hook and supporting the series’s top team, Specialized-Rocket Espresso. This year the team brought retired road pro Angus Morton and former U.S. national team member Justin Williams to the series.

And Red Hook continually attracts talented road racers to participate, which also boosts its credibility within the cycling world. Last year it was German track star Stefan Schäfer and retired Quick-Step and Sky domestique Davide Vigano who became series regulars, alongside García.

“I did Flanders, I did Liège, I did all of these races as a professional—last year after Red Hook New York I had goosebumps because I was so happy,” Vigano said. “So many people were happy, and everybody said ‘good job’ to everybody.”

Yet there are also larger forces that, each year, threaten Red Hook’s growth. The race’s survival in Brooklyn is reliant on the good graces of the the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal, where the race has resided since 2011. The terminal is owned and operated by Ports America, as well as the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

Trimble and his crew must adhere to the venue’s ever-changing rulebook and its changing cost structure. In 2011, Trimble paid just $3,000 to use the grounds—these days the fee soars well into the tens of thousands of dollars. And this year the cruise terminal saw a management change, which led to a change in operating schedules for the race. This year the crew faced a compressed schedule for both setup and tear down—crew members frantically removed barriers before midnight after the race’s 10:00 pm ending time.

“This was by far the most stressful edition that we’ve done,” Trimble said. “It was extremely important for us to have our operation dialed—had there been any surprises or problems with the schedule or safety issues, they could have clamped down on us.”

The race also faces sizable operational costs, which each year soar well into the six figures. Venue costs push the final tab skyward, as do the fees for racing insurance, lighting, barriers, and other race infrastructure. Trimble formerly hired contractors to build his races, and now he pays to fly in a crew of 15 regular staffers who are familiar with the event’s footprint and aesthetic. It’s a measure that insures quality control, but also adds to the final cost.

The race’s costs are covered in a large part by the series’s major sponsorship with video game maker Rockstar games, which is based in New York City. Rockstar is in its sixth year of title sponsorship—the point at which cycling sponsors sometimes move on to other ventures. Representatives from Rockstar games did not answer emails or phone calls to comment on the sponsorship’s future. Trimble said the race’s existence depends on Rockstar’s sponsorship.

“It seems like [Rockstar] want to be involved in the long-term,” Trimble said. “We definitely need more major sponsorship alongside them to help the event grow.”

Nearly 400 riders competed in the qualifying rounds of the race. Photo credit: Fred Dreier

Overcoming these hurdles requires Red Hook to grow. More spectators and racers, bigger sponsors, and more media attention—all forms of growth will help Trimble and his crew surpass the overhead costs and organizational headaches. The series’ next step likely rests on some type of television or livestream production, which could boost the race’s audience and win over more mainstream sponsors.

Growth through TV is an opinion shared by many within the fixed-gear community. Raffaele Maccari, manager of Italy’s IRD Squadra Corse, believes that an international broadcast would help his team show ROI to its sponsors. Maccari and his riders are, at this point, unpaid—sponsorship helps cover the cost of their racing.

“I ask a brand to sponsor and the first thing they ask me is when they can see my team on TV,” Maccari said. “If we’re not trying to get to TV or into the Olympic games then it feels like we’re not going anywhere.”

Red Hook has toyed with different broadcast models. In 2017 the race allowed NBC Sports to station cameras around the course and film a 45-minute race documentary on the event, which was aired several weeks later. The production included on-board cameras, drone footage and fixed cameras.

Nevertheless, the race has yet to be broadcast live. Trimble has examined the various TV production models available to the cycling world—including some of the production models currently used by American criterium races. Trimble isn’t impressed, and said he’d rather spend big money on high-end production than televise his race on the cheap.

“A lot of the live streams are just bad—there aren’t enough angles, the lighting is bad and it looks super slow,” Trimble said. “We’re not going to do it unless it’s a serious production.”

And the cost of that level of production could run in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. This major sum represents perhaps the next frontier for the Red Hook Criterium. It’s a risky plan that could generate huge growth for the race and solidify its footing within the mainstream cycling world. Or, the move could balloon its overhead costs beyond a sustainable level. Trimble appears willing to take the risk.

“Millions and millions of dollars is our next step,” he said. “We’re as big as we can get — until we get some investment to make us bigger.”

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