Commentary: How Red Hook can return
Like many readers, I was saddened to learn last week that Brooklyn’s Red Hook Criterium will cease operations in 2019, as its owner, David Trimble, looks for outside funding to try and revive the race in the future.
I first attended the race back in 2011, and since then I have reported on Red Hook’s impressive growth and various setbacks. First held in 2008, Red Hook grew from an oddity into a global giant, with a six-figure sponsorship portfolio, thousands of participants, and a global media reach. Today, the fixed-gear criterium scene encompasses dozens of events and hundreds, perhaps thousands, of athletes. The whole community can trace its roots, in part, to Red Hook.
So, what comes next for these racers and events? Can Red Hook bounce back? I phoned up a variety of riders, race promoters, and experts within the community to gather some perspective.
Can Red Hook return?
The big question on everyone’s mind is whether Red Hook can return. I’m an optimist, so I’m inclined to say yes. Yet I’m keenly aware of the financial challenges facing big professional bike races.
These days, Red Hook has a financial model that places it among the biggest U.S. races. Each Red Hook race has sizable overhead costs, due to the expensive host cities, and the professional accoutrements (jumbo trons, fencing, medical care). Sponsorships cover much of the race’s costs, and the race’s title sponsor, Rockstar video games, reportedly put in six figures each year.
What does this mean? In order to bring Red Hook back, Trimble must ink one or multiple deals with companies that can write big checks. Companies with big marketing budgets traditionally want one thing from a sponsorship: Live video broadcast.
While Red Hook produced compelling highlight videos, the series was never televised live. In order to come back, Trimble may need to solve a conundrum that many U.S. cycling promoters face: How do you televise a criterium, at an affordable rate, in a way that tells a compelling story?
VeloNews magazine subscribers may have read my recent feature story on the business of broadcasting bike races in our January/February issue. New wireless and fiberoptic technologies have allowed small- and mid-tier races to produce live coverage for a fraction of the price of traditional broadcast methods. In my reporting, however, I also heard many stories of dropped signals and fuzzy pictures from this new tech. Today, many U.S. cycling promoters are chasing bike broadcast Shangri-La: the perfect balance of technology, production, and cost. The crux to Red Hook’s survival may lay within this quest.
And that’s why I have hope for Red Hook’s return. Last year I observed the race’s production team in the leadup to the Brooklyn event. I saw a buttoned-up operation with a Type-A attention to detail that, to be frank, I have rarely seen in U.S. cycling. Organizers agonized over every detail, from how to best secure branded banners, to the proper angle of each metal barrier, to the placement of every light. It paid off. Red Hook races always produce drama and compelling race action. In my opinion, it’s the perfect race to televise.
Other fixed-gear races step up
What does Red Hook’s hiatus mean for the other fixed-gear races? It’s too early to tell. I have yet to see a full calendar of 2019 fixed-gear events, however, a quick glance at this 2018 calendar shows 41 total races, with national series events in the Netherlands and Italy. I’ve been told that there are dozens of small, local events not listed on this larger calendar.
“The scene will survive,” says Eamon Lucas, a member of the Specialized/Rocket Espresso team. “Maybe people are going to have to be happy with the B-level races becoming the priority races. Either way, you gotta be happy and just race.”
Could one of these “B” races fill Red Hook’s shoes? Perhaps. My sources referenced France’s National Moutarde Crit (yes, the name means “National Mustard Crit”) in Dijon as a potential heir. Others pointed toward Germany’s Rad Race events. Rad Race produces a Last Man Standing race at an indoor go-kart track in Berlin, and a mass-start fixed-gear road race held on 42 kilometers of German Autobahn. There’s also Red Bull’s Last Stand event in San Antonio.
Organizers of San Francisco’s Mission Crit told me they also hope to increase their visibility this year. The race launched in 2014 with a dozen riders pedaling circles in a parking lot. Last year the event attracted 250 riders and 5,000 spectators in downtown San Francisco.
Co-organizer Clare Prowse said that the race has always existed in Red Hook’s shadow. The race’s spot on the calendar could now bring it more attention, Prowse said.
“Red Hook is the gold standard and is way above everything else, so we were always fighting for recognition,” she said. “This year we’ve noticed it’s a bit easier to get interest from sponsors.”
Indeed, the race relies heavily on bike industry sponsors, however, Prowse said management is talking with Dollar Shave Club, Mike’s Bikes, and Sunski sunglasses about potential sponsorship in 2019. Red Bull is also affiliated with the event.
Yet even the Mission Crit is small by Red Hook standards. The crowds are smaller, and unlike the Red Hook Crit, there’s no daylong qualification process involving hundreds of would-be finalists. It’s co-owner, James Grady, still organizes it as a side project to his day job. The event does not yet break even financially, he said.
“We’ve been ringing blood from stones for the last several years,” Grady said. “Bike industry [sponsors] can give you stuff, but we can’t pay for police with bags and bikes.”
Even if the Mission Crit added a bevy of big sponsors to its lineup, it’s doubtful that the race could grow to Red Hook’s size and scope. And that goes for the other events too. So for 2019, the fixed racing community will have to swallow the tough news that the global platform of Red Hook will simply not exist.
“Red Hook was different,” said Italian rider Davide Vigano. “People answered to Red Hook and they don’t answer to other criteriums the same way. I don’t know why.”
An unknown future for riders
Whichever race ascends to fixed-gear’s throne, it’s doubtful that it, or any other events, will produce the same tonnage of media coverage as Red Hook. Each year dozens of reporters, filmmakers, photographers, and, ahem, “influencers” from across the globe attended Red Hook races. They beamed countless photos, video, stories, and social posts across the globe, which in turn helped Red Hook solidify its place in global cycling. The loss of this media wave will undoubtedly impact fixed-gear racing’s elite riders and teams.
Vigano, whose professional road career included stints at Quick-Step, Leopard-Trek, and Team Sky, said his 2017 Red Hook series win brought him more mainstream media attention than perhaps any result of his life.
“I was in the newspaper and the television. I did Gazzetta dello Sport after Red Hook and never for another race,” Vigano said. “In Italy it was very, very big.”
In recent years, trade teams emerged to race Red Hook, with names like Bahumer Critlife, Cinelli-Chrome, IRD Squadra Corse, and Santafixie BLB London. The teams represented an important cornerstone on which fixed-gear racing could collectively grow.
The riders I spoke to said Red Hook’s cancellation forced them to drastically shift their 2019 racing ambitions. “Honestly, dude, the schedule is so f—ed this year that I don’t know what I’m racing,” said one rider. A Specialized representative said that the Specialized-Rocket Espresso team has no definitive schedule yet; it may race a calendar of fixed-gear and regular criteriums. Vigano said he has decided to retire from racing altogether to operate a training lab outside of Milan.
These riders and teams could be the biggest casualties, should Red Hook’s cancellation become permanent. Fixed-gear racing will undoubtedly continue across the globe, further growing its foundation of participants and events. Yet Red Hook represented an important beacon for mainstream media attention that accelerated the sport’s overall professionalization and recognition. Losing Red Hook could clip fixed-gear racing’s efforts to go mainstream at the knees.
It’s no wonder that, in the past week, dozens of Red Hook riders have posted messages on social media about the series. The messages are hardly eulogies; they are messages of hope.
Kym Perfetto, a rider on the Aventon fixed-gear team, summed it up best:
“The sport will morph and we’ll flow like riding through traffic,” she wrote.