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Like it or not, Red Hook’s success tied to the fixed-gear bike

The Red Hook Crit has detractors, but it remains a tremendously popular and successful event, attracting fans and sponsors alike.

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By now you’ve probably replayed the video of that massive pileup at the 2016 Red Hook criterium so many times that your eyeballs hurt.

The video has reignited the longstanding debate between those who support fixed-gear road racing and those who see it as dangerous lunacy. Like clockwork, this debate always flares up after Red Hook’s annual crash videos hit the web.

There are dozens of pragmatic reasons for criticizing Red Hook’s format. Track bikes were created for velodromes, where banked walls prevent pedal strikes. Brakes help riders avoid obstacles, like sedentary motorcycles. A freehub lets you coast through corners. So why race without these modern conveniences?

You could train yourself to drive a car with your feet, after all, but that doesn’t make it a great idea.

The arguments for racing fixed gear track bikes on asphalt are far less practical. Piloting a fixie requires a different skill-set, so the winner isn’t always the rider with the biggest legs and lungs. There are lots of crashes, which is exciting. And, for whatever reason, the bikes have become the emblem of an urban cultural movement. For lack of a better word, they’re cool.

On paper, the argument feels pretty lopsided, right? Orthodox bike racing presents a much safer and more logical competition format. But here’s the thing: Up to this point, the Red Hook Criterium’s history has not proceeded according to logic or reason.

Here’s the race’s Cliff’s Notes history: In 2008 David Trimble held an unsanctioned, late-night race in Red Hook as a challenge between bicycle messengers and local road racers. To level the playing field, Trimble required everyone to compete on a brake-less fixie, the preferred tool of bike porters.

A dozen cyclists participated in that event. The next year, several dozen showed up, and The New York Times published a story. The year after, the race attracted sponsors, more than 1,000 spectators and a cadre of media.

Today, the Red Hook Criterium is a four-race series with events in Brooklyn, London, Barcelona, and Milan. Each round attracts enormous crowds — 17,000 people turned up to the London race this year.

The race has a jumbotron, qualifying rounds and catchy marketing. Its six-figure sponsorship portfolio includes videogame manufacturer Rockstar games, as well as Specialized, Strava, Levi’s jeans and Intelligentsia coffee. A cadre of reporters fly in from Italy, Japan, France and Germany. Last year, “60 Minutes” aired a story on it.

When was the last time you heard of an American bike race accomplishing that?

And here’s the most important element: The racecourse is packed with the types of fans who would never, under other circumstances, attend a bicycle race. Call them what you like — hipsters, urbanites, whatever — it’s not the lycra crowd.

For whatever reason, this funky race has tapped into an unknown market of media, bike fandom, and cash. And the lynchpin holding together the entire equation is a silly track bicycle with no gears and no brakes but tons of cool points.

For a moment, let’s envision a scenario in which Trimble simply staged an unsanctioned nighttime crit for road bikes. After some initial buzz, Trimble’s race would attract the local Cat. 1 teams. He’d have to register with USA Cycling and then shop for industry sponsors. Rules would require him to adopt a traditional course shape and format.

After a couple of years, Trimble’s race would look and feel like every urban criterium across the country. The fans would include amateur racers, curious passers-by, and bored significant others.

New York City already has that event, and it’s called the Harlem’s Skyscraper Classic. The Skyscraper is a great race, but it doesn’t attract six-figure sponsorship, international media, or thousands of non-traditional bike fans.

Red Hook’s success, of course, is not proof that the race is safe. I’ve reported on the race’s problems with crashes over the years. Every year, riders exit the race with broken bones. In 2014, 15-year-old Red Hook racer Joshua Harman spent two weeks in a coma after crashing during Red Hook’s Brooklyn Navy Yards event. Doctors eventually put Hartman’s face back together with several metal plates and 23 screws.

Management has shown a desire to boost safety. The race abandoned its first Navy Yards course design after safety concerns. Trimble now employs cycling consultants Liam Worthy and Graeme Knott, who worked on courses for the London Olympics, London Marathon, and Tour of Britain. And Trimble won’t start the race unless he has four ambulances parked at the venue.

So is the Red Hook Criterium safe? Personally, I think all Red Hook racers should have their heads checked for Self-Injury Disorder. Of course I feel the same way about mainstream crit racers as well. I’ve watched grown men and women break their bones in Athens, Redlands, and Downers Grove.

After interviewing dozens of Red Hook finishers, I have yet to speak with someone who felt the race was so unsafe as to never come back.

As for Red Hook’s crash video — it’s impossible not to wince at the savagery of the carnage. I was standing near the crash and saw its aftermath. I saw several smashed carbon wheels and snapped forks, and four guys clutching their shoulders making that familiar “Oh shit, my collarbone is totally broken” grimace.

The crash looked awful. The aftermath? It was typical bike racing stuff.