Two years ago I opened my inbox to find an email from Paul Yeates. Who’s Paul Yeates? What does he want? More signed gloves? Spare biddons for his collection? Thankfully, he wanted neither. Instead he was asking if I might be interested in racing the Barcelona Red Hook criterium. The what?
For those of you who don’t know, Red Hook is a series of criteriums that started in Brooklyn, New York in 2008. So what? “New York might be nice but it’s no Geelong Mitchelton Bay Cycling Classic,” I hear you say.
The catch is, they’re criteriums raced on track bikes. No brakes, no gears, no problems, right?
The brain child of David Trimble, the Red Hook Championship series launched in 2008 with about 15 people racing on open roads in a dank, industrial area of Brooklyn. Trimble’s friends were competitive racers and the only way he could get them out to celebrate his birthday was to put on a race. So he did.
Kacey Manderfield would be crowned the first winner. Men and women raced together, and Kacey outsmarted the co-ed field sitting in for the majority of the race before blistering past her male rivals in the sprint for the win.
Since its humble beginnings in New York, the Red Hook Championship Series has grown exponentially to where today there are races in four major cities around the world — New York, London, Barcelona and Milan — and the series has a massive following of pro racers and hipster messengers alike. The courses are notoriously technical and, as one might expect, often marred by crashes. It’s the NASCAR of cycling, although Trimble prefers to liken it to Formula 1.
The series is also attracting enough interest to warrant separate male and female events.
“For the first few years I would always say I wasn’t going to have a woman’s race since Kacey won the first one, but really there just wasn’t enough interest. There might have been three or four women racing in the early days, but once it got to the point where we thought there might be enough interest we added it,” said Trimble.
In the most recent Red Hook race held this past weekend in Barcelona the men’s field had more than 300 entrants while the women’s field attracted more than 40 women from around the world.
Yeates’ suggestion back in 2014 — the first year women had their own race — left me petrified. I value my brakes like I value coffee in the morning. I grew up racing on the track but there seemed something safer about a continuous wooden circle than a technical, shifting, twisting, turning road criterium course.
Still, like a slasher movie you don’t really want to watch but kinda do so you sit there with your hands in front of your face and your fingers sightly spread, I was intrigued. Could I do this? Would I die? How good were the other women racing? I had more questions than a toddler on a road trip that lasted more than two hours.
Regretfully, I told Paul I would have to sit this one out. A mixture of utter fear and common sense prevailed; it was August and I hadn’t signed a contract for the following year. Despite that, I’ve followed the growth of the Red Hook Championship Series ever since.
When I learned that my Wiggle-High5 teammate, Dani King, was lining up for this year’s London edition I was stoked. It was like when you’re growing up and you tell your sibling, ‘you go first and then I’ll follow,’ when you really have every intention of waiting and assessing the consequences before deciding if you will actually follow.
Dani smashed it. She made it through the qualifying round as one of the fastest and found herself on the front of the crit for the final (think MotoGP starts but without the motors, or the brakes). As soon as the flag dropped to signal the start, Dani positioned herself at the front of the pack. Her tactic became abundantly clear: drop them. One lap in and the field was thinning out, two laps in and only a few women were in the chase, three laps in…she went solo.
Only three women ended up finishing. Dani was so strong and would have lapped the field had the lead motorbikes not taken them off the course. She crossed the line solo. Unfortunately, the most successful rider in Red Hook history and the then overall series leader, Ainara Elbusto, flatted out of the race. Like a plighted lover we will forever be left wondering how that dual could have played out.
Inspired and empowered by Dani’s performance in London I was feeling brave, confident and gutsy. I was ready. I was feeling all the things necessary to watch the next round of the series which was being held in Barcelona, a short train ride from my European base. No you didn’t misread that. Yes, watch.
As I sat in the grandstand at the Parc del Forúm, an industrial area on Barcelona’s beachfront where the race has been held for the past few years, I felt more nervous than I did as I took to the line at La Course. Potentially the only people more nervous than me were what I can only assume was a family of large Tongan rugby players who had come out to support their sister. Each lap as the peloton would flash past, my rugby playing friends would yell and grab each other in nervous excitement like a group of teenage girls when Justin Bieber walks past.
As the women rode to the line I shook my cow bell like I used to shake my birthday cards hoping more money would fall out. Even before the race had started I was clapping and cheering for those who dared to compete. That’s how impressed I was at what they were about to undertake.
As the flag was dropped and they swept around the first of nine corners on the course my heart rate spiked. The hyper technical course included sweeping down hill turns, corners where you turned right and then left and then left again in quick succession, a 180° corner and even a dragging uphill for good measure. These women have more guts than Hulk Hogan.
After 24 laps there had only been one crash and all the women who had raced seemed significantly less traumatised than I expected. I would go as far as to say they were high on exercise induced endorphins.
It’s a suspicion confirmed by Trimble who says if you take the risk and try the craziness that is the Red Hook criterium you’re going to be rewarded for it.
“The Red Hook crit is actually more beginner friendly than other types of racing. We really have some women racing where they have only just started racing and riding bikes seriously. They come out and they get to have fun and they get to be a part of it and a part of the big event,” he said.
Like a proud father Trimble seems to glow as he talks about his ‘baby’. “It’s scary but once you’ve tried it, it’s just really exciting and you kind of see a whole new world of opportunity.”
While Ainara Elbusto tired to control the field for much of the race in Barcelona on the weekend, it was Rachele Barbieri (who rides for Cylance Professional Cycling on the road) who took the race honours after making a cunning move in the final metres to ensure she entered the last 180° corner in prime position. I can’t tell you what the final sprint to the line was like exactly as my head was in my hands as I watched the women bomb into the final u-turn corner.
As I sat in the stands with my family on Saturday evening digesting what I had just watched, the women, not just the winners, did a lap of honour. And so they should. And it’s this inclusive nature of the Championship series that Trimble seems most proud of, not its rapid expansion or the media interest.
“It’s different than going to a local road race where there’s only a few people, no spectators and not a lot of atmosphere,” he said. “We have one woman who has been racing. It’s her first year even riding and she always gets lapped after like four laps but she still comes out. She flies all over the world and comes to every race but she never does more than a few laps. She just loves the atmosphere and the camaraderie. It’s just a matter of getting into the atmosphere, meeting nice people and trying your best.”
I’ve had a lot of people asking me what I’m doing in 2017. After the recent Olympics I was playing with the idea of a sport change to Rugby7s, but given the Australian women won gold I feel like it might be a hard team to break in to. So, who knows, maybe I’ll try and make a discipline change instead. Professional fixed gear racer? It has a good ring to it.
Chloe Hosking is a professional cyclist riding for WiggleHigh5. The Australian found cycling as a pre-teen and spent her early years on the bike riding around Canberra with her dad. Chloe took an untraditional path to Europe, self-funding trips to ride with composite teams and club teams at international races. She hopes that her success inspires other Australian women to recognize the multiple pathways to European racing.