An introduction to the Red Hook Crit: The fixed-gear criterium that’s changing bicycle racing

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For those not already familiar with the discipline, track-bike criterium racing, also known as fixed-gear criteriums, amounts to a niche within a niche.

Start with road racing. Take away the long mountain climbs and huge point-to-point distances, and stick the action on a tight, twisty, mile-long circuit, and you get a criterium race.

The American criterium is its own unique institution, in and of itself. Ten years ago, Dave Trimble decided to take that one step further by removing coasting, gear changes, and brakes from the equation. In essence, he created the fixed-gear crit, a paring down of pared-down form of bike racing.

Today, these races happen all around the world, with thousands of fans and a few hundred elite riders putting together sponsors, teams, and support for a chance to compete at the big show. That show is the Red Hook Crit series.

If you’re a keen observer of current trends in bike racing, you may already be familiar with the Red Hook Crit series. For its 10th anniversary CyclingTips will be partnering with the race organization to bring you on-the-ground coverage, along with pre- and post-race analysis.

If the Red Hook Crit is something you’ve heard about in passing, please allow us to provide some history and context for the coverage coming your way.

In the world of the fixed-gear criteriums, the Red Hook Crit is the pinnacle. It is what the Tour De France is to stage racing, or what the Monuments are to one-day racing. Perhaps a few years ago one could write about this race series and make references to skinny jeans and hipsters, but today that’s laughable. Start lists now include current and former WorldTour riders, Olympians, and world champions from both the road and track.

The first edition of the Red Hook Crit was held in 2008. The formula was a simple one: A defined short circuit, fixed-gear bikes, a set number of laps, and a finish line. The streets were not closed to traffic, but to minimize risk the race was held late at night in the sleepy Brooklyn neighborhood of Red Hook.

In 2010, a race was organized in Milan —  the Red Hook Crit had gone international. In 2011, the race moved to a closed circuit, due to its growing popularity among racers as well as the community; it was no longer feasible to hold a race on open streets in Brooklyn without having the NYPD get involved. In 2013, a race in Barcelona was added; with four stops around the world the Crit had become an international phenomenon. But perhaps the biggest milestone came in 2014, when the event finally added a women’s race.

Up to that point, women with the skills and desire to race had to line up with the men — which the they did to incredible success. The first race in 2008 was won by Kacey Manderfield, who became a constant top-10 contender for years against her male competitors. Her success partially contributed to the original combined field, as it was argued that since women could compete and win, a separate race was not needed. But eventually the overwhelming interest, and complaints, compelled the organizers to add a separate women’s field — which was the absolute right thing to do. If this race series was going to build a new discipline from scratch, it was important to assure that women would receive equity within in it.

Today the Red Hook Crit is a four-race global series for men and women, as well as the teams that support them. Although its roots are firmly in bike racing, it draws a great deal of influence from motor sport, which has influenced  many of the event’s unique aspects. For instance, the new Super Pole qualifying procedure, where top riders compete to post the fastest lap in order to secure the best possible spot on the start grid, is something Formula 1 fans are very familiar with.

One could also argue that the extreme equipment restrictions of the race — fixed gear, no brakes — are akin to similar rules in motor sport that aim to eliminate equipment-based advantages and pit the racers against each other on equal footing.

These mechanical restrictions are not without risk, nor controversy. With popularity comes attention, and recently the series has faced accusations that it is needlessly dangerous to force riders onto bikes that don’t coast or have traditional caliper brakes. And while there have definitely been some high-profile incidents, they have in essence been no different from many that happen within traditional road racing. Riding a bike at 30mph, inches from a hundred competitors while at the same time fighting for space and position is risky stuff, regardless of the bike you’re on.

Check back for a deeper dive into what you can expect from the men’s and women’s races this weekend in Brooklyn.

CyclingTips is the official media partner of the Red Hook Crit series.

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