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by Dan Chabanov
April 29, 2017
Photography by Bjorn Lexius, Francesco Rachello, and Eloise Mavian
On Saturday, April 29, the Red Hook Crit returns to its namesake neighborhood in Brooklyn for the tenth year.
What started as a ploy to get people to show up to Dave Trimble’s birthday party is now, ten years later, one of the hottest bike races in the world. Over the past decade, the race has seen many changes. First it was the move away from open city streets to a closed circuit. A few years later, it was the introduction of the hot-lap qualifying system. For the tenth edition of the race, a completely new qualification system has been devised that promises to thoroughly vet any hopefuls trying to make the final — as well as test any would be winners.
The famed fixed-gear crit that kicked this discipline of racing into existence has hosted a women’s race since 2014. In that short time the women have quickly caught up to the men, bringing a huge amount of talent from all corners of the world to Brooklyn for a chance at victory. This year we will see what is likely the deepest women’s field ever assembled for Red Hook with one glaring exception: Two-time defending champion Ainara Elbusto (2015, 2016) is not making the long trip across the Atlantic, leaving the top step of the podium wide open to a new set of athletes.
Video: Athlete spotlight on Colin Strickland, 2016 Red Hook Crit series champion.
1. Newcomers with big results and big hopes
As is now the norm, the race brings together a slew of talent from every corner of the world and from every cycling discipline. Headlining the newcomers are two former WorldTour riders — Davide Vigano, formerly of Team Sky and Quick-Step, and Francesco Chicchi, who racked up 36 professional victories including stages at the Amgen Tour of California, Santos Tour Down Under, Tour of Qatar, and Tirreno-Adriatico. From the upper echelons of track racing we have Callum Skinner toeing the line. Just 24 years old, Callum is a member of Great Britain’s national team and took home gold and silver medals from the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
With palmares like this it would be foolish to overlook these riders, but at the same time a big question hangs over every talented newcomer at the Red Hook Crit: Can they master the unique race format enough to be able to use their tremendous cycling ability? Will they be able to figure out the flow of the race? It’s impossible to predict, but everyone is excited to see them try to take on the proven race favorites of the Red Hook Crit peloton.
2. The new qualification format is going to be intense and strategic
Before any newcomer can upend the established favorites, all the riders first must make it through qualifying. Hot-lap qualifiers have been scrapped in favor of heat races. All riders will be randomly assigned to a heat and will have to race for a chance to get into the final. The top three in each heat advance to the Super Pole, an individual time trial for the top finishers in each of the five heats. Four through 18 of each heat advance straight to the final. Nineteen through 30 get to try their luck in the Last Chance Race. The rest will have to try and train harder. This will whittle down 300 hopefuls to the 100 athletes that will race in the 28-lap final. The hope for the new qualifying system is that it will be safer than the previous version, a sentiment which most of the returning riders have echoed.
Tristan Uhl, a returning contender, keyed in on this as a potentially less-obvious strategy. “I prefer it over the old format and it should make things safer as you won’t have people taking hot laps as other people are cooling down. That said, I’d be perfectly happy placing fourth in my qualifying heat and not having to do the TT effort before the big event.”
It will be interesting to see how riders measure their efforts in qualifying. Particularly if breakaway groups form and riders do have to make choices between trying to get into the Super Pole or trading a lesser starting position for fresher legs.
Tristan Uhl is one of the riders that could benefit from the favorites marking each other too heavily.
3. Colin Strickland vs. Aldo Ilesic
Colin Strickland had the most successful Red Hook Crit season ever last year. He won three races, including Brooklyn, and easily clinched the overall title. Ilesic was Strickland’s only teammate, and to many observers it was obvious that such an impressive run would have been impossible without his support. Ilesic has racked up some impressive results while supporting Strickland, finishing third in every single race last season — a freaky level of consistency. The big question on everyone’s mind all of 2016 was, who would win, Strickland or Ilesic?
This year we finally get an answer as the two most successful teammates have parted ways. Ilesic remains with Specialized and expands the roster to five riders, bringing in Stefan Schafer — the only man to beat Strickland last year. Strickland decided to start his own team, Intelligentsia Racing, and by contrast has kept it relatively small, only signing two riders to help him defend his title. The team includes Marius Petrache, who was sixth in the final standings last season, and Stefan Rothe, who doesn’t have any prior RHC experience.
To set up this clash of former teammates even further it seems both teams are taking on some opposing race tactics, with Ilesic hinting in interviews what his team will be set up more for a field sprint, while Strickland’s team plans to animate the race from the gun. It’s worth noting that there hasn’t been a bunch sprint in the men’s field since London 2015.
Aldo Ilesic, sitting on the wheel of Ivan Ravaioli. Ilesic spent the 2016 season marking others, to help Colin Strickland win. This year he’ll have to strike out on his own for the win.
4. Colin and Aldo vs. everyone else
Beyond the Strickland and Ilesic show there is a slew of contenders waiting to capitalize on their rivalry, with two powerful Italian teams leading the charge. Team Cinelli Chrome brings five riders to the race, including the previously mentioned Vigano. The team will most likely be lead by Ivan Ravaioli, who has been a dominant force in the RHC peloton since his debut in 2014. He has the 2015 championship title to his name, with wins in Brooklyn and Barcelona that year. He finished last year’s season third overall behind Strickland and Ilesic. Team Bahumer, also hailing from Italy, is bringing a full roster of six riders to Brooklyn with Filippo Fortin as the likeliest candidate to capitalize on the favorites all watching each other while he sneaks away for victory.
Colin Strickland dominated the 2016 Red Hook Crit series with three victories.
5. Will the favorites lay down the law or will the underdogs reign?
As with any bike race it’s hard to prognosticate on an eventual outcome, but there are a few things we can glean from the past few editions of the race. A bunch sprint is unlikely, as it would take several teams to completely dedicate themselves to making it happen, and even then all it takes is a second of inattention for a someone to slip up the road. It’s more likely that the larger teams will try to make the race hard and fast enough that only their leaders have a chance at victory, with a small break of favorites getting away late in the race to contend the win. On the other hand, with so many contenders it’s also possible that we have a staredown as riders worry more about not losing the race by shutting down moves rather than winning it by going on the attack.
Video: Onboard footage of Colin’s Strickland’s race-winning attack from the viewpoint of Daniel Holloway
This kind of racing would leave the door wide open for a lesser favorite or an unknown to get up the road while the big teams play a game of chicken with each other — a rider like Uhl or Evan Murphy comes to mind. This move was exactly how Schafer won in Milan last season. The field has a long memory though, and it’s unlikely that he will be allowed such leeway again.
Regardless of whether the favorites impose themselves on the field or if an unknown strikes out for glory, the tenth year of Red Hook promises to be nothing short of thrilling.
The women’s field at the start of the 2016 Red Hook Crit Brooklyn, the ninth edition of the event and the third edition of the women’s race.
1. The new qualification system brings big changes to race day
The 2017 event will also see the biggest change to the race format since the move off city streets and into the Brooklyn Cruise terminal in 2011. A newly revamped qualifying system promises a safer process for narrowing the field as well as staging the riders on the grid. In previous years this was based on a single fastest lap time which riders had a chance to set during timed qualifying sessions. But due to rider feedback over the last few years a new qualifying format will be used at all Red Hook Crit races this season. In the simplest terms, all registered athletes are randomly assigned a heat race. Each of those heats race a short crit on the course (about half the distance of the final race). The top eight riders from each heat will advance to the Super Pole, where they will contest for the top spot on the grid in a single lap individual top trial. Heat finishers nine through 50 will advance straight to the final.
It’s typical to expect some push back from racers when the format of the event is tinkered with, but the new qualifying system is being well received by most of the athletes.
Sammi Runnels of the Aventon Factory Team noted the improved safety of the new format, saying, “A lot of the problems with the previous qualifying system stemmed from half of the riders taking hot laps and half of the riders resting at any given time. The new qualifying system is going to be a lot safer.”
But the new system also offers a new strategic challenge for the riders. It’s unlikely that any rider will deliberately try to not win a heat race, but it is conceivable that someone on the cusp of the top 10 would choose to back off, content to save their legs with a decent grid spot, especially if there are breakaways in the heat races. Runnels did say that if she finds herself in the Super Pole, she would perhaps not push it and save her legs for the final.
2. This is one of the most technically challenging criterium circuits in the world
No changes have been made to the circuit inside the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal, which sits on the water overlooking the Manhattan skyline as well as the Statue of Liberty, with a series of hairpins on one end, and two fast sweeping turns at the other. These sections are connected by two blazing fast straights where riders will battle for position with speed and an occasional elbow. It’s likely that due to the increase in talent the race speeds will increase as well and we may see the lap record of 1:37.576 (41.68km/h), set last year by Ashley Faye, bettered by several seconds. The women’s field will race 22 laps.
3. The only thing we know for sure is that nothing is certain
Before getting too deep into speculation, it’s important to acknowledge some realities of bike racing. As with all bike races there are many variables that we simply can’t predict. Any number of favorites could qualify poorly, which would put them too far back on the grid to contend for the win. Luck will also surely play its own small part in the outcome. There are no free laps in Red Hook, so any kind of mechanical issue is a race-ender.
Outside the typical racer misfortunes though it’s still nearly impossible to predict how the women’s race will play out. Over the four series races last season we had two field sprints, one in Brooklyn and one in Barcelona. In London, 2012 Olympic gold medalist Dani King rode away from everyone to win solo, and in Milan three riders snuck away from the field mid race to claim the podium for themselves. Almost any race situation can be considered a likely outcome in Brooklyn.
Jo Celso is the inaugural women’s champion as well as a favorite this year. She’s on a new team for 2017 with series champion Ash Duban — which could be a huge advantage for both, if they can make it work.
4. No returning champion, but a slew of hungry contenders
One of the likeliest athletes to claim the top step is 2016 Brooklyn runner-up Ash Duban. She’s the defending series champion, a title she earned through consistency, never failing to finish outside the top 10 in every series race as well as landing on the podium twice. This year her Affinity Cycles team has added three new riders, a sure sign of confidence in her abilities. The most notable addition to the squad being Jo Celso who is a top contender in her own right being the inaugural champion of the women’s race in 2014. Celso is coming into Red Hook on some good form as well, having won the recent Mission Crit in San Francisco in dominant fashion. It’s possible that these two teammates could be each other’s biggest rivals for victory.
Video: Athlete spotlight on Ash Duban, 2016 Red Hook Crit series champion.
The Aventon Factory Team brings five strong riders to Brooklyn, with Runnels as the rider carrying the brunt of the team’s expectations. She is another rider that never failed to place outside the top 10 last season, but because she missed one of the series races she only managed eight in the final standings. It’s a safe bet to pick Runnels for the podium, and if her team can come together around her, she could well claim the top step.
Only one women’s team on the start list is fielding the maximum allowed six riders — the Maloja Pushbikers are a German-based squad that brings a lot of experience with them from track and criterium racing, but not a significant amount of Red Hook Crit results. Marion Dziwnik is the only member of the squad to have raced the series last year. Despite this, it’s hard to count the team out. They are the likeliest group of newcomers to have a major impact on the race, especially if they can master the discipline enough put their numerical strength to good use.
5. A race that can still be won by a privateer
Outside of the larger teams, there are many riders strong enough to win or dramatically impact the race. Chief among them is Vittoria Reati. At just 20 years old she’s no stranger to the podium, claiming the third step in Brooklyn last season. It won’t be easy for her, with only one teammate for support, but on the other hand she won’t spend any time searching for friendly wheels to follow, either.
Colleen Gulick, Hayley Edwards, Jasmine Dotti, Eleonore Saraiva, Elena Valentini, and Carla Nafria could all give the favorites trouble. Many of these privateers will have to rely on sharp elbows and aggressive corning instead of team support to make it to the front of the race. But with only so much room to pass on the circuit, if they make it there they will factor into the outcome.
Ultimately this women’s race is nearly impossible to call. Without Elbusto returning to defend her title or dictate the pace of the race like she has in the past, the likeliest outcome is that we won’t see another bunch sprint this year. With the changes in the qualifying format, the action will be exciting from the get-go early in the day all the way through the final under the lights.
CyclingTips is the official media partner of the Red Hook Crit series.