Fixed on the moment: From San Francisco’s fixie festival to Brooklyn’s main event

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Fixed-gear criterium racing may not be for everyone, but one thing is clear — it’s not going away. It’s a subculture that is growing rapidly on a foundation of passionate promoters, sponsors, patrons, and fans. American Evan Hartig, 2017 national collegiate criterium champion and former CyclingTips intern, is racing the fixed-gear circuit in 2018 with Team Stanridge-Roley Poley and will be bringing periodic tales from the road. In his first “Fixed on the moment” installment, he takes a journey across the U.S. from San Francisco’s still-underground Mission Crit to the Mecca of fixed gear racing, Brooklyn Red Hook.

It was 7pm in San Francisco’s posh Marina District. Though closing time had passed, people gathered inside, overflowing from the glassed-in storefront into the street. Those gathered varied from recreational riders to frame builders, from industry heavies to pro athletes. Bay Area cyclists stood in conversation with messengers fresh off a day of weaving through taxis and Muni buses. The diverse crowd gathered in honor of Mission Crit V, a fixed-gear criterium held the following day in the district of San Francisco after which it was named, a historically Latino neighborhood that’s been gentrified over the past two decades, now overflowing with millennials flush with tech money.

Mission Crit marked the beginning of a raucous festival-in-motion, aptly nicknamed “Fixed Gear Fashion Week.” At the end of the week was another event held in another hipster epicenter, the immense Red Hook Brooklyn — the Mecca of fixed-gear criterium racing.

On the morning of April 22, Mission Crit race day, event director James Grady paced back and forth outside the course-side host location, Gus’s Market. Periodically he spoke into the radio clipped to his shirt, attempting to wrangle the barely-restrained chaos unfolding before him. The race he’d created five years ago had developed into a veritable monster, seemingly out of nowhere.

“Right before the start of the first Mission Crit five years ago, I rushed to the grocery store to get paper plates to use as numbers.” Grady says, reflecting on the early years of the event. “From 2017 to 2018, both the number of participants and spectators doubled. To go from a dozen racers in a parking lot with paper plates for numbers to 250 athletes from eight countries racing in front of 5,000 spectators is mind-boggling. It shows there’s a huge demand for these events.”

Putting on a major event isn’t easy for a small operation. Grady and his partner, Clare, spearhead the event, but despite the skyrocketing attendance, Mission Crit has stayed true to its origins as an alternative, underground event.

“We do it because we believe there is so much potential for this sport — potential for the race format, potential to promote cycling, potential to create.” Grady tells me. “Races like Mission Crit aren’t inhibited by a governing body, so we can take it in whatever direction we want. National and international cycling governing bodies are so big that they aren’t able to move as quickly and respond to the needs of their members like we are.”

There’s no doubt this is partly the appeal of independently sanctioned races. Directors can impose their own management structure upon the event. Quality control seems vastly improved by the lack of bureaucracy, though putting on a single race is much simpler than a series. The fixed-gear race scene is still young enough to be malleable, and with no governing body, it can be shaped at will by the race directors involved.

Later that evening, loitering on the start line of the 9pm main event, San Francisco fixie icon Chas Christiansen asks about the plight of a teammate in an earlier qualifying heat. Gone is the stoicism of a road race. Why isn’t the field more tense? Few lights, save street lamps, illuminate the course. No brakes. No freewheels. Maybe the whole concept is so absurd one simply has to be relaxed. Delusion? Maybe.

Despite a crash eliminating his chances in the final, Christiansen is spotted later, at the afterparty. He’s atop the stage and behind a mic, singing coarse metal with his band, the Messfits. Christiansen’s name has been part of the SF fixed-gear scene since its early days. His Instagram persona, Notchas, serves as a curated smelter of all things fixed-gear: Art, music, rad rides, rad bikes. I ask him about reckoning with the growth of a once niche subculture into a multimillion dollar scene.

“One of the only true constants in our lives, besides death and taxes, is change,” he begins. “Cultures, scenes, and ideas will constantly be growing and changing, especially if they are as cool as fixed-gear criteriums. The sport was born in the streets, by riders who valued individuality and freedom above all else. Some of our edges may soften a bit, but the rebellious nature that initially led people to race brakeless bikes on the street will endure, and hopefully preserve what is special about our culture.”

Can the identity of fixed-gear criterium continue to honor its values of individuality and freedom? The sport is growing at an exponential rate. There’s nowhere this is more apparent than the following weekend at Red Hook Brooklyn. What started 11 years ago as a birthday party for founder David Trimble now stands at the forefront of an entire sport. For Brooklynites, Red Hook is the name of the westernmost district in their borough. For bike racers, it’s something entirely different. The Red Hook brand is so immense that its name has become synonymous with the entire sport of fixed-gear criterium. Over 10,000 spectators and 350 athletes were on hand for Brooklyn XI.

“I think that RHC will go down in history for many reasons,” Christiansen tells me later. “It was the first sanctioned race — and now the biggest fixed-gear criterium in the world. It also laid the groundwork for the future of the sport. Around the world there’s been a proliferation of fixed-gear races and series based on the Red Hook model. RHC is going to keep the sport alive long after [the series] has ended.”

On April 28, a Saturday evening dusk began to fall over Brooklyn while thousands of fans convened on that small piece of land called Red Hook, jutting out into the East River. The Manhattan skyline dominated the horizon to the northeast. Over it, a storm cell loomed, hesitating above the skyscrapers, adding the drama of a potentially soaked course to the race already steeped in anxiety.

With three laps to go in the men’s main event, the deluge finally came. Another variable, then, added to the race equation already teeming with unknowns. That’s the essence of fixed-gear criteriums — more variables added to the already complex equation of a bike race. This uncertainty is the great equalizer within the discipline.

There are simply more things that can go wrong in the absence of brakes and a freewheel. Necessary for success is a keen perception of race dynamics and the foresight to detect risks on course before they arise. Also necessary, of course, is strength, handling skills, and the ability to stay calm under pressure. Fixed-gear criteriums don’t sympathize with the rider who’s slaved over his rollers all winter. Fixed-gear criterium racing doesn’t care if you can do four, five, or six watts per kilogram of body weight. It doesn’t care if you’ve spent hours dialing in your bike fit. All that matters is skill, experience, and the ability to make calculated, high risk decisions — over, over, and over again.

The sport combines the starting and passing skills of cyclocross with the explosive and technical aspects of road criterium. No one approaches the sport with default credibility; it can only be earned. No newcomer enters the sport to sample its unique brand of racing without assuming some degree of uncertainty. That’s how it is here. Pro crit racers, seasoned fixie riders, and elite trackies converge, no one standing out as necessarily predisposed to success. A myriad of different skills are needed for results. Racers do battle on the closed tarmac; the only athletes truly excelling are those possessing a broad set of skills taken from different disciplines.

Fixed-gear criterium is the bike-racing spectacle of the future. It’s accessible; a basic track bike a third of the price of an entry-level road machine. Surrounding the racing, a diverse culture, its roots reaching deep into the urban messenger scene. The heritage of fixed-gear criterium is disconnected from the iconic but tainted history of road racing, allowing it to shed itself of the stigma carried by its more sophisticated cousin. This fresh platform attracts an entirely new fanbase.

Mission Crit director James Grady is also present at Red Hook Brooklyn, not only as a competitor but also to study the ins and outs of the preeminent event.

“The main draw is the community, hands down,” he says. “The fixed-gear cycling community is immensely creative, supportive, resilient, humble, welcoming… all the things one could hope for.”

Christiansen makes the pilgrimage to Brooklyn as well, but resigns himself to volunteer work after his crash the previous week in San Francisco. Perhaps his mindset sums up the paradigm currently existing in thriving fixed-gear race scene.

“We need to exemplify the balance between the street culture of fixed-gear criteriums and the opportunities that large sponsors can provide,” the veteran goes on. “Ultimately the goal will always by the same. Take some risk, shred hard, party harder, keep the rubber side down.”

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