The Red Hook Criterium (Crit) is an underground, off-the-grid affair where bikers, and — since last year — runners, compete on a water-front course at dusk and then dark. Prizes for the 1st, 2nd and 3rd place finishers for women and men in the 5K foot race and 30K bike race include cash, booze, bike gear and the undying love of Brooklyn’s assorted denizens.
The Red Hook Criterium is an annual fixed-gear, road race that was started in 2008 to celebrate organizer David Trimble’s birthday. Since the inaugural race, it has grown into one of the more popular Brooklyn events each spring. Now in its 5th year, the participant list and audience has gotten much larger, as have the assortment of sponsors and partners (in the first year they went unsponsored). These parternships have legitimized the race a bit, but the Red Hook Crit is still unsanctioned and underground, which they prefer.
To make it to the deliberately out-of-the-way course, I took the G train to Carroll Street, then walked west until I had crossed the BQE (near where it runs into the Gowanus Parkway) and landed on Imlay Street. I slowly realized Imlay lays parallel to the East River and Clinton Wharf where the race was being held. I kept south on Imlay St. and stopped intermittently to converse with confused pedestrians who didn’t know where the actual race was happening either. The course track was closer to the water, buttressing the East River and conjoined with the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal, which served as a hub for press, race officials, racers and anyone needing to use the overwhelmed restrooms.
The crowd at the 2012 race was populated by a variety of people: bike junkies, gear heads, playful buskers, a guy on stilts, food vendors, college students looking for something to do before heading to the bar, and Carroll Garden and Park Slope parents with their strollers and beanie-clad youngsters. It was similar to the jam band audience normally associated with Brooklyn 20-somethings, except, instead of drugs and noodle dancing, most participants sported bike caps and passed the time gliding lazily around the wharf in hazy circles (rather than a drum circle) on their own bikes.
Many spectators had organized group bike rides around Clinton Wharf and the Commercial Marina earlier in the day. Most who watched the racing biked to the event since access to Red Hook, as I mentioned, involved the train plus a lot of walking. It was an underground bike crowd, after-all, so it couldn’t be too easy to find. The remote waterfront in Red Hook’s post-industrial gloom added a poetic contrast to the competition, and the setting seemed perfect for a night-time bike race untethered to any governing body.
The secluded environment for the race is on purpose, as this isn’t a sanctioned event, and it’s unclear whether there are races this large under these conditions anywhere else. The bikers don’t start their 24 lap trek around the wharf until the sun is absent from view, and the warm spring air has turned into a blustery late-winter chill. The bike competitors start riding in the dark, with very little to light their way once they escape the glow of the starting line.
This year’s event actually featured a 5K run as an appetizer to the bike race. The foot race was added at last year’s event. At 8:00 p.m. as dusk started losing ground to the night, the runners set out, and completed four laps of the course. The winner of the 5K was Mengsti Nebsi, a New Yorker by way of Ethiopia who finished with a time of 13:57.79. The fastest woman in the group was Queens native, Malika Mejdoub, who narrowly beat out another New Yorker originally from Ethiopia, Bekelech Bedada, with a time of 15:30.89 (less than a second in front of Bedada).
After the foot race, there was a quick break to hand out the runner’s prizes and allow all the bikers to concentrate on the main event. The male and female winners of the 5K received $1000 plus running gloves, a beanie, a cycling backpack and the Cobblestone Trophy. The 2nd and 3rd place finishers received cash and gear, and even the 4th and 5th place runners-up went home with beanies and gloves.
Throughout the announcements of the winners, the bikers continued warming up like they’d been doing since I first arrived. Most of the crowd was staked out along the starting line, which is where the bikers would also be finishing up the race. Near the finish line, a food truck with a long line sold lobster rolls and macaroni and cheese. Further down the course, after the first couple turns, stood the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal where bikers warmed up on stationary bikes, stretched, and talked with fellow competitors and friends.
The Cruise Terminal was also the only place with a bathroom in the surrounding area, so even competitors had to get in the back of the line and wait just like everyone else. It was a wait similar to the one for the start of the main event, as 9 p.m. quickly became 9:15 before there was any move to start the race.
The scene before the bike race began featured 2 motorbikes and an unusual looking motorized car (similar to a soapbox), squatted stationary in front of the restless rows of bikers.
At first I thought the soapbox car would lead the bikers for the entire race, but it only set the pace for the first lap, which was just a warm-up anyway, like after they throw those crash flags during stock car racing. Except, once the this race started, any crashes would be ignored. Once the race started, two motorbikes led the bikers, and if someone was passed by a motorbike along the 24 laps, he or she was disqualified. If you got lapped, you were out.
After the warm-up lap, the real race began, and I planted myself on the last turn of the race (#9 on their map), right before the straightaway to the finish. The turn was tight and bottlenecked the bikers going around. It was the final U-turn to end the course lap, and perfect spot to watch the race was from on top of a large, commercial loading truck.
Unfortunately, the race turned out to be less than competitive. The 3-time Red Hook Crit winner – Brooklyn’s Dan Chabanov — took a lead on the 4th lap, and was never pushed by another biker for the remaining 20 laps (30 KM). Chabanov finished with a time of 43:53.56 and Rainier Shaefer, who won a tight race for 2nd place (only.17 seconds seperated 2nd and 3rd place), finished with a time of 44:02.85. But really, it wasn’t even as close as those 9 seconds that make up the margin between 1st and 2nd. As Chabanov widened his lead after the 4th lap, the crowd grew restless as they watched the motorcycle denoting the front of the race, increasingly more alone with Chabanov as he came around the last turn, further and further ahead.
So we turned our attention to the main group trailing Chabanov throughout the race. One of the early leaders of that group fell on our final turn sometime at the mid-way point of the race. The rider quickly got back on his bike as spectators hollared their encouragement. By the next lap though, the rider was out of contention, and remained in the far back of the group for the rest of the race.
There were a few other wreaks as bikers navigated the treacherous last turn of the course without crashing into the surrounding spectators or fellow bikers. I did miss one crash that was 10 — 20 meters past the turn on the straightaway to the finish line. I heard an audible groan from the crowd after the jumbled noise of a bike falling hard on the cement, so I know there was one more wipeout. That being said, 3 riders — including the rider temporarily in the pack competing for second place — took a spill on the devilish final turn.
Note: Midway through filming, I was forced to turn to my iPhone, as my flip-cam had run out of battery power, so the last two crash scenes are vertically aligned.
After Dan Chabanov crossed the finish line, there was a quick race over the final straightaway for second place. It was fun to watch them screech around the final turn before straightening for the finish line, but Chabanov’s dominance of the event over the last two years, continued in 2012.