BROOKLYN, N.Y. — Call it a grudge match for losing a bike race to a girl.
Or maybe a prototypical Brooklyn happening featuring a horde of cyclists riding fixed-gear track bikes with no brakes at night around a tight course on a long pier facing lower Manhattan in front of 8,000 people, drinking and shouting and trying to figure out who’s winning.
Either way, the Red Hook Crit has evolved in seven years into something of a mecca among cycling enthusiasts with survivalist inclinations. And as the Crit, short for criterium, has grown, the borough that it calls home has been remade once again by its younger inhabitants, many of them eager migrants who’ve gravitated to the self-confident hipster capital of the world in hopes of being among the best of their generation’s artists, developers, thinkers and promoters.
On Saturday, bikes and art will merge in a post-industrial landscape amid gourmet food trucks, craft beers and cool gear. The Red Hook Crit has become a millennial’s paradise, an event Baby Boomers could only dream about.
“Brooklyn’s where the action is, it’s where the opportunities are,” David Trimble, the race’s founder, said one afternoon earlier this month at the Crit’s storefront headquarters on Van Dyke Street in Red Hook, a block from New York harbor. “You can give a painter the chance to design a bike race poster, and that painter is there, ready and willing to do it. The pull of the creative community has been huge. You couldn’t do this anywhere else.”
A criterium is a bike race held on a short track of less than a mile, often in an urban or unusual location. The Red Hook Crit takes place in the enormous parking lot of the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal, the docking station of the Queen Elizabeth and other ocean-going passenger vessels. The race runs 33 kilometers in laps of 3/4 of a mile. Time trials are held earlier in the day as some 200 cyclists from 17 countries seek to qualify for 85 positions.
An Apple iPhone app keeps track of riders’ times, separated by hundredths of a second. Once the race begins, any rider who is lapped is forced to exit the contest, paring down the field. Of the 70 cyclists to start the 2013 race, just five finished.
“It requires you to focus in this environment where a lot of things are rushing at you really fast,” Trimble says. “It’s not like a road race where the race is kind of boring until someone makes a really strong move and wins. Every lap has to be done perfectly.”
Slightly-built with uncombed hair and a bit of stubble, Trimble, 31, spent his childhood around racetracks — autos, go-karts and bicycles — and as a mechanic on Indy-style car teams. His father and his uncles helped develop some of the earliest carbon fiber frames, some of which were used for Olympic teams. His uncle Brent co-founded Kestrel, a high-end specialty manufacturer.
Skipping college, Trimble moved to New York in 2006, living for a time in the Red Hook wood shop of his uncle Vance (His father is one eight boys.) To celebrate his 26th birthday, he invited some friends to compete in a midnight bike race around his adopted neighborhood on a “short, technical course” along paved and cobblestone streets, guided only by the moon and street lights. There were no barriers separating bikes from pedestrians or moving cars. Thirteen people showed up.
“I wanted to give them a chance at personal glory,” said Trimble who speaks with something of a twang born of years spent in Alaska, Arkansas and Texas. “I was racing road bikes in Central Park, typical sanctioned races, but I was also racing Alley Cats, bike-messenger inspired races around the city, riding brakeless track bikes. Those are always really fun. I knew how maneuverable, exciting it is to race a track bike.”
Trimble lost that first Red Hook Crit, a mortal bruise that he only pretends to have accepted. The winner was a young woman named Kacey Manderfield Lloyd, widely accepted as an extraordinary athlete and fearsome biker. Manderfield, 27, has raced in five Red Hook Crits, finishing in the top 10 in each, an especially impressive accomplishment considering that only a handful of women have ever participated in the race.
For this year’s competition, Trimble convinced Manderfield to direct the first ever women’s Red Hook Crit. That field is expected to reach 50 riders.
“I had to overcome a whole lot of mental hurdles to wind up where I did,” Manderfield said in a phone interview from her home in Kutztown, Pennsylvania. “I had only raced a track bike on a velodrome because that was the only place I thought you were allowed to ride a track bike.”
By the end of the race’s third year, Trimble had a sense he was onto something big. He wasn’t alone. The New York City police told him he needed a permit if he wanted to keep holding his annual bike race/beer party. So, Trimble did what his generation seems to do with aplomb: he started a business based on a personal passion. Trimble formed Red Hook Crit LLC, joined the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce and began to work with the New York Economic Development Corporation to secure funding and logistical support.
In 2010, he helped organize an art show, ‘The Unifying Machine,’ to further publicize the race and give it it’s own aesthetic. The Bicycle Film Festival also got involved, recording the event.
“Suddenly, we were bringing all these creative people to be involved in the race,” Trimble said. “Most race organizers might not think that a poster design is important, but that’s super important.” The Smithsonian Institute recently asked Trimble to donate all of the race’s graphic designs to the museum.
Sponsors soon followed, drawn by the allure of a bike race held in Brooklyn. RockStar Games, maker of Grand Theft Auto, is the event’s lead sponsor for a second year, joining Giro, Cinelli and Timbuk2, among others crafting specialty gear with Red Hook Crit branding. Working with the Southwest Brooklyn Industrial Development Corporation, Trimble developed the Red Hook Passport to encourage race-goers to learn the neighborhood.
The race itself takes place in Red Hook, a sometimes forgotten but intriguing place that juts into the harbor providing residents and walkers with some of the most beautiful sunlight in the city. Red Hook was especially hard hit by Hurricane Sandy, a point which Trimble has sought to address by assuming the neighborhood’s name for his race.
Separated from the rest of Brooklyn by the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and the lack of a convenient subway station, Red Hook’s streets are decidedly quiet during the week, a few shops with the trappings of the West Village stand out like curiosities in a place that ranks among the poorest in the borough.
For cyclists like Manderfield, the charm of the Red Hook Crit is the ease with which it gathers the many tribes of cycling. The weekend warrior roadie trades war stories with the indie-rock mountain biker and the high-performance cyclo-cross athlete. For a race unsanctioned by an official cycling body, the Red Hook Crit offers festival seating.
“You have alley-cat racers from New York City, who have tattoos from head-to-toe, and then you have the clean-cut clean shaven track racer,” Manderfield said, who grew up on a velodrome in Michigan and raced collegiately in North Carolina. “They’re two totally different people but it doesn’t really matter because they’re here for the same reason: they love riding their bike. There’s no other event that brings all of those various cycling cultures together in one place.”
Trimble no longer competes in the race (he twice finished second, once to Manderfield), devoting all his waking hours to planning the event, which spread to Milan in 2010 and Barcelona in August of last year. His bike race now has a real-live tour with 30 to 40 racers attending all three races, traveling with the support of cycling gear sponsors. Trimble has plans for crits in London and Berlin. It’s a mini-Grand Prix in the making.
While the Red Hook Crit is decidedly competitive, the modest prize money attracts cycling enthusiasts rather than professional athletes. For the top riders, mostly men in their 20s, the chance to race a bike in some of the world’s most popular cities is sufficient motivation.
“If all of sudden we put $30,000 for first prize, we’d have every doped-up cyclist imaginable trying to race,” Trimble said. “There’s a breed of athlete who just goes and races for money, guys who are most likely to cheat, take drugs. The real value of this is the glory, the street cred and the prizes. It’s not about the money.”