Jo Celso (Cinelli/Chrome), of San Diego, Calif., competed in the Red Hook Criterium Saturday in London. The race is one of the world’s premiere track bike crits featuring professional road racers, track specialists, bike messengers and urban cyclists competing over multiple laps around a fast technical circuit.
For the first Red Hook London, riders poured in from all over to the expansive city to battle through a challenging, technical, seven-corner criterium course on brakeless, fixed gear bikes for the win on historic Greenwich Peninsula.
The race series’ growing popularity has led to increased participation: the women’s field boasted roughly 40 enthusiastic racers.
While many were local, some of the top competitors included foreigners like Americans Kacey Manderfield Lloyd (Rockstar Racing), Ash Duban (Affinity) and Sammi Runnels (Aventon) as well as French Fleure Faure and Spanish series leader Ainara Albusto Ortega.
The day began with qualifiers: a short race-before-the-race where athletes in groups of 50 are given 20 minutes to set a fast single lap time to determine the start order, with the added bonus of £200 to the fastest qualifying lap in both the men’s and women’s fields.
While the men are actually under pressure to qualify – only the top 85 racers of more than 200 actually get to start – the women by default qualify due to the smaller registration size.
By the third lap, someone had slid out into a stack of hay bales strategically placed to protect us in the case of accidents.
My best friend, American collegiate road national champion Gretchen Stumhofer (Aventon) set a blistering lap time early on and held the lead until three laps to go, when Ainara and Ash both went flying by to knock her down to third.
The Aventon squad attempted to set a faster lap with one to go, and I followed; they were unsuccessful but I moved up to the fourth fastest just as qualifiers ended.
With our qualifiers completed, we spent the next couple of hours relaxing, eating food-truck food and watching the five men’s heats.
Each group got increasingly fast, and a number of men including some of my friends and and Cinelli Chrome teammates crashed. Several men left in an ambulance, delaying the schedule enough that the tentative last-chance race, which provides men qualifying 86th-150th a chance to move on to the finals by coming in top 10, was canceled.
The women’s final began at 7:30 p.m. The London race is unique in that, due to season and location, it is the only Red Hook conducted in complete daylight.
David Trimble, the American mastermind behind the Red Hook series and father of the modern fixed-gear criterium, called us to our grid marks on the smooth pavement, then counted us down. On the word “go!” we were bursting into a sprint from a stopped start. I prayed in that moment I wouldn’t miss my clip-in, something that had cost me in the past – it’s surprisingly easy to do between the nature of the always-moving cranks of a fixed gear bike and the wave of nerves and adrenaline that hits in that kind of situation. Miraculously, my cleat made a satisfying click into the pedal.
I quickly fell into seventh wheel, with Ainara on the front in the leaders jersey mercilessly whipping us through a course that left no room for error. The 0.7-mile circuit was narrower than any past fixed-gear criterium I’d raced previously and included turns greater than 90 degrees, a tight chicane, and rises in the pavement that, when hit as speed, kicked your rear wheel into air. In the second lap, I rounded the second corner in time to see part of an Aventon kit sticking out of a stack of hay bales – Gretchen.
The moment scared me: I knew her to be an excellent bike handler, and seeing her crash made me question my own abilities. The crash caused the group to splinter: Kacey and Ainara slid away rapidly, with Ash and Sammi barking at their heels and Fleur and I keeping the latter in our sights. It took us over two merciless laps of trading pulls at our limits to close the gaps, and the six of us stuck a break that would not be caught for the rest of the race.
Once with the other girls, I knew I was in trouble. Technical courses were never my strong point, and closing down the gap had taken a heavy toll on me. I suddenly felt all the training I’d shrugged off and the criterium races I’d avoided all season chastising me for my lack of discipline.
Soon, I was yo-yo-ing on the back. Fleur, however, was merciless: once with the group, she sprung attack after vicious attack, a strategy that would award her “top antagonist” when all was said and done. The group widened their lead on the pack over the next half the race, and with three laps to go, things soon became strategic and the tempo slowed as the top six women tried to feel each other out for weaknesses.
On the final lap, the speed rapidly increased again. I sat sixth wheel, clinging on desperately, but when the sprint came after the final, downhill right-hander, I knew that was the best I would drag out of myself this trip. At the front, Ainara dug deep, and while Kacey contested her with everything she had, the young Spaniard would once again take the victory and retain her leaders jersey.
Emotionally and physically exhausted, we retired to watch the men’s race go screaming by with the eventual win awarded to Impulse Stage rider William Guzman.
As is Red Hook tradition the night ended in a raging afterparty, this time on a floating venue on the River Thames where we celebrated surviving another Red Hook and drank heavily with friends from all over who we rarely saw.
With London and Brooklyn out of our way? Next stop is Barcelona in September.
Main photo: Bob Blutarsky
Other photos: Red Hook, Sam Dunn
Video: Brian Wagner