RHCM9 - Race Report by Andre Abreu
Fact: This is my first ever Red Hook Crit.
Fact: Red Hook Crit is the biggest (most competitive, most people) fixed-gear criterium in the World.
Fact: This is the most stacked Red Hook Crit with almost 400 racers in the men’s field.
Fact: I trained my butt off.
But first, the Crit Coppa Agostoni Cinelli, the official National Italian Fixed-Gear Criterium Championships.
I was there because this race provided points for the 2019 Fixed Nations Cup and in my mind this was my last chance to score some points as the chances of getting any at Red Hook were super slim.
Fast forward to my qualifying heat and the main issue of racing solo in foreign countries comes up - where can I leave my stuff?
The plan is always look out for anyone that is speaking english and also looking lost and I found a British team in town doing the exact same as me. They took me under their wing and we basically became best friends (Shout out to One Life Cycle). Long story short, I leave my gear, get all warmed up and ready to do one heck of a race.
The course is ridiculously tight. The announcer, in a very bad English accent says that all foreigner riders are to go to the back row as these are the Italian Championships. WHAT?? I flew all the way to Milan to not even get a chance to race? For those who don’t understand what just happened; starting in the back of a group pf 30-40 people in a course that barely has two overtaking zones means I’m gonna waste all my energy passing people to not even get close to the front, and that’s exactly what happened.
The first 15 of each heat qualify to the final and after spending the whole race passing people, guess what position I qualified in? Yes, 15th.
Qualifying was early in the afternoon and surprisingly the final was at almost 10PM, which only made sense to the people that knew more about drinking and only a little bit about cycling.
Anyway, they call my name to the 40th (last) position of the starting grid for the Final. And we’re off.
I pass 5-6 people in the first lap, another 5 or so in the next one and after closing a couple of gaps they start to get too big. After making a huge, quite risky effort to pass another guy, I brake too close to the turn and clip my pedal which, thanks to physics had me flying toward a barrier. Thankfully, physics also pushed me away from that barrier and I carried on - scared as hell. I was in the Top 30, very far away from the guy in front of me, with about 5 guys behind me and still scared as hell. The road is completely dark, we don’t have lights, neither do several spots of the course. I have one goal, which is the goal of the whole trip: to make it to the end. For that I couldn’t be lapped by the front riders. Well, being this early in the race and me riding alone, you can imagine that I’m not going faster than the front guys which are riding together for the win… Eventually they caught me and that was the end of it. Got some experience under my belt and lived to tell the tale.
And now on to Red Hook.
Land, train, walk, check-in… You know the drill.
Friday is the day of the very unique Red Hook Velodrome Day at the iconic Vigorelli Velodrome – a longer than usual, steeper than usual, wooden track with an American football field in the middle. Riders come and go to check in for the following day’s race and take the chance to wake up the legs in the velodrome.
And now it’s THE day. Red Hook Crit Milano No. 9, possibly the last Red Hook race ever, possibly the beginning of a much bigger Red Hook series. It’s all in the air, but what we know for sure is that this is a day for the books.
I ride the 4kms to the course with plenty of time to get set up before the course opens for practice. Once it does I spend the entire 30mins out on the bike to get to know every turn and hole the best I can. When that’s done, there is a very long time until I get to start in the last heat of the day.
As the sky promised, it started raining not long after the start of the first heat. Then it was chaos. That specific heat started seeing crashes on almost every corner as the riders were not ready for the wet pavement and every rider yet to race started second guessing their tire pressure. Ive never raced in rain so I had no idea what to do. Fortunately, I spent the day with my fellow British mates (Second shout out to One Life Cycle) who I met at the previous race. They have plenty of experience riding on wet surfaces and advised me to drop my tire pressure to 65psi. My tires were at 95psi… That’s a 30% drop in air pressure. I felt like it was too big of a change, which would affect my racing negatively so I dropped my tire pressure to 75psi. It worked out pretty well.
Thirty minutes before the start of the race the warm up area opens to those about to race. I was one of the first in as I wanted to be 105% ready for my first ever Red Hook Qualifier. I warmed up for a solid 20 minutes or so and got ready to head out on the course, except that the heat before me was stopped on the course. Heat 3 of the Red Hook Crit Milano No.9 was stopped three times and several ambulances went on to the course to get riders. It was carnage. That made me, and most of the people in my heat, a little bit worried…
Funny enough, when we were called to the starting grid, that was all in the past. It was game time.
A week or two before the race, the starting grids for the qualifiers are released to the riders, by the organization. There are four heats in the men’s race, each with a (new) maximum of 90 riders or so. Riders are placed in the grid based on previous Red Hook Crit and international results. Because I’d never done a Red Hook Crit and it was my first Fixed Crit Season, I was placed on row 18, which translates to 72nd place. There were a total of 85 or so people in my heat including the first 4 finishers of the previous Red Hook Crit. Damn.
Next step: the first 20 riders of each heat advance immediately to the Final. Every other rider gets to race their heat again (without the riders that advanced to the Final previously) and with a new grid position based on how they finished the initial qualifying Heat. The first 5 finishers of this race will advance to the final being place at the back of the grid, with the exception of the winner whom will be place on the 5th row of the final (17th place or so).
Now let’s do some math, which consumed a lot of my brain in the 2 weeks before the race: to immediately qualify for the Final I’d have to pass 52 people in 10 laps of 1.2kms in a field with several professional riders. That doesn’t sound easy.
Next: finishing the qualifying heat in a good enough place means a good start on the Another Chance Race. Now, unless you win the Another Chance Race, the probability of finishing the Final is very slim and that is the only way to gather Fixed Nations Cup qualifying points. This to say that I wasn’t totally focused on the possibility of qualifying and I gave myself two goals:
1. pass as many people as possible in the qualifying Heat.
2. race for the win on the Another Chance Race. Because why not.
So, David Trimble, the legend that is the Red Hook Crit organizer, starts the countdown of my qualifying heat. This is not like any other countdown. He yells out the minute mark, as well as the 30, 15 and 10 seconds marks, but then he can say go whenever he pleases. That could be a second or a minute after he says “ten seconds”. I was ready. Left foot clipped in, Garmin on, GoPro on, everything checked. It’s all on my legs right now. The training is done, so is the thinking part. It’s go time, enjoy.
One second later.
I thrust forward with all my might. Right foot clipped into the pedal as fast as humanly possible thanks to the best pedals in the World (Shout out to Speedplay pedals) and I’m putting down as much power as possible while passing people that weren’t able to clip into their pedals yet – too bad. For the first 15 to 20 seconds I’m sprinting. I started in 72nd place but by the first corner I’m very close to 60th. Two corners in, a long straight away is up. I know everyone is still fresh but I trained my but off and I need to take advantage of the fact that in the first lap everyone is still close together. We come out of the second corner and I’m sprinting as if it was the end of the race. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5… I must have passed 10 riders or so. I don’t care how much energy I just spent there, just like that a lap is over, which means there’s 9 to go.
Three more laps going all out, passing people and I need this race to be over, my mind is starting to play games. I went too hard. I can’t handle this. Maybe it’s almost over? I ride past the finish line where the lap counter says 6 laps to go. WHAT?? We’re not even half way yet and I already can’t feel my legs.
That feeling lasted for a solid 5 seconds until I saw a rider a few dozen meters ahead of me and all I could think about was catching and passing him. And so I did. Him and about 20 more. The process was: see a rider, catch him, rest for a couple of seconds drafting on his wheel, pass him, and on to the next one. Once I got in a rhythm I actually started wishing the race was longer because at that pace I would’ve been passing people all day…
Towards the end of the heat I wasn’t working alone anymore. A group of 3 to 5 riders formed to do exactly what I was doing, growing more and more in the last couple of laps.. I wasn’t even thinking about qualifying but I counted everyone in my group to check what position the first one would finish in. Funny enough, the first guy of our group finished 21st, meaning the guy in front of him qualified. But before getting all upset about almost qualifying, I checked the time differences and 20th place finished 30 seconds ahead of 21st place so my race plan worked out perfectly. I finished the heat in 28th place which meant a 2nd row (theoretically 5th place) start on the Another Chance Race.
I am actually going to race for the win, as planned. Thankfully there’s a few hours to rest and because of my fitness I’ll be able to start it as fresh as I did the first one. Now, resting and nutrition are the main priorities.
The rain keeps coming and going over the next few hours. It looks like the conditions aren’t changing, which means that’s not something to keep thinking about. I rest, I take some pictures, eat, but really I can’t wait to get back out there. Again I’m the first from my heat in the warm up area. Completely ready to go there, everything double-checked. I’m as ready as I could be. For the first time (of many hopefully), I’m racing for the win on a Red Hook Crit event.
David calls us up to starting line and I rush to the right-most spot in the second row of the grid, the only spot in the second row without anyone in front. All I had to do was to get a perfect clip-in and get myself to the front of the race. A few riders’ names are mentioned and we’re off. As planned I jump to the front and start controlling the race from a point of view I never thought I would. Game plan? Never pull (as in, always have someone in front of me) so that I don’t waste energy for the sprint. My best bet at making the final is through winning this race. Yes 2nd through 5th place qualify but get placed in the back of the grid in the Final. That means getting dropped in five seconds.
Not surprisingly, I wasn’t the only one with that race plan as a big group of us were doing the exact same thing. A few were willing to do work, I wasn’t, because I had no teammates and no one to please. I had to do what was best for myself. The Another Chance Race is an 8 lap race, 2 less than the qualifying heat. The first 6 laps went perfectly according to my plan. I made an effort to stay in the top 5 and still had energy. On the second to last lap I start moving up the group reaching 4th place. Everything was looking perfect. I started getting excited. Until…
On one of the last right turns of the second to last lap, the rider in front of me leans left instead of right. Yes, leaned left for a right corner. I have no clue why. Maybe moving away from a hole, maybe exhaustion messed up his orientation, maybe he went over something on the road that turned his wheel. Either way he went down fast. And hard. Fortunately, even though I was right behind him and thanks to the fact that I was taking my corner perfectly well and he was doing the opposite motion, he literally fell out of my way. As I passed him I looked left… dozens and dozens of riders falling on top of each other. Some flying over the barriers. Tires blowing up, men yelling, and all this as I rode by on my regular line. I felt like I was watching in slow motion. Once I looked ahead, there were only four of us still on our bikes, out of 60 plus riders.
First I worried about the crashed riders, especially the ones on the bottom of the bike and body pile. Then I realized I was in the remaining four riders. If we kept going, I’d qualify for sure. I got excited for a second. Then the race was stopped. The red flag is up.
As we wait on the start/finish line for the ambulances to come, confusion settled in and the “undamaged” riders rode up to us. I would get to restart in the front row but that mattered little as we weren’t going to get gaps big enough to stay ahead, meaning as soon as the race restarts a big group is forming again and it’s every man for himself. The lap counter changed from 1 to 3. Three laps to go. Everyone’s together and rested thanks to a 20 minute wait. Countdown. Sprint.
Now I’m doing the math again and the equations lead to the idea that my best bet would be an attempt to win this thing. The plan for that revolved around hiding in the top 10 riders and attacking with 1.5 laps to go, which I did. Me and one of the strongest riders in the group. Unfortunately we didn’t work together well and got caught with one lap to go. I wasn’t completely blown up and still had a sprint in me but this is when things start getting sketchy again, just like in the last lap we had 30 minutes before… I wasn’t about to risk my well-being for a back-of-the-grid start on the final. I held my lines and kept the power up. There were guys coming left and right. Inside corners, in the middle of chicanes… I got to the final straight away in 12th or 13th place, passed a couple of guys and finished 10th. Safe. Excited to do it again.
And that’s that. I had one heck of a good time on my first Red Hook Crit race ever. Didn’t crash in crazy conditions. Did the unthinkable of starting in 72nd position and finishing in 28th in my qualifying heat. This trip was one heck of a success. One problem; the next one is more than six months away.