Read more City of Cycling: Speed.
David Trimble originally launched the Red Hook Criterium in 2008 as part of a birthday celebration, in which he and a group of cycling friends spontaneously fashioned a midnight track-bike race along the cobblestone streets of Red Hook, Brooklyn. Since then, the Red Hook Criterium has grown into an international championship event and party held in several cities over the course of the year. The Red Hook Crits of Brooklyn, London, Barcelona, and Milan bring together professional racers with local riders who enjoy the thrill of a closed-circuit track race performed on the open streets, transforming city space of the everyday into a high-performance experience.
SLO: What is it about the fixed-gear bike that attracts you? Or, what attracted you back in 2008 and 2009 when you started the Red Hook Criterium? Is there something specifically urban or social about the fixie?
David Trimble: I think the fixed-gear bike is something that people in cities started using. They’re simple, look cool, and that’s important to people who live in cities.
I actually don’t call it a fixie — I call it a track bike. There is a bike that can be a fixie — a cheaper commuter style bike. A track bike is for racing. “Fixie” makes you think of a really cheap bike with a fixed-gear wheel. The bikes in the Criterium are serious bikes that happen to have a fixed gear. When I founded the races, I was racing road bikes and Alley Cats — races that came out of bike messenger culture. You get a list of checkpoints and you race through traffic as fast as you can, and some of the races require you to race a track bike. What I was interested in was the combination of both cultures, where you have a more road-bike specific criterium and you’re doing it on a track bike. Criteriums are traditionally raced with road bikes — usually in an urban setting on a short technical track.
The social aspect played a part — I found the road-racing social scene boring. These guys show up at 6 a.m. in Central Park with fancy bikes and then go home — there’s no atmosphere, no camaraderie. The Alley Cats had a lot of great atmosphere. It was social. There were parties after every race.
SLO: Your website states that the Red Hook Criterium “features world-class road racers, track specialists, and bike messengers.” It’s an interesting triumvirate — does there tend to be overlap among the three, or are they considered three separate categories?
DT: There’s a lot of overlap. I think the race helped there to be overlap. There are bike messengers who started racing, got more serious, and became professional. Then you have bike racers getting tired of professional racing and now racing the fixed-gear bikes.
SLO: One of the most alluring things about the Crit is that it takes place at night, and you’ve kept it that way even as the race has become more organized and involves security and marshals. Do you see bike racing as a subversive “nighttime” culture? Something to do while the rest of the city is asleep?
DT: I think doing it at night, on a Saturday night, is actually the opposite — we do it in order to put it out in front of as many people as possible. People want to go out and have fun and see something spectacular on a Saturday night, and if there’s bike racing, you want to put it in front of the people. The more spectator-friendly we can make it, the better. The most spectator-friendly period of any day or time is Saturday night.
SLO: It’s like a concert — or a spectacle.
DT: A performance-art piece, is how I’ve always explained it.
SLO: From a logistical point of view, how did you keep traffic away in that first Red Hook Crit? Were some of your friends blocking traffic, or was avoiding the occasional traffic part of the challenge?
DT: The first three years we did it without permits in Red Hook. Especially back then, nothing was happening there. There was very little traffic. We did it along a bus route, but the buses came sporadically. We put out friends and they blocked traffic. The third year started getting bigger and it started getting crazy. People had to stand in front of cars.
SLO: Do you still ride in the Crit?
DT: No, no — I wish. The level and time commitment are too high.
SLO: In New York, biking can for some be perceived as a dangerous culture — both for pedestrians who worry about getting run over by cyclists and by drivers who are worried about avoiding bikers who seem to pop up from nowhere. The Red Hook Crit clearly heightens that feeling of the danger of the bike, the excitement that comes from pure speed and full-contact proximity. Do you think that this paradoxically helps the perception of cycling as a valid activity and means of travel?
DT: I don’t see a strong correlation between the dangers of cycling commuting and bike racing. If you look at people who are hurt commuting, it comes from being inexperienced. Bike racers are extremely safe commuters and almost never get hurt riding through the city. I think you can argue that if you want to start racing bikes, it’s going to make you much safer when you are riding through the city. When you watch the racing it makes you inspired. I know a lot of people who have gone out and bought bikes after watching the Red Hook Crit because they saw how cool bikes can be. I’ve never known someone who has gone to the Red Hook Crit and then decided that they don’t want to ride their bike to work.
I think there’s always going to be friction. Everyone’s trying to share the same space. Everyone’s fighting over every same square inch.
SLO: Are the same racers doing all the Crits, or are there some local particularities in the groups participating in each race? Is the intent to plug into local pride of place or to globalize and professionalize?
DT: It’s both. You get local riders in each. It’s a championship, so you have riders who do all the events. The riders are from the countries where we do the events. Before the race in London, there were one or two British riders. Now we have 50 British riders showing up in Brooklyn. And it builds local communities in the cities as well. In London, there weren’t any crits before our race. Now there’s one every weekend.
SLO: Is the race held on public streets in each case?
DT: In New York, it’s now held on private property. It’s at the Brooklyn Cruise terminal, which is owned by the Port Authority. London and Milan are held on city streets, Barcelona and Brooklyn on private property.
SLO: What is the difference?
DT: The public space is cheaper, but there’s more hassle with bureaucracy. The private venues want to make money, but the logistics are easier. In Milan, where we’re on the street, we have to build the track the morning of the race.
SLO: I notice that you also hold a run in the Brooklyn event, which is open to everyone, whereas with the bike race you need to qualify. Do you see running as more democratic?
DT: Anybody can do the bike race. You have to qualify for it, but qualifying is a big part of the event. Some people know they won’t qualify but still feel like they will have taken part in the race if they try. For the bike race, we can fit a hundred on the track, whereas we can hold four hundred runners in that same space, so that’s why it’s open.
SLO: Tell me something you’re excited about in how the Crit is evolving.
DT: The race is becoming more and more international. In London, we had riders from over 40 countries and almost 20,000 spectators. Our vision is to make the event as spectator-friendly as we can. We’re also getting high-level athletes in the race, which is something I’ve always wanted.
The woman who won in London is a gold medalist and three-time world champion in women’s team pursuit. For people like that to choose this race, when they can do any race, is fantastic.
It’s also interesting to be interviewed for an architecture magazine looking into city cycling. I actually worked for my uncle’s architecture firm for a long time. A big part of this race is how we design it — we approach the race as an architectural project. You have to deal with contractors, supplies, clients, and everything tiny detail has to be designed. It’s almost more a design project than a typical sporting event.
Read more in City of Cycling: Speed
NYC: Slow — Ryan Russo, Deputy Commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation, sits down with SLO to discuss Vision Zero, the city’s campaign to reduce accidents and traffic fatalities, and its impact on cycling.
Building Speed — In Germany’s Ruhr Valley, a project is underway to interconnect ten cities with the country’s first bike superhighway, the Radschnellweg (RS1). Public officials from the area explain how the idea became reality and share their hopes for its future.
Planning the Radschnellweg — Martin Tonnes, Chief Urban Planner for the Radschnellweg project, talks to Michael Smart, professor of planning and scholar of transportation within marginalized communities, about the nuts and bolts of a bike superhighway — and whether such a thing would ever be possible in NYC.
SLO Architecture (Alexander Levi and Amanda Schachter) links urban and architectural design with artistic production and social action to unearth latent networks and transform them. SLO’s recent projects envision connections forged along urban waterways and abandoned infrastructure long-fragmented by rights-of-way, industry, and contamination. Among other awards, Schachter and Levi are 2014 Urban Urge Award Winners, 2013 New York Foundation for the Arts Fellows, and two-time recipients of the James Marston Fitch Foundation’s Blinder Award.
The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or The Architectural League of New York.