Reckless to some. Passion for others. From its humble beginnings of fifteen riders in a small Brooklyn neighborhood to selling out registration within minutes in four major international cities, there is no denying all eyes are on the Red Hook Crit - both racer and spectator alike. RHC founder and organizer, David Trimble, approaches a decade of pushing the sport to new heights and if you are one of the lucky three hundred to register, then you are already a winner. Despite having crowds up to 15,000 people behind barricades gazing at this electrifying event , there are still skeptics. With Brooklyn No.10 approaching, Trimble took a moment to talk to BYC about the past, present, and future of the crit.
For starters, where are you from?
I’m originally from Anchorage, Alaska. I kind of grew up all over the U.S. I’ve lived in Boston, Arkansas, Texas, etc. I moved to New York just over ten years now.
When did you begin getting into cycling?
I actually didn’t start riding or racing myself until I was in my early 20’s. Before that, I was involved in motor sports. I raced go-karts and I worked on race car teams as a mechanic. My father and uncle pioneered some of the early carbon frames in the 80’s and early 90’s. My uncle was the fabricator of the GT superbikes for the Olympic team. I’ve always been around racing and bikes. When I did get into racing, I started out with mountain biking in Texas. When I moved to NY, I started racing alley cats and street races. After that, I got into racing road and cyclocross.
With all these cycling disciplines, how was the experience of racing alley cats for you?
The atmosphere was amazing! It was even more exciting than mountain bike racing, which I already really liked. When I started racing road, the atmosphere wasn’t the same. I found the atmosphere to be really boring and super sterile. I saw something similar in alley cat racing to my days in motor sports. The people were really excited about what was going to happen that day and not just a bunch of dudes racing, going home, and not caring about what happened. Alley cats definitely opened the world to me that cycling events can be exciting.
What do you remember from your first alley cat?
My first alley cat was Monster Track in 2007. I was never a courier, but I raced a lot. I had a track bike, but never ridden it brakeless before. I took off the brakes right before the start of the race. I was in really good shape from mountain bike racing, so I was able to hang with the leaders for a good part of the race. I was top ten until a final checkpoint and got completely lost. I didn’t know where East River Bar was. When I got over the Williamsburg bridge, I had to ask some Hasidic guys how to get to there. The alley cat experience was super terrifying, but also very exciting.
Tell me about how Red Hook Crit came to be and why.
My first idea was to organize an architecture themed alley cat. I, then, decided not to because it was going to be too much work. Since I also wanted to throw a party for my 25th birthday, I figured I would do a small race contained around the party. I came up with the idea to do a criterium because I had done some crits from road racing. Because organizing an alley cat would’ve been too much work and complicated - I decided to have people bring track bikes to a crit in front of my house where the party was going to be.
A fixed-gear criterium seemed like an original concept. Was there anything else like it at the time?
No, definitely not. Not that I know of at least. There was nothing going on at that time where people were racing track bikes in a closed-course on a city street. I didn’t have any idea what was going to happen with it, but the rules of the first year are basically the same ones we have now. We had the first lap prime and halfway point prime. The race was really fast from the beginning. There were only fifteen people there, but there was actually a mixture of serious cyclists, messengers, and commuters. It’s a mixture we still have. It’s kind of a myth that it was a messenger event. It actually started out having this diversity of top riders, messengers, and people who have never raced before. Everyone seemed like they had a lot of fun. I think the energy from the first year encouraged me to keep doing it again.
I went through the roster of the first couple of RHC's. I recognized the names of many notable alley cat, track, and road racers. What was their reaction after being introduced to a race like this?
It’s so varied. Some top level athletes come in and hate it. “Oh man, screw this! It’s too crazy! I don’t want to risk it,” and they never come back. Then, other guys come in and they love it right away! They’ve never ridden a track bike before on the streets, but they’re comfortable from the very first lap. It’s totally different. It’s more to do with someone’s attitude toward cycling. A lot of the old guard are not super competitive anymore, but they still come and race. There are some who came in the fourth or fifth year who thought they knew what the race was about and don’t like how it has changed. The people who have been there from the beginning and still coming are the ones who really understand the race and how it has evolved.
At which point in the crit's history did you believe you were onto something?
By the 3rd year, it was almost already out of control. We had maybe 500-700 people watching. It was chaos. It was still on a city street. There were people blocking buses, crashes, and tons of top riders. It was really chaotic. I knew I wouldn’t be able to do it like that again. It was too much. At the same time, I was approached by our first sponsor - Eastern Mountain Sports. When the first sponsor who was willingly to spend some money came along, that was when I realized that maybe it could turn into something.
Red Hook Brooklyn is now entering its 10th Edition. How would you describe the crit? And does it still mean the same to you as it did the first?
More than anything, it’s just a really exciting race to watch in person. Forget the fact that they’re on fixed-gear bikes. It’s important, but not that important. What’s important is that it’s a spectacular sporting event. You could have never seen a bike race before, but come to watch and really be blown away by it. I would say half the spectators in Brooklyn probably don’t even know the difference between a track bike and a road bike, but they’re still very excited by it. That always has been the goal. We’re achieving that goal stronger now than we ever have.
What would you say makes the event special?
I believe the diversity of cyclists coming together and making something that’s really spectator-friendly and exciting. I don’t want it to appeal to just one kind/type of cyclist. I don’t like it being pigeonholed into being a fixie event or even a cycling event. Red Hook is like a performance art piece and a sporting event at the same time. A lot of the cycling industry can’t get over the fact we’re riding track bikes. They refuse to look at it as a serious sporting event because of it, which is totally unfair.
How do you come up with the design for the courses?
I have an obsessive level of detail when it comes to designing the circuits from working in motor sports. The level of planning that goes into designing a car track is way more serious than most people put into designing a bike racing circuit. Look at the way we use hay bales, apex cones, and how we design the corners to flow together. A lot of thought is put into it. I’d say the process of designing the circuit is one of the most enjoyable things of the race for me. When I go to other bike races and crits, I can see dangerous circuit flaws in all of them where they put barriers on the inside of corners to where you can’t see through the corners — just being very analytical how the corners are designed.
In 2014, you inaugurated a women's field. How was it grown since then?
In 2013, there were about seven or eight women registered. I believe four of them qualified for the final. Once Kacey Manderfield started getting completely dropped and not able to keep up, it was clear to me that we needed a separate field. Once the men’s race filled-up with strong riders, it wasn’t possible to run them together anymore. The women’s race took a long time to introduce because there weren’t enough women interested in racing. Because there were so many spectators, you don’t want to have a race with some five riders on the circuit. It has to be something that’s exciting for the spectators. The first women’s field started out small. There were twenty or so women racing and it has grown quite a bit since then. Last year, there were 60-70 women racing. The level of competition is actually higher than the men’s at this point. We’ve had really top world class pros racing in the women’s field. We had an Olympic gold medalist and three-time World Champion racing in London. We don’t have that same level of men racing.
Red Hook Crit and Cinelli have had a long relationship as a sponsor (since 2010) and now have parted ways. Last year, Specialized came on-board. How did this new relationship with them blossom?
The Cinelli relationship was really great. It played an important part of growing the race into what it is today. It was just a matter of growth. We were sort of preaching to the same crowd. The race was getting bigger, more expensive, and more complicated. We needed a partner who could offer more support. When we partnered with Specialized, they were not only able to bring more support, but also a whole new world and a lot more eyes looking at the race. They cover such a wide range in the cycling world.
Four years ago, you introduced qualifications to get to the final race. Why did you decide now to the change the format? Were a lot of people upset at you about not getting a chance to race?
Yeah, we had a lot of that. We, also, had a lot of politics about which qualifying group you got into because it was clear the first two groups were all strong riders. Unless you were in that group with them and able to get on their wheel, you probably weren’t going to qualify. When we first introduced it, it worked really well. Anybody who was a good cyclist could get into the field. And if you weren’t that great, you would just need to improve a little bit and you’d have a chance to get in. Two-hundred riders going for one-hundred spots. At the same, we felt it was going to be more dangerous and unfair to split the groups up. But as the race grew, it got to the point where it was really hard to qualify. Most of the people who came had no chance. They were coming just to get experience. A lot of the change was due to the qualifying times getting so much faster, so you really had to be in a group of strong riders. The format worked well and still does because we get all the top riders into the final. The problem was once people lose that hope of being able to qualify, then they’re going to stop coming. Qualifying formats evolve. The new qualifying heats are going to be short. The lapped riders will have to leave the course for safety reasons. If it’s your first bike race, you might do five laps and you’re going to get lapped. You still might not get a lot of track time. However, you won’t be able to blame anyone, but yourself. Let's not forget, the new system is also worse for the top riders.
How do you feel about the growth and popularity of fixed-gear crits? It seems like they're happening everywhere now.
I think it’s crazy! It’s unbelievable how many races there are now. There are hundreds upon hundreds of events and they’re all unsanctioned. Most of the people organizing the events are doing it because they’re passionate about cycling and not because they’re trying to make money. Nobody is making money organizing these races. People might complain about the Red Hook Crit becoming more professional and having big sponsors and all that, but it actually gave birth to all these grassroots elements. If you don’t like the professionalism of Red Hook, you have hundreds of other options or events.
Do you see your event as the premier fixed-gear race?
I would say premier fixed-gear criterium race, yeah. Track racing and other events are also premier, but as far as this world - definitely yeah. I wish we had more competition at this level. Most other races don’t have the support.
You had mentioned last year in London, the women completed alongside a World and Olympic track champion - Dani King. It must've been challenging to deal with some disgruntled athletes afterward who shared the field.
That to me is not a challenge. The only people complaining about that are the ones who don’t understand the race. Having Dani King come and do what she did was the best thing that’s ever happened to the women’s race. The next two races after, all the women raced differently. They were all very aggressive and thought to themselves, “if I get dropped, I’m not just going to soft pedal around the rest of the race and get lapped. I’m going to ride hard the entire race.” There is always that grumbling when someone better comes in, but that’s with anything in life.
But when you share a field with professionals like that, is it still safe to call Red Hook Crit an "amateur race"?
Partly yes. It’s not a professional sport in the sense that people are making a living out of it. It’s not like their job depends on getting a result. You might have professional athletes racing, but it’s not a professional environment. Whether or not they win the Red Hook Crit is not going to pay their rent. So yeah - I’d say it’s borderline. It’s presented as a professional event, but the fact that total amateurs can race means it’s an amateur event.
The crit is known for its risks and for its crashes, too, unfortunately. Another controversy last year was the introduction of a penalty system. Was this put in place as a safety precaution?
Part of it. People didn’t like the fact that we were making the penalties public, but the penalties were so light. They were barely penalties. We have rules. So more than anything, it’s a warning to other competitors that we’re enforcing them. We’re not fining people. If you break a rule in USA cycling, you’d get fined. This is a tiny slap on the wrist in comparison, but you get called out. We’re not calling people out to embarrass them. We’re calling them out, so people pay attention to the rules and understand we’re going to enforce them. I’m not sure if it’ll prevent crashes, but it'll hold people accountable.
What special measures are you taking to prevent fraudulent registration and doping?
For fraudulent registration, we now require riders to show their ID when entering the Parc Ferme. For many years, you didn’t have to do that. One guy screws it up and now you have to bring your ID. I know it’s a pain. Doping is a whole other monster to deal with. Because the race is so competitive now, there is no reason the RHC shouldn’t be immune to doping problems. We’ve always known that. If these top level athletes are coming to the race and it’s prestigious to win, some of them are going to be doping. Before we caught the rider in Milan, I think people didn’t know if we were serious about fighting it or just doing the tests just to do them. We’re definitely serious about doing legitimate tests and if anyone gets caught, we’re going to make it public.
You give out an award at every race called "Top Antagonist." I'm curious to know the difference between a top antagonist versus a penalized aggressive rider?
A top antagonist is someone who is aggressively attacking and affecting the race. Like in Barcelona, Evan Murphy was attacking off the front every single lap. He wasn’t doing it because he wanted to win or because it was a good strategy. He did it because he wanted to do something spectacular. I guess it’s any performance that leaves people wanting to talk about it afterward. If someone is aggressive by throwing elbows, dive bombing you in corners, and causing crashes - that’s not aggressive riding. That’s dangerous riding.
What do you do in the off-season? Is organizing RHC an all-year round commitment?
Yup! The off-season is actually the busiest because that’s when you’re trying to get all the sponsors, budgets, logistics, dates, and everything. It’s by far the hardest point in the year.
What are some of your other hobbies outside of putting this event together?
I like to ride, but don’t get to do it very often. Cycling and traveling, but pretty much my life revolves around organizing the race.
In 2010, you introduced Milan to the series, Barcelona in 2013, and London in 2015. Will Red Hook continue to be a four city series or are you looking to expand?
It’s hard to say. It all comes down to funding and opportunity. We’re always looking for new cities. There are so many different factors which have to align to set-up in a new city. For example, London nearly took us three years of discussion before we could do a race there. It’s going to depend a lot on the appetite of sponsors and how much funding we can get. I think the interest is there now. It would be better for the sport if there were more races. Teams would get more exposure and be more willing to invest in the athletes. Four races is not that many. If there would be more races giving them the exposure RHC was giving them, it’d be a lot more viable for sponsors to support it. It really depends on them. I always take it one year at a time. It may be there are no more races next year. Who knows? Ten years is a good run.
Would you ever consider hosting at the Brooklyn Navy Yard again? Or how about adding another U.S. city?
I’d love to do it there again, if they would have me back. I think it would work a lot better now that they’ve finished all the road construction. The roads are twice the width. As for adding another U.S. city to the Red Hook series? Potentially, but I prefer organizing races in Europe. A lot of it is for insurance reasons. If Europeans get hurt, they’re covered. In the U.S., not everyone is covered by insurance. You feel a lot more responsible when someone gets hurt at your race and ends up with thousands of dollars in medical bills. In Europe, it’s usually not that big of a deal. You are a lot less likely to get sued. I feel l would be putting myself at pretty high risk by doing races in the U.S. Also, European cities are so much more supportive. Here, we have to spend tens of thousands of dollars just paying the police. In other cities, they actually pay you to do the race there.
A lot of people talk about Red Hook Crit eventually becoming a sanctioned race with the UCI. How do you respond to those rumors?
I’m definitely not against working with the UCI. There has to be a clear benefit to the race. So far, there hasn’t been any. I have no interest in implementing a category system either. If anything, it makes races boring spectator events.
What advice would you give to any future RHC debutant?
It depends on their level of experience. I’d say understand what you’re getting into, ride within your ability level, and realize where you are at in your own cycling. If you are a really strong and experienced athlete, you can have some ambitions to do well. But if you are not, realize where you are and make your goal to have fun and to not do something stupid and hurt yourself or someone else. The one thing that makes the race dangerous is the level of hype. It’s not the fact that they’re riding track bikes or anything else. It’s how excited people are going into the race. They’d rather crash than slow just a little bit.
Are there any specific riders or teams you enjoy watching each year?
Oh, man! I really like all the dynamics of the different teams now. One really interesting thing is that the defending champion always get crushed the following year. We never had a guy dominate one year and dominate the next. The champion changes each year. In Milan, we saw it. Colin Strickland was defeated by Italian team, Bahumer. They shot down every single move he tried. That team could come in and win this year. I’d say I don’t have any clear favorites, but I like when things change. I don’t like one person dominating. Whenever someone dominate and whoever figures out how to beat him - that’s what I like to see.
What are you looking forward to the most this season?
Seeing how the new qualifying format plays out. It’s going to be really exciting. What I like most about it is the fact that the heat races are going to be set randomly. Whatever heat race you’re in is just totally up to fate. We might have a heat race where Colin is up against Aldo. Who knows who will be in what heat race and they’ll all come together for the final. That’s mostly what I’m looking forward to. Then, there are new and really high level riders coming in. Cinelli has a guy who just came off a pro tour and raced at the top level pro for fifteen years. Just seeing how someone like that can do. Colin is on a new team with Intelligentsia Racing. Specialized have a serious team this year. It’s going to be another ball game.