The Red Hook Hate

The Red Hook Crit took place in Brooklyn for the ninth time on April 30th. The race, if viewing the numbers on paper, would have looked like a success, and in many ways it was. Browse online to see what happened and it looks a lot less like things went well.

At the start of the men’s final the lead motorbike stalled causing a pileup. As with all Red Hook Criteriums, there are thousands of spectators and thousands of camera phones capturing every second of the action. Videos of the crash went online moments after the incident and there was little else to hear about for the next few days when referencing the race. If it wasn’t for that incident the race would have been the cleanest and safest in years.

The majority of the hate and anger comes from those who seem to have little to do with bicycle racing beyond watching YouTube highlights and taking their fixed gear bikes out on monthly Instagram content gathering rides. Most of these people were nowhere near the race either, they made their assessment of the situation from 20 second online clips showing nothing but the pileup. The level of ignorance was, and still is, something to marvel at.

There were conspiracy theories about the motorbike. People asking why the rider decided to stop there in the middle of the race, why the rider didn’t move out of the way, blaming the organisers for the incident. Some even asked why there was a motorbike on the course, as if a lost commuter had wandered on to the track.

For those that aren’t aware, the moto stalled as the race got under way, and had only a few seconds before the racers were upon him. It was human error, and there was nothing the rider could do after it stalled. The rider is experienced and has piloted every Brooklyn Red Hook Crit that has used a moto, without incident until now.

If you’re not accustomed to bike racing, or were one of the people commenting online that motorbikes should not be part of the race, here is why we need them, explained by the race director:

“As a reminder, the moto’s primary function is to sweep lapped riders off the circuit and provide a visual and audible reference to fans, riders, photographers, medical team, and course marshals that the race is approaching. In a situation where the course marshals are working to clear the circuit before the race comes back around, the motos are essential.”

Of course there is hindsight. Move the moto further up the road, and have it moving before the race starts. Considering the race has been run fourteen times using motorbikes and there has never been an incident prior to Brooklyn No.9 it’s also easy to see why these measures weren’t taken into account before.

Daniel Holloway, who is one of the most respected and successful professional criterium racers in the US, commented publicly on his Facebook page about the incident after the event. Some of the points he mentioned were:

  • One of the safer venues I’ve raced in as far as road conditions and barrier placements.
  • I think the only fully closed course I’ll race on this year (no spectator crossing) which is very nice.
  • I’ll be going back with no questions about organizational safety.

It’s a shame less was heard from the likes of him than from those who have no experience racing.

I spoke to Colin Strickland, winner of the Brooklyn race this year, and the Milan race last year. Colin races at an elite level on the road and just got back from the Tour of the Gila. I asked him what the consensus was amongst other riders regarding the event, he echoed Holloway’s statement.

“Literally every experienced rider that I have heard weigh in on the incident has reached the same conclusion. This race is run with the utmost attention to rider safety and eliminating variables that could result in incidents.”

Michael Stromberg was another rider involved in the event. He qualified for the final in thirty-third position and was one of those caught up in the crash. He suffered lacerations and needed to be taken to hospital for stitches, but is back on his bike again. At first he was furious over the incident that left him unable to continue the race:

“The following few days I was increasingly angry as I have been unable to ride, and riding is the most important thing in my life. I am coming to peace with it, and understand that it was an accident. I know RHC does a great job at making the Crit as safe as possible, and this was simply an unanticipated, and very unfortunate accident. The Red Hook Crit is still my favorite bike race, and all I want is to recover quickly to race it again.”

Michael did not lash out online as soon as he could. He did share the clip after he got back home from hospital, notifying everyone that he was ok. And in another post he called the accident ‘shit’, but said he still loved the race and would be back for the next round in London.

If someone that was directly involved in the accident can process his thoughts in a reasonable manner it begs the question: why are so many people that have little or nothing to do with the race unable restrain themselves before commenting and sharing?

The Internet has amped up our need to be current, to be seen, to be needed. The content does not matter, what matters are likes and interactions. That is what makes us feel validated in a less and less human world.

Crash watercolor

The pile up in Brooklyn. Watercolour by Robert Hogan.

It seems like there is little middle ground left in support for the event. People either love it or hate it. When the video of a crash goes viral, and the video of a great solo victory has little attention in comparison, it makes it easier to understand why some of the viewers-from-afar are at odds with the event. Over and over they see the worst twenty seconds of a meticulously well organised, twelve hour event.

I asked Michael if he thought the furore on social media was justified:

“It is tough to say, the video of the carnage has definitely spurred this social media storm. Had such gut wrenching footage not been captured, and people simply read about the event, such a fuss would not have been created. So, I can’t say whether it is justified, it is what it is, yet often the Internet spreads things like wildfire, which could be considered unjust.”

Colin’s response to the same question:

“I think that the moto incident played into the hands of those searching for an easy headline. The reputation of RHC as being dangerous (justified or not) made it irresistible for many critics to jump on the “I told you so” conclusion. Human error occurs in every field of life, and it is unfortunate when the timing of such errors have effects such as this.”

I’ve noted before that the race gets so much more attention than regular crits because the organiser has made it such a crowd friendly and popular event. That is exactly what cycling needs, and unfortunately that is also why the race gets so much flack. Every crash and folly is caught on camera by spectators for the world to comment on, however unqualified most are to do so.

There was a large push from online detractors for a public apology. The haters finally had a video of all that, in their mind, was wrong with the event. And with the video viral, their small gang had grown to a bigger, angrier mob. It was time to have the event come down to its knees and repent for sins perceived to be done unto them. Why the members of the public felt they needed an apology I do not understand. After a week, against legal advice, the organiser did offer a response. Those that are supporters of the race had been defending it passionately, and the organiser wanted to ease the burden on them.

The event is no longer an underground race on the neighbourhood’s cobblestone streets. Some may not agree with the way the event has expanded, but that is beside the point. With the quick growth and the sponsors that come with that, a decision to make a public statement on official social media channels now bears far greater consideration for the organiser. Legal teams must be consulted, and the machine does not grind as swiftly as does public outrage.

Considering all the ill-informed and downright nasty comments, as well as personal messages that the event and director endured since that Saturday, it would be easy to understand why they wouldn’t want to release anything at all. Though I do know the race director did want to get something out but was advised against it. Angry people will turn on anything, find something in the most calm and composed of responses, to single out, twist, and keep the storm going.

It must be noted that if most of those that were calling for an apology knew the racers, or cared enough to reach out them, they would have learned that there had already been a dialogue opened up by an email sent from the organiser to those involved.

I’ve heard of horror stories in road crits where racers end up in hospital and are never contacted by race officials to find out if they are OK. You sign your life away before a race, and that is really all there is to it when the dust settles and the wheels have stopped spinning.

The Red Hook Crit is unique in that it is a fairly large event, but there is still a very human level to it. The organisers listen to the racers and are always open to feedback and new ideas. Let’s hope that this doesn’t change because of the way people turned on the event, and the personal messages the organiser received.

The race was founded on community, and that community may have changed, and will continue to do so, but a community event it remains. The teams and racers sharing the footage of the crash might have thought twice before doing so, as they are very much a part of the community. I’m not advocating a cover-up. What happened, happened. The footage was already there for all to see. But those that claim to care about the event, or should care about it, seem happy to damage its reputation and put extra stress on its staff.

They benefit greatly from the event, there is no other race that garners half as much attention in the fixed gear world. Teams and racers showcase their products and talents at the races, and the audience they reach is greater than anywhere else they may appear at. Why did they choose to share the event’s lowest moment when they’re looking forward to lining up in London for the next race?

The Internet has not made changed people as much as we might like to think. It’s given us a wider lens through which to look at ourselves for who we really are. It’s the alcohol of the twenty-first century. Instead of a beer, we now have a phone in our hand. Then we get to choose the name and profile we desire, add some physical distance between ourselves and other users; that kind of anonymity and lack of real consequences is proving to make us far more uninhibited, more often, than ever before.

Colin watercolor

Colin Strickland winning the Red Hook Criterium, Brooklyn No.9                    

*I will release the full interviews with Michael Stromberg, Colin Strickland, and David Trimble next week as a follow-up piece.


There are 3 comments

  1. Paddy

    Then I should return to hating the usual suspects:
    Rich people
    Well written with good insights again Bry… tip of the modern spiritual iceberg?


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