London’s Jubilee Line on a Saturday afternoon. Warm, damp, crowded. At North Greenwich we ascend into a structure of glass and steel. Good old British rain is hammering the concourse in front of the O2, once known as the Millenium Dome. And while most of the crowds are headed to the arena for a show, I head toward a huddle of catering trucks and brightly-coloured tents. Red Hook Crit has come to town.
Even without the rain it’s hard to generate much of an atmosphere here. Formerly an industrial area, now being ruthlessly regenerated, the Greenwich Peninsula feels rather detached from rest of the city. Everything is modern and corporate, the apartment blocks, the expensive parking, the caramel macchiatos. During the week, ironically, you’ll rarely see a cycle courier here. It’s too far off their circuit.
Yet the show must go on. I’m here to meet Aoife Doherty of the 5th Floor racing team. Doherty and her friends seem – if you trust social media feeds – to embody something of the way cycle racing is becoming more fluid, more open to new ideas. When I find her she’s wrestling a sprocket off her back wheel. I mention the weather and she pulls a face; staying upright is the primary objective today.
We talk a little but she’s understandably tense, so I leave her to warm up on the rollers and head out towards the course.
Red Hook Crit started in Brooklyn in 2008 when a bunch of friends held an impromptu race, with no official sanction, no sponsors and barely any rules, on their fixed wheel bikes. Two years later the event expanded to Milan, then to Barcelona and finally London. It represents a bridge between cycle courier alleycat racing and traditional road racing. And with almost ten years of successful growth behind it, the event feels like it’s at a crossroads. There is still an element of counter-culture, but the athletes at the front of each race are decidedly mean-looking, and their roller warm-up routines are apocalyptic. As the brand has grown, so have the economics, and the kudos, of being one of the top Red Hook Crit racers.
> See our photo gallery of RHC Barcelona 2016 by theMussette.cc <
Doherty has been racing for three years. She started off as a runner, tried triathlon then got the cycling bug. Now she rides road races, criteriums, track and cyclo-cross. And she organizes a summer cyclo-cross league in London. And she’s a freelance designer. She’s busy.
When we meet for coffee at Tate Modern a few days later she is a lot more relaxed. Reflecting on her race, she says, ‘That was so stressful. In the final my team-mate Sophie (Edmondson) and I got caught behind a crash and had to work really hard together to get back to the main group.’
Edmondson and Doherty finished twelfth and fourteenth respectively, solid results considering that three-time World Champion and Olympic Gold medallist Dani King finished fifth. Twelve months previously, angered at her non-selection for the Rio games, King turned up at Red Hook Crit and ripped the race apart, lapping Doherty after only 15 minutes.
When I ask Doherty what her favourite cycling discipline is, she can’t give me a straight answer. And why should she? In the summer she’s a committed fixed gear racer – she’s doing all four Red Hook Crit races, but physically this kind of racing isn’t so different from regular criteriums, track or even cyclo-cross. The challenge is getting your head around the technical differences.
It helps to have support from a set of sponsors that most small amateur teams would elbow their rivals into the barriers for. Specialized supply the bikes, Met supply the helmets, Oakley the shades and Adidas the team clothing. As well as meeting kit needs, sponsors also cover part of their travel costs. All of which goes to show that brands see Red Hook Crit as an important way to get visibility. It may be off the radar of the ‘conventional’ cycling media, but its own ecosystem is thriving.
The 5th Floor began in 2009 when a group of friends used to meet on the 5th floor of an East London multi-storey car-park to mess about on their fixie bikes. Eventually they began to race, graduated to Red Hook Crit and began to attract some attention. In 2015 five women joined the team, including Doherty and Edmondson, and the focus broadened. Road racing, track, cyclo-cross, touring – the women tackled anything they liked the look of. Doherty is too polite to say so, but I suspect she and her friends untied some of the ropes mooring their male peers to that East London car park. No bad thing.
British bike racing is founded on a kind of pyramid structure. You start racing for your local club, and if you’re any good you graduate to an amateur team, then ultimately to a professional team. A byproduct of this system is that riders have tended to get channelled into specific types of racing early in their career.
The 5th Floor subverts this way of organizing the sport. It has the branding and sponsors of an elite amateur team, yet most of its riders are not in the highest of Britain’s five categories. Its foundation is fixed gear racing and yet the influx of women into the team has pushed it back into more mainstream types of racing, without losing the connection to unsanctioned events like Red Hook Crit.
Perhaps the most important aspect to this team, club, collective, call it what you will, is social. The riders meet every Saturday during the summer for training at Herne Hill velodrome, and several early mornings a week in Regent’s Park, where they do hot laps then head off for coffee. Coordination is, of course, by WhatsApp group.
Doherty and her team-mates take their racing seriously, but they know they will never turn professional or ride on a Great Britain team. They simply love racing their bikes with their friends. They are true racers, because they do it only for the race. No other reward is necessary.
Aiofe Dorothy is 5th on the starting list of Womens Heat 1 at Red Hook Crit Barcelona 05 tomorrow (2nd of September)