Red Hook Crit Milano kicked off somewhat stressfully when we arrived at Luton Airport 10 minutes after the check in desk had closed and missed our flight. An £80 flight transfer, a train to Gatwick and a 14 hour round trip later we finally arrived at our Airbnb in Milan. Exhausted. Saturday morning we rode straight to the race and set up camp with the rest of the NLTCBMBC and Red Bike Shop crew, who had driven over in a rather cool van which contained all the facilities a Red Hook racer could want: tools, bikes stands, charging plugs, blankets, music speakers and most importantly, a coffee machine.
The circus of the Red Hook Crit seems to intensify with each year. The athlete area was more packed than the previous year, every branded team gazebo stuffed with display bikes and kit, more spectators and fans roaming around, ogling at riders and bikes. Anyone warming up in the Tacx rollers area was faced with a permanent wall of cameras. There was a Slovenian Aldo Ilesic fan club that went nuts every time they saw him. The Dafne Fixed gang and other tifosi set off flares and smoke bombs in an increasingly reckless fashion as the day rolled into night. Everyone not racing was on the beers from midday. It felt more like a festival than a race.
Henry's qualifying session started with a spectacular pile up on corner 6, resulting in several broken frames and a 20 minute wait to restart for the surviving riders. Corner 6 would continue to claim victims throughout the day, the sticking point on a course known to be fast and flowing.
Despite having the 24th fastest time after his session, Henry would once again be knocked out of contention for the main races by a less than 10 places. Dimi had a favourable starting group because he qualified for the final race directly last time in London. However, crashes and timing problems marred his hot laps and despite managing the 45th fastest time he was placed in the Last Chance Race.
The Last Chance Race was filled with extremely fast guys, itching to make it to the final and determined to make things difficult for everyone else. Dimi was one of these guys, and he and a few others dominated the front, setting a 27mph+ average over 14 laps and leaving devastation in their wake. He even got a shout out from the commentator Gabe Lloyd, whose fumbled attempt to say ‘NLTCBMBC' was hands down my favourite moment of the day. After sitting in the top 5 and putting in a lot of the work for most of the race Dimi was swamped on the last lap, pipped to 17th in the final sprint by those with fresher legs. A shame but what a great performance!
In the women's field, myself and Kris were competing and had qualified in the middle of the field at 28th and 29th respectively, but I always seem to make up places in the final race. As the final race approached I spent a long time on the rollers, listening to a bit of RuPaul and Justice and stepping off sweating, ready for a fast start.
On the start line as the seconds counted down I couldn't quite believe the race was about to start, I felt too calm. Ignoring my existential crisis the race started regardless, and I was ready to jump to chase the leaders. Last year I screwed up my race instantly by being too cautious on the first few corners. This year I hardly slowed down for them – in no small part due to the confidence I had in my Spin on These wheels to keep me rubber side down even when flung at extreme angles across a highly uneven roundabout surface – and I stayed in contact with the lead group. Yes!
But riding with the big girls brought new problems. On this course there is nowhere to hide. If your cornering isn't perfect you will lose time, if you can't sprint out of corners and hammer it along the straights you will lose time. If you can corner and you can sprint, well, the sheer speed and relentless attacks will wear you down until you simply can't recover. There's no hiding in the pack because the pace is so high it's strung into a single thin line around the whole course.
This is where the increasing pace and quality of the field at the Red Hook Crit becomes apparent. The average speed of the lead group was over 25mph, or ‘like the clappers' to give it it's British terminology. Last year the fastest average (Jasmine Dotti, who came 6th overall in the race) on Strava for the first 14 laps was 22mph.
I hung on at the back of the group and saw gaps forming ahead as riders couldn't hack it and lost wheels, heads bowed, legs failing. One by one they drifted off the back of the group. I put in a big effort to overtake three riders who were getting dropped and ended up behind my old chum Marion. You know, the one I rode over in Barcelona. Despite our incident I know she's a good wheel to follow so I stuck behind her, but attacks just kept coming from the front and even her big engine started fading. I tried to tow us both back to the group but the pace had taken its toll on my legs too and the gap stretched out.
As a lonely pair we fought valiantly for several laps to catch, hoping the lead group would sit up, but it wasn't to be, they disappeared. We were both knackered, but knew we had to keep the pace up to hold off the chasing group lurking behind. We worked well together, half laps each, Marion's usually stronger, but with 5 laps to go a breakaway off the front of the lead group mopped up nearly all the riders left on the course and a blue ‘you've been lapped' flag signalled the end of our race.
I finished 20th, Marion 19th. A credible placing and I'm happy to have done better than last year in a much, much faster race. I know now that I really need to up my game in order to be competitive next year, because it's only going to keep getting more and more brutal. Committing to that much training over the winter is going to be tough, but I'm going to give it my best shot.