It all started as a joke, “You know, we should do red hook!”, Sam-my teammate in Clash Racing Team- told me one evening that we had, maybe, a few too many beers…It was Sam who came down with the idea of the team about 6 months ago and I was introduced to the team pretty much from day zero. When we decided to do red hook, I only had a few months of experience racing in the UK, a couple of track and road bike crits, while Sam had a couple of fixed gear crits and a bit of significant experience on CX racing himself. We thought that it would be fun and at the same time challenging, to end our first ever racing season with such a “famous” and attention drawing race.
Wednesday night, bikes got packed, Thursday we arrived in Milan early evening all pumped up in a trackbike frenzy.
We spent a day before the race setting up our bikes, eating pizza, exploring the city and fighting hungover. We then decided to head to the Vigorelli track day after leaving Sam’s bike to a local bike shop to have some final checks done. Held in the iconic Vigorelli velodrome, the open track day has become a tradition, that goes down a day before Red Hook race in Milan every year.
We signed up and picked up all the necessary gear for the race (chips, number,etc) and we went to chill in the middle of the velodrome where lots of other riders were gathering, feeling the good vibes around, talking bikes, doing some final bike adjustments, and some of them even going on the track either to easy-spin their legs or do some hard sprinting intervals. Lacking some proper clothing (lycra) and safety equipment (my helmet) myself, I surely came unprepared, I was a bit disappointed to lose the chance to ride such a monument of cycling history, but on the other hand I just relaxed and enjoyed the nice sunny Italian weather, reminding me so much of my homecountry – Greece.
Later that day we visited the circuit and met Panos another Greek that is actually quite a significant member of the Red Hook organising team. As a last bit of the day, I managed to save my gear ratio by borrowing a super precious 15 teeth cog from Panos.
Somehow in between pre-parties and Milano nightlife, cool people in cool places we realised that the race D-Day was aproaching pretty fast. The tension, which was gradually building up the previous days, was on its peak now and we barely talked to each other while we were having breakfast. Last check on the bikes and we set off.
The circuit felt fast, nothing like what I have raced before, not really any sharp turns, so I have already made up my mind regarding my ratio, 49×15, dropping a tooth on the back, than what I normally raced on other crits. I knew that my ratio was quite small regarding what other guys around were pushing, but I didn’t really mind as what I always like to say on these long talks regarding ratios on racing is “Its mainly about how fast you spin your legs and not about the gears” and it is a fact that I spin on a relatively high cadence.
Clouds were gathering around as we finished the open practise but there was no forecast for rain.The rest of the time before my race, was admittedly very “blurry”, I remember only a few scattered moments, people-like shadows-surrounding me, as I was with my headphones on and in a weird “intermediate” state, not fully aware of my world around me and at the same time focusing on the upcoming race,trying to dream about me going around the track, following the best line possible. In the meantime,1 hour to go and a few drops fell from the sky causing a some kind of a mental sock to me-i ve never raced in rainy conditions before! It wasn’t long till the shy rain stopped and with half an hour to go, I proceeded to a small street on the back of the parking lot, to do my warmup.
As the weather seemed more and more ominous, Ι decided to drop the pressure on my tyres with the fear of raining during the race-a move that was about to prove critical in the near future! 10 minutes to go, Ι took my place in the bunch ready to enter the circuit for the first race of the day. We entered the track and went to our already allocated starting grid positions. I was on the 14th row, which meant i was about to start the race from around the 50th place out of 80 people racing, not a very advantageous way to start a race, Ι knew in my head that I needed a strong start to play it smart. 10 laps to go and about 20-25 minutes of race ahead of us.
Quick briefing of the race rules and after a nerve-breaking countdown, the race was on! Everything froze for a moment, when I heard that “GO!” from David August Trimble, and every move I made felt like in a slow-mo effect, so precise, as I pedalled down for the first time while clipping my right foot in. I did it, clipped in really fast and smashed it on my start, gaining about 10 places, succeeding on the first bit of my racing “plan”. The first few laps felt a bit “sketchy” with a bunch of guys attacking every corner but the race got smoother when we shaped a single-line group,with me attacking on the start/finish straight and gaining a few positions on every lap (another plan that I already had in mind before the race).
After a few laps, rain started falling,and suddenly I felt stress spreading out in the main peloton, while people tried to find better lines to address the wet and slippery terrain. In the meantime, I was trying to move up in the field and managed to avoid 2 crashes,leaving me in the final few laps, trying to catch the front group which managed to gain a small gap after the crashes.Knowing I was close to 20th but not sure if my efforts were worth to be rewarded with a place on the finals, Ι unsuccessfully continued to chase the main front group until the race ended.Feeling quite lucky that I didn’t meet the tarmac on these challenging conditions, Ι was quite disappointed to find out a bit later that I came on 22th place!
Having a few hours to kill until the second chance race,i watched the rest of the races,all of them held in rainy conditions, while I was starting to feel quite unmotivated noticing all that unnecessary risk involved with the riders pushing too much for positions, not always in a “clean” way, ending up in a lot of crashes during the heats, some of them even with the riders ending up in the hospital. It was clearly an eventful race and it was only gonna get worse with the continuous rain and the second chance races, where 60 people competed for the 5 top positions. A few hours later, it was time for the second chance race. I decided to drop the pressure on my tyres just a little bit more,as the track now was completely wet.
Starting off at the front this time, Ι was lucky to see that I would be able even for a short period of time to set the pace.Decided to apply same tactics again,and as the race started,i clipped in really fast and accelerated hard getting into the first corner on the top place. Pushing hard on the first lap I was alone on the front, but as we got on the start finish straight part, riders behind me attacked and I fell on 3rd position, which I kept for a couple of laps.
Then, race started getting messy in every way. Loosing my rear end pretty much on every turn, I couldnt feel confident enough to be able to push as I wanted too and at the same time with all the riders pushing and taking all kind of risks around me, Ι started loosing ground and I was on around 10th position on the final lap, where on the very last turn-a turn that haunted lots of riders that day- I got beaten by the conspiracy between the slippery ground and my back Gatorskin, completely loosing my back end sliding for a few meters on the ground where after a couple of tumbling around, I stopped.
Quick check on the bike (always the bike first), quick check on myself – all seemed good, just bruises and scratches. Felt blessed that my luck was on my side even on my most unlucky moment. I grabbed my bike and walked out of the track and headed to the medical tent to lick my wounds alone with my thoughts.
Cleaned my woods at the medical tent, which allegedly was quite busy on that day, leaving me with my hurt ego, not so much for the crash, but for a heat race that I gave everything but still wasn’t enough. The rest of the day was completed with the final race, held in dry conditions, which was quite easily the most spectacular cycling race I’ve seen in person in my life! Watching so many strong and skilful riders pushing on the limits,was a pretty awe inspiring experience. The race finished with the Italian duo-Gio and Pipo/Bahumer team-leaving no room for any other riders to even think about taking the top place,making Fortin the first ever Italian rider to win Red Hook Milan, after 9 years of races! After the race, there was a pretty banging after-party which involved quite a few drinks as well as some pretty funny events with drunk Italians.
The big day was over. Getting the plane back to the UK, there was definitely a mix of feelings, ranging from a bit of frustration and disappointment to relief and joy, that at least I was able to give my 100% and have a descent performance on my first ever Red Hook, finishing the racing season with my head up high. And that the feeling I would like to keep from this visit to Milano. To more that will definitely come…
Photography by Tornanti, Chris Leusten, Cycling Tips, NLTCBMBC and Emanuele Barbaro.
Many thanks to Francesco Rachello, visit Tornanti here.