The Red Hook Criterium is an unsanctioned high-speed fixed-gear bike race that takes place late at night on the dicey streets of Brooklyn. It's usually an exhilarating (if somewhat terrifying) event, but in June one participant, 15-year-old Joshua Hartman, was seriously injured when he crashed face-first into a metal crowd barrier. The impact damaged his eye socket and cheekbone and shattered his lower jaw—his medical bills for putting his face back together reportedly cost over $100,000.
Hartman, who now has 23 screws and a metal plate in his head, tells the Wall Street Journal, "I was going fast, that's about all I remember. Then people are telling me I'm in the hospital and I think I'm dreaming. I was scared." Here's video of another scary crash that took place during the same June race:
David Trimble, the Red Hook Crit's founder, told us before a race in March that "bike racing is dangerous," but the accidents aren't "too gruesome. That being said, there will definitely be some skin lost." Hartman's crash was by far the most serious injury sustained at one of Trimble's races, which have expanded to other cities around the world but are not sanctioned by cycling's governing body, USA Cycling, which provides medical insurance at sanctioned events.
Steve Johnson, the CEO of USA Cycling, says unsanctioned races often have insufficient insurance, leaving cyclists who get injured left to pay for their own medical bills. "Independent races are a lot of fun until somebody gets hurt, and when that happens you have to start asking about who is responsible for making it a safer environment," Johnson tells the Wall Street Journal.
Hartman, who lives with his Guyanese immigrants parents, spent eight weeks in the hospital. An online fundraiser has so far raised about $40,000 toward covering his medical bills, and Trimble reportedly donated $1,200 to the family after the incident. But the severity of Hartman's injuries has some wondering about the future of unsanctioned "alleycat" bike races, which have become more popular in recent years, attracting less experienced cyclists.
One cyclist who participated in the June race believes the course was unnecessarily dangerous. In a blog post shortly after the event, the cyclist writes:
Trimble boasted on the podium, before doling out messenger bags, champagne and tubs of flowers, "I think we found the limit of what fixed gear bikes can do" to which a rowdy heckler responded , "I think you went too far".
I'm glad I'm not the only one who felt like yelling at Trimble by the end of the night.
I know what you're thinking: "It's a fucking unsanctioned race! See rule 5". I get it. It's an event born of cut-throat, alley-cat, fixed gear messenger culture. I respect the culture, and the danger, and the speed.
But the cycling community respects its members. And no race director sets out to plan an event for Carnage. And if they do, they should be held in the same regard as their barbaric historical counter parts, the Romans.
By the third turn of the course any rider morphed from athlete to survivalist. Blind turns and unswept corners were the lions pit to which Trimble threw his racers...
Where the hell was the medical team at this unsanctioned shit show? The staff comprised of two people, sitting on the ground, flashlights in their teeth, haphazardly applying band aids to downed riders, no visible indication that they were health professionals of any kind. Their shelter a pitiful pop up tent. More than disappointing, it was hazardous. And another injustice to the riders that paid for this race.
We asked Trimble about the safety concerns raised by the Wall Street Journal article and elsewhere, and what specific changes he intends to make to prevent such severe injuries in the future. Here's his statement:
The accident involving Josh Hartman was a truly a terrible incident. The injury that occurred was serious and his recovery has been in our thoughts at all times since it happened.
We are studying our operation closely to identify each area where safety can be improved. This includes course design, barrier and hay bale placement, positioning of medical staff, and athlete communication. There is not one specific change we can make but instead a continuous evolution of improvements that will help minimize the risk of serious injury.
The overall safety of the race is our number one priority and something we take extremely seriously. This article does not cover the high level of safety procedures and medical support we had in place which far exceed any other race in New York City. The ambulance and medical director responded to the incident within seconds and Josh received a world class care immediately. In addition to the medical team the race has extensive course infrastructure with crash barriers, hay bales, and trained course marshals at every corner.
The article does asks some interesting questions but there are so many inaccuracies and no real point to it except to try and create an imaginary safety divide between "unsanctioned" and "sanctioned" racing. To imply that USA Cycling offers safety oversight that prevents injuries or offers enough insurance to compensate for a serious injury is laughable at best. A "sanctioned" race from that same day had a serious crash where the race promoter actually ran the course back on itself(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GL-5LkEQL1Y).
The debate over the Red Hook Criterium race format is valid but the quote from Steve Johnson proves that he does not understand how the athletes actually ride their bikes through the corners. Track bikes with fixed wheels are technically challenging and riders must understand how to modulate their speed but the format is proven (In the race's six year history we have had only one serious injury). The Red Hook Criterium is a fast and technical event with an ever increasing profile and the competitors understand what they are getting involved in. As with any action sport athletes fundamentally have to assume the risks of competition (The statement that Josh did not sign a waiver is inaccurate).
I prefer not to discuss the situation regarding the medical bills because there are many moving parts and fundraising efforts happening simultaneously. The amount of our donation quoted is inaccurate but we prefer to keep these efforts between us and Josh's family.
Bike racing is inherently dangerous. Ever since bicycle racing was invented there have been crashes and injuries and as a race promoter this is a reality that I must face at all times. We will continue pushing hard to constantly improve the safety of the event and we will continue to communicate the risks to the athletes who register to compete.
Hartman, fortunately, appears to be recovering nicely. There's a recent photo of him on the fundraising page, which is still accepting donations.