By Scott Downes
From the outside looking in, the field of the Red Hook Crit somewhat resembles a swarming cluster of undetonated torpedoes, lurking and looking to target the front of the race. It’s all power and fury, rigid and taut, comprised of pieces and parts that don’t really bend.
When the lead race moto stalled not even thirty seconds into the men’s final on Saturday night, in the middle of the road, just past a tight right hand corner, those pieces and parts broke.
In a video clip that made the social media rounds, as the peloton abruptly splits down the middle, you can barely identify an aqua-colored blur of a rider barreling into the right rear flank of the stalled moto, then disappearing from the screen altogether, under a pile of bikes and bodies.
That rider is Scott Piercefield.
“I remember hitting the motorcycle straight on, falling to the right of it, and having the entire peloton pretty much trickle in on me,” said Piercefield, 28, who lives in Golden, CO, and races with the State Bicycle Company team. “By the time everything was done, I was screaming because I had a chainring going in my back. I thought I broke my back - it was the weirdest pain. I had probably five bikes on top of me at the time. My teammate got me up, and I looked at myself and was like ‘Holy crap, I made it out alive.’”
One of the teammates who helped pull bikes off Piercefield was Andrew Hemesath, who was riding in his first Red Hook Crit.
“I’m pretty sure I hit Scott,” said Hemesath, 24, who lives in Wheatridge, CO. “I landed on top of bodies. I didn’t even see the motorcycle, I thought someone had hit the barriers and the crash had spread across the course.”
Bike carnage and chaos ensued. The race was red-flagged, and did not resume for nearly an hour. “That gave everyone time to fix their bikes, borrow wheels, do whatever they needed to do to get back into it,” Piercefield said.
At least five people were taken to the hospital by ambulance. Some 70 of the 85 riders in the men’s final were able to restart. However, the race was suddenly over for both Piercefield and Hemesath.
Piercefield’s bike looked like “someone took hammers to the back of it,” and he sustained injuries to his back, arm, shoulder, and chin. Miraculously, though, he escaped without any broken bones or worse.
Hemesath was not able to continue either. His bike broke in the crash - his fork severed, leaving his wheel to roll about 50 meters down the course. He too somehow avoided any serious injury.
Red Hook began in 2008 as an unsanctioned, underground race with a few dozen riders from the local bike messenger scene. It’s grown into a four-race international series – in Brooklyn, Barcelona, Milan, and London - that attracts major sponsors, tens of thousands of fans, and several hundred men and women who compete on track bikes on a short, technical circuit.
Saturday’s marquee race in Brooklyn was on a 1.13km circuit with six left turns and four right right-handers. The women race 24km over 22 laps, with a 100-rider limit. The men race 30km over 26 laps, with 250 riders attempting to qualify for 85 spots in the main race. It looks like a high-speed cyclocross course, but on pavement and at night. With one, fixed gear. And no brakes.
Not that many years ago, “people were qualifying in jean shorts,” Piercefield said. The jean shorts have since given way to skin suits, tubulars, and trainers. The Red Hook field is not just bike messengers anymore. It’s elite crit racers, domestic and international pros, and, in some cases, pros who have raced Paris-Roubaix and the Giro d’Italia who don’t even qualify for the final.
Piercefield has raced – or survived, as he says – 10 Red Hook events, in Brooklyn, Barcelona, and London. And he’s been doing underground races, and other brakeless, track bike crits for years. Both he and Hemesath have previously raced in the Wolfpack Hustle series in California, among others.
There are almost always gnarly crashes at Red Hook. Five minutes on YouTube shows you what you’re getting yourself into. And that’s part of the appeal for many, the risk and reward of high stakes racing.
By Piercefield’s estimate, racing Red Hook is one part power, and two parts technical skill, with a dash of “kamikaze mentality...where you’re shutting off your brain to do this race and not thinking about going to work the next day.”
“I know how to get around crashes, and I’m always thinking ahead,” Piercefield said. “I use the crowd. Whenever I hear the crowd go ‘yay’ and then go ‘ohhhh,’ I know I need to start looking for holes because there’s a crash ahead of me.”
That’s exactly what he did on Saturday night. The field was splitting ahead of him to avoid the moto. He saw it and immediately found a hole. But there would be no hole.
“I jumped in that hole to the right, not even slowing down, because that’s just Red Hook,” added Piercefield, who said he was going about 25mph. “As soon as I switched lines, it was instant, boom.”
Though rider safety is always a concern, especially at a narrow course like Red Hook, both Hemesath and Piercefield carry a healthy perspective on the crash and the race as a whole.
“It’s a little bit of mixed emotions,” Hemesath said. “But being in it, it doesn’t seem that remarkable, it just happens.”
“It’s what you sign up for in Red Hook,” Piercefield added. “I was disappointed in what happened immediately, but I wasn’t angry. I think a lot of people were in the same boat, where they’re trying to collect themselves and make sure they’re alright more than anything.”
This particular crash may have gained more attention because it was caused by a race moto. And it comes on the heels of several incidences in recent UCI pro races where race motos and media cars have caused crashes in the peloton. On Saturday night in Brooklyn, it wasn’t a VIP car or a race moto carrying a photographer, it was the lead moto, which is there as a safety measure.
“It prevents all the drunk people from getting on the course, it’s making sure the course isn’t disrupted, pulling lapped riders, and showing the lead pack what lap they’re on,” Piercefield explained, referring to the small LED screen on back of the moto. “So it’s a huge convenience to have that moto out there, and makes a world of difference, especially when you’re racing aggressively off the front.”
“When it’s only one moto, and it’s the ref, that’s not excessive,” added Hemesath, who also noted that this crash likely drew more attention because it was being livestreamed.
Both riders are hungry to get back on the bike and race again.
For Hemesath, he qualified for the final but the crash robbed him of a chance to compete. So the next day he was already thinking about coming back. “Yeah, I’d like to give it another shot,” he said.
Piercefield is unsure if he’ll continue racing at Red Hook specifically, though he couldn’t help applaud the event.
“I’ve definitely had a blast with it over the years,” he said. “It’s an incredible race and the crowds are crazy. I’ve never done something that’s been so exhilarating in my life.”