I came to Barcelona pretty late in life and to the Red Hook Crit even later, purists would say too late perhaps but I was never very good at being puritanical.
This is my third attempt to absorb some Barcelona. The two previous go’s having thrown up not much more to see than dull grey brutalist concrete underpasses on a ring road with signposting only out confused by the flurry of full speed, short run entrance and exit lanes coming at you suddenly from the right every fifty metres like a sci-fi dogfight with battered Seat Ibizas.
Third try and I am here with both more of a purpose and an American. The premise; see how the now well known Red Hook Crit views through virgin eyes that have somehow missed every previous opportunity. The American; Julian from Giordana, here to support the Intelligentsia Racing crew over from the States with their orange skin suits and Pinarellos of one gear. Both of us on our way through to La Vuelta to catch up with our pro teams over toward Basque Country, we’ve decided to sanction a day here beforehand outside of the race calendar for some…racing.
We arrive early for the show but late for breakfast and sit with coffee on the beach at Barcelona’s eastern seafront just short of a redeveloped harbour area with it’s giant photo voltaic touch pad angled at the sun silently awaiting further instruction from the mothership. All manner of healthy beautiful Catalans speed walk, run, roller blade and cycle past. iPods, dogs, babies and phones bleep conversations in and out of a posh promenade, concrete sculpted and palm tree gentrified like a prime modernist riviera. Even from a cheap plastic chair on a beach this is a wealthy modern feeling city, clearly vibrant, healthy, young and fun but with a depth sharing and not shunning a heritage. A world player. Perfect then for a bicycle race elevating itself from humble beginnings to a ‘hold on, we could be on to something here’ aspirational level event. RHC is ten. Ten is a long time in cycling years and this race has ploughed on gaining a slow steady credence, ticking all the boxes of ‘build it and they will come’ marketing, attracting a demographic from the self labeled influencer to the switched on big brand. This is a race fit for a kingdom of generation ‘i’. An affluent transient class. Travel enabled, responsibility free, tattoo shod kids ready for a battle of filters and likes that actually leaves scars. There are parallels to be drawn with Easton Ellis and Palahniuk here I am sure, but for now, taking it literally as it unveils in front of my eyes, from the back of a beaten up van, I am drawn to thinking this has more in common with ‘Endless Summer’ than it does ‘Fight Club’.
I had imagined or perhaps feared this might be a bit too much like a Hoxton roadshow (Hoxton being London’s hipster district) of unfeasibly cool kids, beyond post modernity, beyond irony, playing a never ending hierarchy game of sock/ tattoo/ sneaker against each other. And while it is true, there is probably less than twenty square centimetres of plain un-inked flesh in this entire arena, what strikes quickly is the feeling of grass roots racing I have not really felt first hand since the really early days of MTB races in the UK, where your dad might pull up the family car and park next to a world champion sitting out of the back of a beaten up ex-post van with a Fat Chance leaned against it. An era before VIP areas when heroes were all the more heroic because they were simply accessible.
As if to re-iterate this feeling racers arrive throughout the morning. Normal everyday cars that tomorrow will drive to work or school or supermarket pull up at the gates amongst cyclists with holdalls over one shoulder slowly winding down the very machine they will race in a few hours.
Instagram faces start to congregate around a van allied to the Intelligentsia bunch and familiarity widens. Colin, Cesar, Kevin, Marius. A list names in this series, faces, wondering where to get a sandwich along with everyone else. A sense of awe and respect is clearly evident whenever you wander around a paddock with pro cyclists but here, it is allied to a tangible feeling of inclusion. It could be seen as aloofness but there’s just an honest belief that while you’ve got to respect these big guns out front there is a very real possibility you could actually find yourself on the podium and higher up the points table this time round. The Last Chance qualifying round for the final is an honest reality we’re told by a heavily tattooed voice from Nottingham, England, “Everyone can share in believing, Last Chance is the dream”.
I was surprised to find that the action begins really quite subtly as the day is built around repeated qualifying races that are both short enough to stay interesting but fast enough to remain intense. Not for the first time it reminds me of the Le Mans 24hr. This crit is about as far removed from a pro tour cycling race stage as GT racing is from F1, it’s less about not fucking anything up and more about who dares wins. And everyone dares and mostly they don’t win.
It’s a pleasant surprise to find the audience such a mixed bunch. Fixed mixed with families and passers by about sums it up. They’re all here to join in some gladiatorial chariot racing down on the seafront after dark. And everywhere there are scars. Scars from previous battles, some more fresh than others, all gruesome enough. Earned and displayed rights of passage to get to this stage. If you are clean you are lucky but it will come to you, everyone knows it. Looking at the racing close up, the odds simply state it.
Heats continue and the numbers ring side thin out and boil down to the core challengers. By contrast the crowds grow as the light fades and the Red Hook balloons illuminate the corse corner by corner, presumably predicting flood light crash spectacle ready with pre-light logo for fast shutters. It’s a picturesque scene for such an empty industrial surround. Good music intercuts with a slick narration of the unfolding action that rings out so All American in this warm September Catalan evening air it reminds me of the Pod Race commentaries from Tatooine – starkly out of place yet a perfect pitch. I recognise the voice countering the stateside slam and look over to see my friend Pablo comparing for the locals. They clearly know how to put on a good show and keep that energy going all day in spite of that being a long hard fast day. So fast you don’t really have time to get tired of the racing. I think it’s a sad fact that as much as the words racing and tired shouldn’t really ever cohabit a sentence, too many modern spectacles have become a little staid. Perhaps they haven’t changed as much as our attention spans have got shorter and therefore sport needs to evolve to catch up with news feeds and quick recipes and a less while-u-wait, more why wait? culture of immediate gratification. Perhaps the alleycat has come of age? Or indeed an age has finally come down to the alley.
Our allied heroes come in and go out, varying in states of motivation – frustration – dehydration. Rollers, stretches, coconut water all picked up in turn and left aside in favour of another heat or a quick post round interview. There’s little down time as strategy and planning brainstorm over not so good deep fried vegetables, frites and mayonnaise.
Cow bells grow in clang and skin suits line up under floodlights like a mismatched patchwork of bright colour and sponsor stretched over muscle and scar. The familiar ten second count down random-anytime-start kicks off for the final time and we clamber across to better vantage points for glimpses of our orange dabs in this palette of speed – blur – noise – atmosphere. It’s intense, the racing being full on from the off. It’s like five minutes of a YouTube collar bone accident compilation titled something like ‘I fought the floor and the floor won’.
Watching the Intelli-Gents take turns in leading and being led, it’s a surprise but perhaps not really that much of a surprise to not see our friends exit the final turn for the finish. In fact the next time I see Marius it is an hour after the race, he is shirtless and wearing a sling, a doped up to the eyeballs glaze and a reticent smile. Too spaced to be gutted, but gutted for sure.
Podium – Pack up – Party…seems to be the post ten o clock holy trinity. I walk lazily back to the hotel along with the night shift of fitness folk and ponder tonight’s scar tally. One contender stands just ahead of me by the kerb, beer in hand while a desensitized loved one puts bikes on a roof rack. His t-shirt heavily bloodstained, a formerly white headband holding together a very cool haircut against all odds. I am reminded of the famous image of England footballer Terry Butcher in a similar bloodied state that seemed to sum up a plucky and hopeful but ultimately flawed national footballing intention going back generations. I catch his eye and a glint of pride in what has happened, what could have been, what is. His battle scars, impossible to hide from, unlikely to stop him, seem to sum up the last twelve hours for me as an observer to this clearly addictive after school fight pantomime.
During the night I am woken by sound one of the Specialized boys next door coming home from the party, partied out. Complete with bike clonking thin hotel walls and audible groans from fresh ritualistic injuries wrapped in bandages that in three weeks he will unveil to a new tribe in another country with a fresh colour of cowbell.
©Augustus Farmer 2018