Get an unprecedented behind the scenes look at one of the most exciting races on two wheels through the eyes of the 2016 Red Hook Crit Champion. Ash Duban walks us through her trip to London and the days leading up to the race from the Champion's perspective.

Wednesday July 19th – 18:30 I sketched a crude stick figure on a post-it note to make my seatmate laugh--we were playing pictionary on the 9½ hour British Airways flight from Austin to Heathrow for the third edition of the London Red Hook Crit. Having a direct flight after a full day of work at frog design was a godsend, as was playing games with my new friend to pass the time. I always bring a pen and a stack of blank cards with me when I travel-- I love meeting strangers and pictionary is a great way to break the ice and get to know someone. After the games I managed to sleep for a few hours during the flight and awoke touching down in London.

Thursday Morning, July 20th – 9:30 Thanks to the 6 hour time difference, we arrived at Heathrow at 9:30 in the morning. My friends Sammi and Tristan from Austin caught the same flight, so we collected our bags and crammed our 3 bikes, wheel sets, and bodies into a cab for the hour long journey to our place in Greenwich. Luckily I was able to find an apartment less than 1km from the course. Proximity to the race is crucial considering the overcrowded schedule for the women’s race: It comprises practice, qualifying heats, super pole, and the main event. Having the luxury of a place to rest and refuel between events is a huge competitive advantage. After a quick nap at our convenient spot, we went grocery shopping, and I prepared dinner for my friends.

Friday July 21st - Open Track Day - The Crit organized an open track day at Herne Hill Velodrome, one of the oldest cycling tracks in the world. Herne Hill opened in 1891 and was host to the cycling events in the 1948 Summer Olympics. After a long cab ride winding through the suburbs of South London, the driver pulls over to a nondescript neighborhood street and says “We’re here.” I looked all around but saw no sign of a velodrome. “Are you sure you got the correct address?” My German photographer friend Bjoern, a stocky and chatty man carrying some 40 pounds of camera gear, pulled out his phone to show that Google showed a velodrome nearby. We followed a camouflaged driveway, hidden between trees and houses, unsure if we were going the right way as Google insisted. After a 100 meter walk down a shaded and crumbling driveway, we came to a faded hand-painted concrete wall that read “Herne Hill Velodrome.” We walked along the wall which soon revealed a gigantic 450m smooth concrete track, like a secret garden for cyclists. I have to admit, pangs of envy stabbed me, I wish I could stumble upon a place like this in Austin…

Saturday July 22nd - Race Day 10:00 - I woke to grey tumultuous clouds and a suspect weather forecast and made coffee while Bjoern left to scout the course and begin shooting.

11:45 - Open track began at noon, so I suited up, put on my rain jacket and made my way to the course. A mixed group of men and women were lined up, eager to get a few laps in before the clouds broke open and slicked the track with rain. The course was almost the same as last year, 950 meters, 8 turns, a fast and technical course, but with one major change: We would be racing in the opposite direction. This change was necessary after the accidents at the 2016 RHC London, which I knew from grim first hand experience. In last year’s London qualifier I took a hard turn too fast and slid out into the barriers. My chest hit my bars and I flipped forward, landing on the ground and gasping for air like I was suddenly on Mars. As I laid there, Ashley Faye stroked head while I told myself “This is what it feels like to break your ribs. My race is over and I didn’t even get to start.” A few minutes later the pain subsided and I could take deeper though still ragged breaths. I’d only knocked the wind out of myself, which despite the setback, I counted as lucky. This year however, the change of direction made this technical part of the course a lot easier for me thanks to a slight uphill before the turn that takes away some of the speed. Less than 10 minutes into the session the rain started, cutting my warm up short. I went home to rest before the qualifiers.

14:30 - Back the course for Qualifying Heats, I hopped on the rollers and began warming up for my qualifying heat. I was in Heat 2 (of 2) which included Dani King (Olympic gold medalist, 3x World Champion, and 2016 RHC London winner), Colleen Gulick (Elite track cyclist, multi-time US National Champion, 2017 RHC Brooklyn winner) and many other top contenders. The rain was constant still, which did nothing to cool the palpable tension and anxiety of the 30+ women waiting to race. The whistle blew. The air was immediately cold and within seconds the tire spray had soaked my clothes and I could taste the dirty water seeping into my mouth. Nearby construction caused deep brown puddles to form in multiple places along the course. The qualifiers were fast but the field stayed together as no rider wanted to put in a big effort before the final. I was confident I would make it to the Super Pole, a 1 lap individual time trial where the top 10 riders from each heat compete for the pole position. Especially after last year, I was not keen on taking any unnecessary risks. After nearly thirty minutes of riding through a mist of mud, my teeth crunching the grit of the airborne sand and dirt, I crossed the finish in 5th to advance to the Super Pole. The weather however, refused to cooperate, and the Super Pole was cancelled, which was fine by me. The schedule of RHC London put an extra strain on the women competitors whose qualifying heats were last, despite having the first Super Pole and main race. Cancelling the Super Pole gave us a respite to refuel and put on dry clothes before the main race.

19:00 - The Main Race / 28 laps - I stood at the starting line, shivering and hugging myself as the rain poured down and wind quickened. Surrounded by dozens of photographers, frantically snapping the 62 women before the start. I looked at the ground – starting position number 13. “I wish they had spray painted this upside down” I said to myself. In races, it’s a tradition for rider number 13 to pin their number upside down in a superstitious attempt to reverse the bad luck. The photographers were called to clear the course and riders were forced to take off our rain jackets as we received the one minute warning. “30 seconds!” Race organizer David Trimble yelled over the loudspeakers. Then a long pause. 10, 9, 8...the crowd began screaming and banging on the barrier boards...3,2,1...GO! We took off. I stayed close to the front, wanting to move up positions so I could respond if any split happened. I was leery of repeating last year where I was too far back when the move went and ended up burning more matches than I wanted as I bridged solo up to the break. A few laps in I was coming out of turn two and felt someone hit my rear wheel from behind, hard. I was pushed toward the outside barriers and a split second later I heard the sound of carbon and metal crashing and sliding to the ground. Lucky number 13, I managed to stay upright and avoid both the barriers and the sprawled mass of bodies. The pace picked up as the crash had split the field in half. We started to string out in single file as the tempo increased even more. Just a moment later we rounded the final corner. Course marshals were waving yellow caution flags because of the accident. I expected the race to be stopped thinking there was no way that the number of fallen riders could be cleared from the course so quickly. As we approached turn two I saw a few people still laying on the ground to the outside, medics hovering with yellow flags waving. But we kept on. Dani King attempted to break away from the field but with all eyes on her she wasn’t able to escape the other contenders. A few made attacks, but without a strong team presence and no one wanting to waste energy, they didn’t amount to anything. I kept wishing the race would break up and a small group would get away, but that never happened. The laps ticked away and I started to relax. I was patient for most of the race, only putting in a few attacks. I wanted to see what it felt like to be on the front taking those slippery corners however I liked, not slowing down because of riders ahead of me. The feeling of leaning into a corner at high speed leading the pack is intoxicating to say the least, the ambrosia of adrenaline I suppose. I stood up out of the saddle and pushed hard going into the starting line, gaining speed. The entire road was mine as I flew through the first two turns, the crowd cheering and banging on the barricades. I looked back to see Dani King on my wheel, but I had opened a small gap. I stayed on the front for two laps hoping someone else would take the initiative. No one did, so I drifted back into the pack to recover. With three laps to go I thought to myself “move up, move up.” At the top of the course after turn 5 I started making my way back to the front. Splashing through the now familiar brown puddles, I hit a dip in the road. A slight bump really, one I had hit the last 25 times, but this time it was different. I heard a dull smack and the impact was noticeably harsher. I sat back on my saddle and felt the soft bouncing of my rear wheel as I rode over the uneven pavement. I looked behind me to see my rear tire had visibly lost air. A lot of air. I immediately backed off the pedals and drifted to the outside of the pack. I wasn’t going to be able to stay with the leaders but I was going to finish the race goddamnit, whether I had to grind my carbon rims down or carry my bike across the finish line. I wasn’t going to risk causing a crash or ending up on the pavement myself, so I fell behind the peloton and continued at my own pace the final two laps with less than 2k to go. “I can do this, I will do this,” I repeated to myself. My tire was still losing pressure, I could feel every detail of the road like I was running my fingertips over it. Thankfully, being my rear wheel I was able to do this. If it was my front wheel I would not have had enough control to ride through the wet corners and been forced to dismount. I maintained my speed enough to not get lapped, and the cheering fans bolstered my dimmed spirits. As I rounded the final turn I saw the yellow flags once again. There had been another crash in the final sprint and I saw Carla and another racer sprawled out on the pavement, mercifully, they were both fine albeit bruised up. I crossed the finish line, placing 17th of 62 women, still in the points and with all my skin intact. I’m still not sure if 13 was lucky or unlucky for me, but I was proud to finish under the circumstances. I’m antsy to return to the races in Barcelona and Milan and prove I belong there on the podium, hopefully without any luck, good or bad.

Photo Credit: BJØRN LEXIUS