A (No) Crash-Course in Fixed Crits: Racing Fyxation Open
By Kelly Neuner
I rolled around the parking lot of a suburban Chicago bank, whirling figure-eights around potholes and twigs, testing the speed and degree of lean I could get away with without my wheels losing grip. A local men’s team posed for a photo shoot against the brick wall beside me, but nerves narrowed my focus to serpentining around the lot.
After seeing my teammates race Brooklyn’s Red Hook Crit in April from the sidelines, I set my sights on recovering from hip surgery and coming back strong enough to race Red Hook Barcelona in September. But before flying overseas, I needed to test the waters of fixed gear crits by racing the Fyxation Open at Chicago’s Intelligentsia Cup: two days of racing to see if I was cut out for this form of racing. As a form of racing fraught with crashes, I couldn't be sure I'd come out unscathed and without a season-ended injury.
Through the track racing community in the Midwest, I secured a place to stay and even a ride to the first race, located in the suburbs an hour away. My host primed me on the first day’s course through Lake Bluff: narrow, through winding streets, and a slight uphill to the finish that would feel brutal without a lower gear to shift into.
Two other racers - Chelsea, a fellow New Yorker, and Ais from California - invited me to warm up with them and we wove our way through muggy, sleepy suburban streets from the parking lot. As we got back to the start/finish line, I hurriedly threw down another Shot Block as we were called to the line. Standing next to sponsored riders and women who looked infinitely more experienced, every potential nightmare scenario ran through my head: getting pushed out into a curb and crashing, bumping another rider hard enough to crash, my hip tearing again, my knee pain acting up, getting lapped by the field…
The whistle blew and I swiftly clipped into my pedal, thankful to get it on the first try. I secured a place at the rear, planning to watch the lines more experienced racers took. On the first two laps, gaps opened up along the more technical course. I leaped ahead of one rider, then another.
The lead pack surged ahead as we crossed the line for the third lap. After drafting off another rider, I pulled ahead, nodded my head towards the pack and breathily said, “Let’s catch them!” I picked up the pace and looked back…but the rider wasn’t there. I’d have to bridge the gap alone.
Winding through the course solo, I tried releasing my arms from the death grip fueled by my nerves. Immediately, loosening my stiff elbows made coming around each turn more smoothly. Children and parents runga cowbells and cheered, and I looked enviously at their cold waters and beers. Coming around the turn to the hill, I could see the pack ahead with what seemed to be a thirty-second lead. I wound my legs up faster, knowing that riding the course alone for however many laps we had left would drain my energy.
I heard the announcer mention my name, “Kelly Neuner from Brooklyn….” but had no idea what he was saying. Pushing at my effort threshold in the heat made my head swim and another potential disastrous scenario I hadn’t considered entered my head: passing out going around a turn. My bike computer was secured under my saddle - which is required for racing on the velodrome - so I had no idea how high my heart rate was running and I’d have to push past the feeling. Everything in my body wanted me to quit: my left hip, still weaker from surgery, ached, and my lower back muscles screamed for relief as I pushed up the hill. Five laps to go, according to the counter. I couldn’t possibly make it that much further.
As I came to the top of the hill, I heard the banging of boards and my name being called. Our local track’s “away team” - including the local men’s team - was cheering me on. For a moment, the suffering subsided.
While I couldn’t see the lead pack in the straightaway anymore, I still needed to finish. I continued to push but dropped my pace to a tough but manageable level, plugging away as the spectators continued to cheer me on. Passing the finish line with a lap to go, I heard the announcer calling out the action behind me as the leaders sprinted for the finish. I wouldn’t be lapped today and finished out the race in seventh place, smiling as I heard Chelsea's name called first.
Day 2: Chicago Crit
I woke up expecting my legs to be completely worn out, anticipating the need to forfeit my entry fee and rest. Surprisingly, my knee and legs felt surprisingly fresh as I slowly pedaled to get breakfast and coffee. Today I’d be better prepared: bringing a greater assortment of Shot Blocks (Margarita flavor for extra sodium in the heat and caffeinated ones for a boost of energy) plus something I’d learned from watching the women’s Pro road race. I’d always wondered what the long pocket at the back of our skin suit’s neck was for - it was too small to fit sunglasses, but was the perfect size to slip a sock full of ice to cool down in the 90+ degree heat.
We headed over to the course, located outside of Goose Island Brewery. Today’s loop would be much simpler, lacking the uphills and narrow turns, but still providing the same struggle. We lugged our bikes and equipment over to a shady spot on the sidewalk near friends. I started my strategic consumption of Shot Blocks and rolled out to find a place to warm up, spinning around another small parking lot at increasing speeds as the road racers sped by along the course. I headed back to our spot and as the announcer called the course open for a lap before our race, put together my sock of ice to keep cool.
I rolled around the course, scoping out cracks, potholes, and bumps than could potentially cause problems. Coming around to the start line, I selected a position towards the center of the pack rather than the outside like yesterday. Racers around me chatted casually, but yesterday’s potential catastrophic scenarios -- adding the possibility of passing out in the heat -- spun around my head.
Three, two, one, go. We took off and clipped in and while my first instinct was to settle further back, where I thought I “belonged” as a second-time crit racer, I settled into sixth. As the back of the pack started to drop back, I surged ahead. Once we lost the leaders, it would all be over. I’d overheard the lead pack from yesterday discuss their strategy to rotate positions in 30-second pulls and settled into a relatively comfortable fifth.
We whipped around the course, and I experimented with taking bolder lines, following the leaders around. A few other riders jumped ahead but I fought for my position just behind the lead pack. I could feel how hard I was working but was surprised to be keeping with their pace - these were yesterday’s podium champions and Red Hook racers. How was I keeping up with them?
As we came around with four laps to go, the announcer called out a beer prime - the winner would be able to fill a growler with beer. With the finish line in sight for the prime lap, I made the decision to go for it...but advancing just two positions, I didn’t have the legs to finish the sprint and settled back in, making a note that this was something I’d have to work on for training. “See, you’re supposed to be here!” Chelsea said encouragingly as we passed side-by-side across the line.
Three laps to go. The pace picked up, with the leaders making moves as we sped around for two more laps. Would this be the moment I slipped back into last place? I’d held my mid-pack position for 25 minutes, which buoyed my confidence. As the bell rang for the last lap, I dug in and held fifth place. Coming around to the final straightaway, the leaders took off. I expected to be dropped fast, but I saw my chance - could I take fourth? I picked up the pace, pulling alongside the fourth-place rider.
As I started to pass her, I could feel her sense of surprise as she pushed to match my sprint. We battled it out for the finish, and I could hear the cheers of friends from New York and Chicago around me as we crossed the line. I missed fourth place by just a half a wheel, but it didn’t feel like a loss. When I signed up, I expected to finish in the bottom of each race, to be dropped and barely hold on. Today, I’d surpassed my expectations and ended up in the money for my biggest race yet.
View the full series of photos at Fyxation's website.