Red Hook Crit Interview: Christine Leppanen
Interview by Kelly Neuner
Photo by Kenji Edmonds
Fixed gear racing for women is exploding across the country, and Red Hook Crit tests the speed, skill, and endurance of the top racers in the world. While the men’s feature race is filled primarily with riders from corporate teams, the women’s race showcases a true range of experience and backgrounds that embodies the spirit of Red Hook Crit’s beginnings.
While more attention is paid to the women’s field, coverage is often limited to the frontrunners. We’re taking a deeper look into the women’s field to highlight the experiences of different racers - including up-and-coming and first-time racers - through a series of interviews.
Christine Leppanen is a track, crit, and cyclocross racer from New York who now lives in Chicago, IL and races for the women’s-focused shop BFF Bikes. While she’s watched Red Hook Crit for years, she signed up for the first time for the tenth anniversary in Brooklyn. Read more about how she went from a winter fixed-gear commuter to leading the community at her local velodrome and crits.
How long have you been racing?
For six or seven years, but seriously for about five years now.
Is track racing your main discipline?
Cyclocross is actually my jam, but track racing is right behind it because it's fun. I race up at the Northbrook Velodrome.
How long have you been racing fixed gear?
I've been racing fixed for three years now. I did a track clinic at here [in New York] at Kissena before I moved about five years ago. I was like, "This is awesome," but it was far from where I was living in Park Slope at the time. The Northbrook track in Chicago is pretty easy to get to. It's similar to Kissena with the open asphalt everything - but we have a soccer field in the middle.
Is this your first Red Hook? What inspired you to sign up?
It is, yes. I remember when Red Hook started, I was like, "THAT'S COOL, like, cobblestones!" I have huge admiration for classics races in general, but I was also kind of scared and I'd just started riding a fixed gear bike for commuting so I obviously wasn't going to do that.
Then I worked at Eastern Mountain Sports when they were the first corporate sponsor Red Hook had. I always said I wanted to do it and never quite pulled it together, so this year I was just like, "We're committing, we're going." And it was the ten-year anniversary too, so it kinda seemed like big enough - but small enough - to just do it.
Is this your first fixed gear crit?
No, we have the Intelligentsia Series out in the Midwest. I did the last two races of that for the last two years. We pushed really hard two years ago to get a separate women's field for the Chicago fixed gear crit, so I'm like we've got to keep it going. We're trying to get everyone there, like, "You're on a fixed gear bike? Come on, we're going!"
That's so much a part of it too, telling everybody you know and convincing everyone to get out there.
Right, it's like, "This is fun! It's not dangerous! (It's dangerous.) But it's not that dangerous!" Most fixed gear crits don't have any like crazy hills, they have crazy turns but you're okay, you got this. You'll be fine.
What inspired you to start riding or racing fixed in the first place?
A couple of years ago, it snowed a lot in New York and I got really tired of not being able to ride my bike to work - it was before I got into mountain biking and realized snow isn't scary. My old manager at EMS said if you rode fixed in the ice it's fine, and that's how I started riding a fixed gear bike. It felt horribly dangerous and even worse, but I was committed at that point. I think the logic was if you're on ice and you start slipping, you'll feel it faster and be able to catch it, because if your wheel slips out, your legs are going to go with it.
The correlation between the wheel moving and the pedals was nice. You pedal, and you go! And then when you slow down, you slow down. So I rode fixed through the city for years. I loved it. Then I was like, "I want to ride on the track! I love it! I wish Kissena was closer...so I'm just going to move to a new city where the track is easier to get to."
You get into it, figure it out more, take advice from anyone who will give it, and talk to other people. It's a community, and if you can get into the community, you get sucked in. You follow this person on Instagram and you're like, "Oh, you're a real person in real life!" It's nice to be part of a group.
Right, I've met so many people through racing.
It's a great way to make friends, like, "Let's go ride bikes together!"
What have been your biggest challenges, for this race or as a racer?
For this race, my biggest challenge has just been training in the winter for a fixed gear crit in April - got to shake off my legs, get it together. Working on cornering and all that at high speeds when you're like, "No one wants to ride with me on a fixed gear bike!" And they're like, "I'm going to crash, don't want to do that." So doing that kind of training has just been difficult.
Honestly the hardest thing is finding that motivation. It gets seriously cold in Chicago.
Is there a big fixed gear women's racing community in Chicago?
It's growing, and we're definitely working. Lauren Conroy, who races for Comrade Cycles, she and I have been really trying to grow the field, get people involved, and get them over the "it's dangerous" hump. Just come to the track first and see it's not, then just do it! It's fun! You got this.
Is there anything coming to this race that surprised you?
Not really, I know that there's a big community and it's really supportive. I obviously have done my homework about the race (laughs), watched it a bunch of times on the trainer. Yeah so nothing really surprised me. I was really excited about the level of support - people I don't know are like, "Go BFF Bikes!" and like, "I don't know you. Thanks dude!"
I'm always amazed at how friendly the whole women's field is, talking to someone super fast. You're going to lap me, and you're telling me you like my shoes. So not so much surprised, I always appreciate just how great the women's field is. We love each other.
What advice would you have for women who haven't tried fixed gear racing or want to try this race?
Do it. Just commit. It's scary, but at the same time, it's a lot of fun. Everyone's really supportive, so the worst thing that can happen is you get pulled. And I'm gonna get pulled and it's going to be fun anyway!
You just have to enjoy it and do it at your own pace at you'll eventually get more comfortable. Just do it! You'll like it...or you won't. (laughs)
What other forms of racing do you do?
I do cyclocross, I said I was going to do more crit racing this year, and I really enjoy mountain biking - don't like mountain bike racing as much. I'll race anything, like, "Oh, we're racing guinea pigs? Let's go." We have a retired [racing] greyhound too, so yep, everybody in the family raced! Track and cross are my first two, with fixed crits right behind that.
Anything else you'd like to add?
Bikes are awesome!