When you say 'race bikes', most people would instantly think of the Tour de France or a madman throwing themselves down some DH mountain trail, somehow with a bike attached. However, there's one discipline out there that is only just seeing the light of day. Ever heard of a fixed gear criterium? Sounds silly, I know. It’s a discipline that has been around forever yet not many people have raced, watched or even heard of it. It's a simple concept: a criterium or crit, a race consisting of laps on a small closed circuit, known as the fastest and most intense form of bike racing on tarmac, except it’s raced on a fixed gear bike, yep – no brakes! In the last five to 10 years, the fixed gear community has been stepping out of the shadows to share the love for fixed gear crit racing and we are all here for it.
So, now you’ve got a gauge on fixed crits, let me put a spin on it…
Canyon’s Rad Race Last Wo/Man standing is Europe's biggest fixed gear event. It has been around a while (running its ninth edition this year), yet has only recently been put on the worldwide map, with riders travelling from across continents to race. Held on a small go-kart track in central Berlin, riders fight each other and the elimination bell every two laps, with the last rider pulled out to get down to the remaining four who progress to the next heat – until, eventually, there is only a 'Last Woman or Man Standing'. With the heats starting at 7:30pm and continuing through the night, it’s well known for its tight racing, loud crowds, good tunes and being one of the coolest events in Europe.
This year I entered this event which took place in March. Having watched teammate/manager Alec Briggs from Tekkerz dominate the fixie scene for years now and with his plans to return to take his third win in a row, I felt like Tekkerz needed a female representative racing. I entered on a whim: a cyclocross racer, without a fixed gear bike and never having raced a fixed gear crit before. I remember seeing the Rad Race hype last year and thinking ‘damn, one day it would be sick to race that’; never did I think that only a year later, I'd be lining up against some of the biggest fixed gear hitters in the world as a complete newbie…
My history with fixed gear is minimal. I grew up racing local youth track omniums (an event that comprises four different cycling events in one medal) but I gave that up aged 12 when I found the off-road scene. Since then, the only fixed gear riding I've done is round town on my fixed town cruiser. I am primarily a cyclocross racer, racing nationally and internationally between the months of September and January, usually around a cold, muddy field. Now 21 years old, having raced nine CX seasons consecutively, I’ve learnt a lot about the sport. For those CX newcomers here's four reasons why you should try cyclocross this winter. Over the years, I’ve gradually moved my way up through the ranks of the British scene, as well as racing my fair share of events on the continent, against some of cyclocross’s biggest hitters.
A major part of being able to race cyclocross well, is having a good skill set. You need to be confident in your own abilities, whilst also trusting your bike/tires – check out our five essential cyclocross skills you need to know. I rely heavily on my skills during any race; I know my strengths and utilize them to my advantage. The physical side of the racing is a given – you need to be aerobically and anaerobically sound to be able to compete with the big hitters, but predominantly, you must be smooth with your on/off bike transitions or riding a corner fast when the conditions are greasy. The same goes for Rad Race – having incredible bike handling as well as speed and fitness are the keys to success.
Having only collected my bike on the same day of the race, practice time was minimal. With so many other riders also wanting to practice the lap of the go-kart track, I had to learn the fixie skill set and race techniques under pressure, with only a half day to do it. Not your ideal race prep! After a few laps following Alec’s wheel – being shown the racing lines – confidence and speed were building. I even began to implement the ‘fixie skid’, a technique I saw others doing, which involved locking up the rear wheel by back pedaling hard, causing the rear wheel to skid. Not quite the classic MTBer’s skid many perform whilst hurling down a gnarly trail but it did mean that you could take a much faster entry into a corner because when you locked the rear wheel, as long as you could control the skid, it acted like a strong brake. A technique that takes years to master!
My expectations for my races were low – I only really wanted to qualify through the first heat, almost to simply make my time and efforts worthwhile being there. I genuinely had no idea how I would fare against the other girls or if my cyclocross skills would transfer when riding a fixie; although two very different disciplines, both require very similar skill sets. I knew my fast cyclocross start would come in useful and by using Shimano’s off-road SPD XTR pedals I gave myself the best chance of a quick getaway off the line, due to their double-sided nature.
To cut a long story short… I won my first heat. Not only did I win, but I completely obliterated the field of riders. A shock to me and everyone else. Who was this new female Tekkerz rider that no one had heard of? Adrenaline was high, a similar sensation to surviving a high-speed downhill trail. The races were sketchy and I had massively underestimated how physically intense the racing would be on the legs. Automatic qualification into the next heat had me popping caffeine gels (yes, an 11pm caffeine hit!) and reviving the legs, ready to go full gas for the next 10 mins of racing.
Another fast CX start and some cleverly played tactics meant I took another win in the second heat, against two of the fastest girls in the game. A strength of mine was in my ability to block riders from dive bombing the inside line around corners, something I've picked up from various cyclocross races in Belgium, where being able to hold your own could mean finishing in a worthy position or crashing out! Thus I could quite comfortably lead a race from the front without anyone getting past – ‘stick the elbows out’ as they like to say in cyclocross.
In terms of bike setup, I was riding a Canyon V-Rad frame designed for the team at Canyon RadPack, with a custom Star Wars themed paint job – the N-1 Starfighter. I was riding a brand new Continental grand prix 5000 25in tire on the rear but on the front a 23in tire due to the small forks. With an unusually short 165mm Miche crankset, pedaling round the corners was less risky. I rode with a gear ratio of 50 on the front ring and 20 on the rear. It was a fairly hard gear compared to other riders and required more power to pedal out of each corner.
Tire pressures were a key factor to set up, where the ideal tire width would’ve been 28in (I was riding 25/23in); it was necessary that I rode lower pressures than usual. Setting my tires to 30 PSI was a risk worth taking to allow that extra grip and I figured I was used to my tires rolling underneath me. In cyclocross, it’s common to use electric pressure gauges like the Topeak Smart Gauge, to ensure we ride with the correct pressures – rolling on anything between 11-28 PSI, course and condition depending.
All eyes were on me for the final – the only rider to have won both their previous heats, the rogue cyclocross racer and the unknown Brit, yet fast becoming known, teammate to Alec Briggs from Tekkerz (who was dominating the men's races). The lights were dimmed, smoke machines on and the crowd silenced. “KICK IT!”.
A missed pedal meant I hit the first corner in second wheel. A few laps getting into the rhythm of the corners and then I surged to make a risky undertake on a right-hand U-bend. If executed perfectly it could’ve played out to be the winning move but it quickly became the losing manoeuvre. As four of us came into the corner side-by-side, my front tire folded and slipped under the force being put through it. I managed to hold the bike upright and save myself, but by the time I kicked out of the corner I had dropped back to fourth (see the video footage below). After this mishap, I lost my flow and confidence through the corners, the fatigue in my legs becoming intolerable, and slowly I fell off the back of the front three riders. Six laps to go I got eliminated, finishing fourth woman standing.
No one ever wants to finish fourth but quite frankly I was stoked! Of course, heading into the final my winning mentality took over. I wanted to win and I knew I could if everything went smoothly. Yet despite this, coming fourth at Rad Race was so unexpected, that I am genuinely very, very happy with that result!
So what have I learnt from my first Rad Race, fixed gear crit?
You have to trust your own bike handling skills, bike setup is just as important as it is in any other discipline, and most importantly don’t take it too seriously! This isn't the world championships, this is a race where you rock up to the start line feeling stoked, not stressed. As an off-road cyclocross rider racing on tarmac, I instinctively felt out of my depth but you’d be surprised how similar the two disciplines are. Both provide strong ‘party-vibes’ alongside a serious race atmosphere, and both require a strong skill set. I'd recommend any off-roadie throwing in an entry for next year's event – you won’t regret it!
Find out more at www.rad-race.com.