There are a few players on the fixed crit scene that stand apart from the crowd. Trailblazers, trendsetters, old school dudes that inspired new ideas on fixed gear bikes and paved the way for the fixed crits of our time. One inescapable individual in the community is the indelible Alfred Bobé Jr. Born in the Bronx, spending his formative years in Puerto Rico, then returning to Monster Island, Bobé came all the way up in New York City to dominate the asphalt as an unstoppable bike messenger, revered alleycat organizer, and of course veteran Red Hook Critter. The Wednesday before Red Hook Crit Brooklyn 10, I met up with Alfred Bobé for a few pints to get down to the nitty gritty of the fixed gear scene of past and present, and his ideas of what the future might hold for our beloved sport.
Text: Julia Wittman (juliasets)
Photography: Tornanti.cc/Instagram Alfred Bobé
I must say, Bobé certainly has quite the presence, and no doubt a strong point of view… That is to say the guy doesn’t mince words.
I was honoured to have been able to talk shop with him as his knowledge and experience in this world is pretty much unparalleled.
JW: Hey Bobé, whats up?
AB: Not much, not much. Doing good. What’s going on?
JW: Oh you know, just preparing for the big day. I actually wanted to start by getting your thoughts on the new qualification system as it has been a quite polarizing subject this year. Can you explain a little about how that works, and how you feel about it?
AB: So with the old format, basically, you get a set amount of time to make your best lap, which made it more one of a one one lap race. You were trying to get the fastest qualifying time. Then, this sets you up for your position in the final, by order of arrival by fastest lap.
This time around there are going to be heats to try to get into the final, and every heat is going to be like a mini-race. So, regardless of what « group » you are in, you’re going to get a race.
Just based on that, I don’t I think that it’s necessarily going to be more dangerous, but things are going to go chaotic a little bit quicker than normal. It will also break the field apart in the sense that it will weed out the other riders that are not up to par, which is a really good thing. Then, in addition to that, you have the opportunity to get into the Superpole. With the Superpole you have choices… You can be one of the « crème de la crème » or the type of rider that just has the ability to get the job done without anyone’s assistance, and then you have other types of riders that are better handlers, like myself. So you can be either kind, but ultimately everyone has to try to be a pilot and just find a fast course and jump on a wheel to ideally finish in the top three.
Is that really necessary ? It would be nice, but no, it isn’t really necessary.
JW : I was almost thinking that with this new format some people could potentially trying to play a game.
AB: Not really, because the better you do on your qualifier, the higher up you’ll be placed. So say if you get 8th place on your heat, in the final you’re going to be lined up with all the 8th placers in your final all the way across. So even if you get 19th place in your heat, that pulls you all the way back in the row. Ideally, a good position to be in is going to be in the top 10… if you’re top 10 you should be safe. It’s really hard to come back from starting the race from all the way at the back. You just aren’t going to have enough time or space for that to happen. But the new format is going to be a lot more exciting for spectators mainly, because you’re going to get all these races as opposed to just the qualifiers which are actually kind of boring. I think that’s one of the main differences because now the spectators can come in early for the heats and get an actual show, which is kind of like the main event environment but on a smaller scale. So then if you stay into the night, you’re just going to get a whole day of great cycling.
JW : These heats are insane though. Heat number one forget it, heat number two is crazy… look at heat 5…
AB: Yeah I’m in heat 2. Yeah they are all stacked. They say that they’re random but they’re not random.
JW : I want to know the algorithm.
AB: Like what kind of randomness is this ?
JW: I mean look at these two guys (names withheld)… they’re good but they’re going to get roasted in this heat.
AB: That’s funny. No you’re right, I mean it’s a system designed to decapitate as many people as quickly as possible right away. If you’re not worthy you just aren’t going to make it… It increases the chances too. Like if I don’t get a good pole position for my qualifying heat now then it’s over. The problem that I’m having is starting from the back, that’s just not easy. Like my groups last year, sometimes you get stuck in a pack and they can only go so fast and you just can’t get out.
JW : Barcelona 2016 was my first Red Hook and even as a spectator I was really overwhelmed. I mean, I have been riding bikes all my life, and fixed gear exclusively since 2009 but when I started I almost feel like the « trend » of it was over. Like it had peaked and then some kids stayed on riding and really said « I want to go hard with this, I want to make this something more ».
AB: Yeah, I guess I would say that 2010 is where the « fashion » of it kind of hit a plateau, or more that it was when fixed riding really started to change.
JW : And it’s nuts because it’s this trend that started in the US but the European kids are just insane with it, and it’s spreading all over the world.
AB: Well, it’s really just turned into a completely new kind of racing. This is kind of the punk rock side of not only track racing but of the cycling industry all around. Because one thing that is really happening that people don’t really see is all these major heavyweight companies in the industries are now looking at this event like a cash cow, understanding that there is money to be made here, outside of the type of racing that it is, and lot more products are being sold. This type of event is fruitful for these companies. I mean some of our sponsorship levels are up there with riders from the Tour de France, if not better… and we don’t really have to do shit. But we do, because we are doing what we love.
JW : Well this is one thing that really fascinates me about all of this, is like once the sort of « fashion » surrounded the bike started to fade and the riders that took the sport seriously started to do their homework and to start buying components to customize their bikes specifically for them. They made themselves more efficient and stronger riders and the game really changed.
AB : Yeah, I think once the trend wore off that’s where the real cycling took over. I mean to go with the particular rider. Yeah, maybe they started because it was cool and it had nice colors, but then they were like « yeah actually this is really awesome. I want to upgrade my wheels. »
But the beauty of this craziness is that anyone and everyone is welcome, regardless of who you are. You can be an Olympic athlete, you can be someone who bought a bike yesterday or bought a bike the day of the race. It literally does not matter. I think that is the thing that a lot of people are missing, or that goes over their heads is this: where else could as an amateur cyclist would you be able to surround yourself with this caliber of athlete and be able to compete? For somebody like me, that has no formal training whatsoever, to be on the same playing field with some of these guys, and just a few seconds away, literally a second or two… that is a great feeling.
And some of these guys have worked all of their to thrive for that, go to the Olympics, get medals and they’ve worked really, really hard, and that is something to be admired. Yet, somehow, somewhere along the line they’re coming down to our level. Something really magical is happening here. Not only in the scene itself, but with regards to the actual caliber of the cyclists and cyclisme that is going down. It is really changing the face of how… well let me put it this way. I read something about the future of professional road racing, and I think… here it is right here. Could that be the case? Maybe. It very well could.
JW : What you’re saying is very reminiscent of what Paolo Bravini and I were talking about a few weeks ago… Just kind of how the fixed gear crit scene has become a sort of crossroads in the cycling world.
AB: Well, yeah… in a way it is, but I think that what you are trying to say is this : Historically speaking this is what happened. You had the road racers and then you had the street racers. The road racers obviously had huge engines, but then you put them on the crit circuit and they have no handling skills. This is where someone like me was able to come up to an even playing field, because whereas they had the engine, when they were coming into the turns, I had better handling skills. So what ended up happening is, and I’m not saying myself, but people like me taught these track racers how to handle, and they taught us about our engines. And that is basically what is happening today, right now. We actually have more between us than ever before because of this exchange. Like I said, it’s an entirely new breed of cycling.
JW : Fixed riders still get a kind of bad rep though.
AB : But that doesn’t matter, because that’s what it is. These track racers and us have had to reinvent ourselves. That’s the crossroads that you are talking about, a messenger like myself up against someone like Raivioli for example.
JW : But even someone like Eléonore Sariava… look at her! She caught on super quick to the handling skills.
AB: Yeah, exactly. So we’re learning from them, and they are learning from us. We’re all there. We’re all in it together. But there again, for me, it’s not just about winning, or how fast I am, or « Oh I got 13th place in a Red Hook », I mean that’s not huge. At the end of the day, the experience is worth far more than anything else. And you’d be a fool to think anything otherwise.
JW : Which is another amazing thing about all of this. There isn’t exactly that vicious spirit of competition that can exist in other sports, even other cycling disciplines. Even riders from competing teams want everyone to do their best so that they can have a fair competition. Even going as far as to lend materials to one another mid-race.
AB : Definitely, there is way more of a camaraderie going on, and I think that is what Red Hook has really created, like worldwide. We’re all equal. Sure, some of us have better abilities than others but we’re all really equal, so I think that’s really the glue that holds everything together at the end of the day, and makes it so chill. I mean it can be nerve wracking, and there is a lot of blood, but it’s still chill.
JW : Do you think that if it becomes an Olympic sport all of that will change ?
AB : It will never be an Olympic sport, because, what for ? It’s so perfect the way it is. The Olympics would just kill sport, we would all have to be licensed to race this event, it would be sanctioned by UCI and that is something that as Red Hook Critters we take a lot of pride in. And this is really funny that you’re asking me that because why would it become an Olympic sport when the Olympics are coming down to us ? There’s no need. Think about it. 10 years into it, 10 years after the start you have pro riders, ex pro riders, Olympians that have medals saying « hey, you know I’m going to do this ». Like Dani King look what she did last year in London.
JW : Yeah, well that definitely ruffled a lot of feathers…
AB : Yeah but why ? For what ? Yes she kicked everyone’s ass, but she didn’t lap everyone. She waited for Jasmin Dotti and Ash Duban, she has just as much right to do that as anyone else. And look… in the end it didn’t even matter. She only ran one race. But what it did do was, I think, separated the haters from the believers and the true lovers of the sport. I mean how can you hate someone for performing so amazingly.
JW : You can’t.
AB : Thats what this Red Hook Crit is. That’s the field. That’s like me crying to you today because I’m about to get my ass whooped this weekend by some Olympians, right ? I know I’m going to get my ass whooped but that’s all right. How am I going to cry and say « oh it’s not fair »? No, I WANT to get my ass whooped by an Olympian. Because what if I don’t get my ass whooped so badly, you know ? That’s where the pride of what this has turned into comes in. That being said, you mention some of these Olympians names around the world, like guys with medals and you ask people who they are and not many people know. Then you ask someone « Hey, who is Alfred Bobé? » and people will say « Ah yeah, thats this crazy motherfucker from New York. », you know what I mean ? That is the beauty of this event.
LETS TALK SHOP
JW : One of the teams that dominated last year and risks to do the same this year are the Specialized guys. I mean take Colin Strickland, who obviously made the jump with Pinarello and starting his own team Intelligentsia Racing… take him and the Rocket Espresso boys, Stephan Schafer, Aldo Ino Ilesic and Marius Petrache and their incredible athleticism out of the equation… The whole Specialized sponsorship, as great as it is has always puzzled me since historically they haven’t been that deeply invested in track frames.
AB : Well, I mean Specialized have made track frames for a long time. But it was a joke to them. That’s the thing… Specialized in this case is a clear example of what is happening in the cycling industry. At some point they realised that there was money to be made in this niche market, in crit racing so they jumped on board.
JW : I mean I grew up riding a Rockhopper you know ?
AB : Yeah and I had a Hardrock. But when they did the Langster it was just to feed the masses, there was a little bit of a market to the point where they didn’t even believe in the market when they started to make the bike. It wasn’t until they realized that Red Hook was killing it that they really went for a bigger investment in the scene.
JW : So this year you are on the Columbus Factory team, Columbus Steel. I haven’t seen those bikes.
AB : Exactly. My bike is actually a prototype. My signature model is coming out. It’s going to be limited edition.
JW : Are they gonna make it in my size ? In 47 cm ?
AB : Ah no, no they won’t make it in 47. I dunno, maybe they will.
JW : That’s why I had to buy the new Vigo, you know ? Finally a steel frame in my size, and Columbus Steel no less!
Sorry… hope that’s not a sore spot.
AB : No ! Not at all ! I loved being a part of that team, I started that team, I just had some creative differences and had to go a different direction this year. I mean I’m still Cinelli… Cinelli owns Columbus so, it’s all still in the family.
JW : I didn’t know that. When did that happen ?
AB : So that was 5 years ago right, kind of when this whole morph started happening in the fixed crit scene. I’m this street rider right, then Cinelli contracted me and Neil Bezdek, remember him? He has won a bunch or Red Hooks, he’s been a Red Jersey champion. So Cinelli originally had Neil and myself and it was just two guys from two different worlds. He came from the road I came from the streets. So this morph that happened about 5 years ago was going on at the same time, racing in Milano and the extension of the hype taking place and I was able to do maybe the third Milano race or something like that but then after that race we got a lot of attention because it was a Columbus Truck and there weren’t really any teams at that point only like MASH and a couple others. MASH is on point though, they’re doing things a little bit differently which is really cool.
JW : True, they started out straight fixed and now they’ve gone into road racing as well.
AB: Well all those guys have gone pro now. So anyways Bezdek and I were on the total opposite sides of the spectrum, we did that race, and then after that race in Milano, then I spent a week and a half in Milan and Antonio Colombo and I got to talking and we were just saying « next year we gotta make it bigger, we gotta make it better. I was working with them as kind of a creative assistant, and I just kept making connections with the Italians…
JW : Actually I’m just curious, what kind of background to you have aside from « official shredder » ?
AB : I have a background in industrial design. A lot of people think that I should have been a lawyer, so I’d like to think that I have a background in law, but I actually know nothing about it.
Anyway Antonio Columbo and I got to talking and we were like « Yeah, it went so well, this whole idea, let’s get some sponsors and create a team. » and we just went with it. Then they passed the artistic flag to Federico Stanzani, and I kind stood back as a rider. Niel was obviously into it as well and we were two riders, Federico ran with the flag and got us some sponsors, then Chrome jumped on board. And then we were Cinelli Chrome. They signed for a three year deal that was up last year, and I just did those three years, you know what I’m saying ? All the sponsors came through, Team Cinelli Chrome came into fruition, and then that was that. So one year was one thing, the second year was another, the third year it was done.
JW : So really that is to say that apart from the athleticism that comes from you, there is additionally this artistic element to this whole thing, which is natural in a way. The tie between the artistry of bike creation and the urban art element that comes from the street seems to naturally flow together.
AB : Exactly. And at this moment I really feel like what we’ve done and what we are doing has really had a lot to do with why the scene now is so flamboyant and awesome.
THE ART OF CYCLING
JW : So those Specialized bikes that were going on last year, what are your thoughts on those ? They were, let’s say, very interesting.
AB : But it’s really good that they did that though.
JW : For sure but as a fixed rider and an Art History Master…
AB : No, it’s really good that they did that because it only goes to show that, look what they did last year, what they are doing this year with Dylan Buffington just goes to show the reach of this thing. That there is actual art going on in this domain, obviously, and I think that is what he was going for with that.
JW : That « go fast ball » was really something.
AB : Yeah, but listen… they were producing what they thought people wanted, and then as is turns out, maybe it was the complete opposite. But look… it gave people a whole lot to talk about, it was good for the community, we all laughed. It was refreshing, and it properly crossed those boundaries that were never there but were always there.
JW : Well that’s the thing for me, last year was really daring with the Specialized bikes. What they did was incredible, and really a testament to the artistry behind the creation of bikes, but also to the people that ride them.
AB: Absolutely. It totally was. And it totally is this exchange as well with the art community. McKenzie Sampson, Jon Tako, Swiz, all these crazy talented designers… I mean, they did their thing last year, what can you really say?
I have to say however that I really do have a lot of respect for Dylan Buffington… he knows his shit. He did the Specialized frames this year and personally, I really like what he’s done, it’s really cool. I think he, with his artistic vision, accomplished what the guys were going for last year.
JW : There is still this heavy element of punk rooted in the fixed community, that even ties in things like street art and DIY. I think the fact that in this evolution now, the aspect of art being highlighted is fantastic. Making a bike is an art, but riding a bike is also an art. It’s really an organic combination.
AB : Totally. I mean again with the MASH guys… look at Evan Murphy, he just made this MASH bike look amazing. And that’s like the epiphany of what this should be. He had his MASH bike, but he added him to it. It’s fucking beautiful. He painted him itself and he did an amazing job. It’s fucking amazing. And he’ll be racing on that.
I like to think I have that ability as well, to put stuff together like that and express myself as an artist.
JW : So you have kids right ?
AB : Yeah I have three boys.
JW : Are you encouraging them to cycle ?
AB : My 14 year old, Sebastian, a.k.a “The Real Deal.” is already an amazing cyclist, the two little ones are as well. Sebastian races but then again, he’s also in high school so you know how that goes. I’m definitely not pushing them to compete, but cycling, especially as New Yorkies, well… it’s just our way of life. We have bikes, we ride to school. You’re running late to class you know…. Gotta get on that bike! Pedal fast! But it’s ultimately up to them whether they want to race or not. Honestly said though, they are all athletes. We got my middle guy, 8 years old, Kaden Maximo, who is really into baseball. He’s also a great cyclist, but he definitely take after me in the art department. Then there is the little one, my 6 year old, Lucien Merckx. This kid is an amazing skater. He’s got this incredible freakish balance….
JW : Do you find it hard to balance your work and family life ?
AB : Yes and no. I mean, this is my job you know? This is what I do for a living, so in a way it’s just like anything else. What is hard is being away from my kids for amount of weeks as, I travell a lot. It used to make me feel like I was doing something wrong, but in the end I figure, I am only bettering myself, and I am giving them a better future. But that also came with a whole different set of values. I caught heat for that from some people. I was told « This isn’t work, this is just riding a bike. You are having too much fun. » which was true in a way, but at the same time this is something that I have been building for years. People used to laugh at me, and I just though to myself « Alright, we’ll see what happens ».
To be where I am today you know, from riding in the streets, at that time, coming from the Caribbean to being a bike messenger at the age of 17, living in the South Bronx…
JW : Wait how old are you ?
AB : I’m 42.
JW : You don’t look it !
AB : Haha, thanks. It’s that bike ! That’s what does it. But look, I always had a vision. I grew up surfing in the Caribbean and I always wanted to be a pro surfer. That was around the same time that Kelly Slater and Tony Hawk, and all these athletes that were into extreme sports were figuring out how to make money. Even the BMX riders, and how they were marketing themselves with videos, adding surfing and skate clips into their videos. So I couldn’t surf anymore- My mom kicked me out and I ended up living here in New York with my dad. And I said to myself, you know what ? If I apply kind of the same format of the videos and some coolness on bikes and the whole thing, then maybe this thing can pop for me.
We were called generation X right ? So, Generation X, this is my X. This is my ax. This is how I’m going to approach this thing with the art and the videos and the whole guerrilla marketing. At the time it was just having fun, but it was also a movement. Not only a movement of what was cool, but also a movement as an athlete. We were just riding so fucking fast. I just thought, how crazy would it be if the world got to see what I’m doing here… It wasn’t like I had a blueprint or someone to look up to, I just had this vision. And based the vision and based on my style and aggression, I just created I guess this whole style of riding and this urban craziness that we’re seeing today. The fact that I was able to put that on video with people like Lucas Brunelle, and then Dan Leeb from Cinecycle. All these guys were pioneers in this kind of filmmaking. All of them gave offered to the masses something look at that they’d never seen before: something fucking crazy and new.
I mean people say that I’m a legend or whatever, but I’m not. I’m far from being a legend, I just had a vision and I was able to bring it to life. Maybe I’m lucky, maybe I’m just really motivated. I realized that I could just do this with my axe and I can just get it.
JW : I don’t think there is anything better in life than finding something you love and are passionate about and turning it into your career.
AB : Loving what you do and making it happen is one thing, but when you love something that is devalued and looked down upon by society, it’s 10 times harder to succeed, because you have all these people pounding on your head. It took a lot for me, classified as a total loser to believe, and then just punch through. So, fast-forward to today, 2017. Events like The Red Hook Crit fill me with so much pride because they are the stem cells of the crazy shit that I believed in. Like David Trimble would say, Monstertrack inspired me to do my race. And Monstertrack is something that I have dominated for the last ten years without a doubt. And I can still dominate that. That was the beginning of all this, and that’s really beautiful.
JW : So where do you see it going now ?
AB : Well like I was saying, I think that David Trimble is taking it in the right direction. He was able to find insurance, he was able to bottle it up in a way that he could sell it to the mainstream sponsors. Look 10 years right? David Trimble liked racing and what could be done on a track bike. It started as a spoof, a fucking birthday party. And it spoke for itself somewhere down the line because he was able to take inspiration from the Monstertrack event but then take the cars and the danger element out of it. Then he brought in a spectator element because when you do the street races, those guys are gone. You don’t see them. He was able to bottle it up and cage all these animals in one little pit, and give the people a hell of a show. Because of that it has grown and become what it is today. David was able to, step by step, kind of stumble onto the correct format for all this.
JW : He’s such a humble guy too, David.
AB : Totally, and that probably comes with ups and downs. What he is doing is not easy, it’s actually really hard. It’s a full time job. Red Hook Crits, all of the organization, the material, the insurance… all of that costs a LOT of money. It’s a huge responsibility and it’s a lot of logistics, but David is a really intellectual man, and he has the right support team around him, which is everything. He also has a great family, a great background. There’s like 6 or 7 Trimble kids. His dad got BUSY.
JW : The first time I even heard about the neighborhood was actually exactly 10 years ago. I came to Red Hook to visit my brother and to go to a noise music festival, The No Fun Fest. It was no-mans land. It was deserted.
AB : Well that’s why the Red Hook Crit started there, A. because David lived there, and B. because there aren’t any cars. No one drives around Red Hook. Just the local bus… that’s the only thing they had to look out for at the time.
JW : The Red Hook Brooklyn circuit has changed over the years right ?
AB : Yeah, its been switched around a few times. But it has been more or less the same for the last couple of years, at the Terminal. Maybe the turns have switched up a tiny bit, but he moved out of the streets and into the surrounding area, to the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal.
JW : I still love the fact that the first winner of the Red Hook Crit was a woman.
AB : Yeah, Kacey Manderfield. She whooped everybody’s ass. That’s what I’m talking about. That was the engine. She’s a perfect example of what I was saying earlier. You have all these street riders who can handle, and then you have Kacey that just comes in and fucks everyone up.
JW : And with a HUGE margin. That’s one thing I adore about the Red Hook crits… it’s not just that the woman are equal it’s just amazing and inspiring how everyone is just so excited and supportive of them.
AB : Well yeah, I mean Kacey stopped racing for a while because she just wasn’t feeling competitive, but once there was a field for her to play in, she was kicking their asses too. Then the races got faster and she kind of stepped down and became part of management. You have to meet her. You also need to meet her husband Gabe. That’s a true love story with those two. Gabe is the announcer.
JW : I can’t wait! So any final thoughts ? What about all the new young blood coming in, the guys that can really get their heart rate up there. What kind of advice would you give to someone coming onto the scene, who would like to find a sponsor and all that good stuff ?
AB : You know, one thing I have always said is this… It’s not about the sponsorship, it’s not about how heavy or light your bike is, its not about any of that. It’s about having that satisfaction of just loving to ride a bike and people can see that. At the end of the day, there are two types of human beings. You’re either a warrior, or you’re not. If you like to battle it out and you have that fire inside you, absolutely go in it to enjoy yourself, but don’t go in it thinking that you’re going to get a sponsorship and get flown around the world because you’re a little late for that. It can happen and it will happen if it’s meant to, but you just need to let your riding speak for itself. One thing I would say to the kids is this : don’t depend on anything but your equipment. Your engine and your bike. You’re only as sharp as your sword and you want to eliminate any of the mechanical issues right away, they’ll get you every time. Invest in that, in good material, and the rest will fall into place. Apart from that, you either got it or you don’t.
JW : So are you super excited for this weekend ? 10th anniversary dude!!! It’s a big deal.
AB : I am hyped man. Super pumped. Never been happier going into a Red Hook. I’ve got great equipment, I’m just really hyped.