A criterium—or crit, for short—is a specific kind of bike race (which is not for the faint of heart or slow of reflex). It’s a series of laps done on short tracks characterized by sharp turns, and raced on fixed-gear bikes without brakes. Requiring a combination of cardiovascular output and skill rivaled by few other sports, crit racing has historically been dominated by men. But that’s changing, thanks to a growing legion of racers pushing womens’ riding into the limelight.
Among them: Austin-based riders Ash Duban and Sammi Runnels. The women met back in 2011 at, fittingly, a cycling race. “We actually raced against each other and we ended up in a sprint in the end,” Duban recalls. “We were both pretty new to racing at that point.”
“It was my first race,” says Runnels. “We battled it out the whole time. She ended up winning and I took second, and we’ve been friends ever since, we see each other at all different kinds of races. That’s what I love so much about the cycling scene: Some of my closest friendships have come from racing and training.”
“But, yeah (laughs)…we’re definitely rivals. I always want to beat Ash.”
Thankfully, races like the Red Hook Crit are giving athletes like Duban and Runnels the forum in which they can compete, and on equal level with their male counterparts.
In 2013, Duban raced her first Red Hook Crit as part of the men’s field. “I was only one of four women who qualified for the main race,” she says. “Which meant I was racing with 96 men, and three other women. After that race, I said, I’m never going to do another Red Hook.”
When race director David Trimble called Duban a year later to say he was going to have a women’s field, she was initially apprehensive. “I love supporting women’s racing and I want to see it grow, so even though I was nervous about doing it again, I felt I had to be a part of it. I’ve only missed one women’s Red Hook Crit since.”
Since then, the Red Hook Crit has been an incubator for women’s racing, being one of very few races to offer equal payout to their female athletes. As a result, the field is growing, as is the level of competition. The 2016 race drew over 100 female athletes from 40 countries, inclusive of some of the sport's biggest talent.
“When I started cycling, it was a pretty small women’s scene,” says Runnels. “In just the past couple of years, it’s gotten so much bigger, there’s so many more women joining.”
That’s likely due to the payoff. “Cycling has become my escape, my release, my therapy,” says Duban. “Walking onto the field to line up and start the main race, you get this insane rush of adrenaline and energy. There are thousands of people screaming and cheering. There’s nothing else that really compares to that feeling. It’s one of the good reasons to keep coming back.”
Watch the video above to see Duban and Runnels in action at the 2016 Red Hook Crit.
Video By Sprint Step