Words: Trevor Gornall / Images: Harry Zernike (portraits) / Tornanti cc (race pictures)
What makes the middle-aged – especially males it would seem – pull unforgiving skin-tight spandex over their expanding bellies and thrash around on two wheels? A mini mid-life crisis or an urge to prove an actual point? The desire to fulfil a childhood ambition that got lost somewhere along the way, as the general busyness of life takes over and stealthily squeezes the joy away? Perhaps simply for the sheer hell of it. This is not the tale of some delusional ‘Lycra Dad’, rather the fulfilment of an elite sportsman’s long-held ambition to participate in the fiercest bike race in the world.
Jürgen turns around, bottle of beer in his right hand, a slight look of concern creeping across his face. “Trevor!” He playfully barks across his crowded back garden, as if it were my fault. I turn my gaze away from the screen he’s erected to show the Germany v Sweden FIFA World Cup game and yell back, “Relax, it’s not even half time yet!”
Just over half an hour played and Germany are losing 0-1.
I’d flown to Bonn from my home in Liverpool to meet Jürgen Ignatzy, the amateur rider Conquista ‘sponsored’ at the Red Hook Crit in Brooklyn back in April. Since the race, we had needed to find a time to discuss this write-up, so Jürgen kindly invited me to meet his friends and family at his home for this football World Cup party. There was also perhaps a hint of mischief in his thought to invite someone from England to ‘enjoy’ a German football match, surrounded by . . . Germans. The England v Germany football rivalry goes very far back with many famous encounters, not least the drama of the controversial 1966 Final.
Our mutual friend, Heide, had first told me about Jürgen who she had known for many years and who, despite having no bike racing experience, had entered this hardcore crit. She put us both in contact and we formed a little WhatsApp group which became, and remains still, a source of great amusement for us all. My trip was the perfect opportunity to get to know the guy better and let him give me the inside track why, a few months short of his fiftieth birthday, this married father of two had decided to fly to New York and race the Red Hook Crit.
As I arrive at the party I’m greeted by the host with a huge bear hug and the words, “I feel I know you all my life!” The feeling is somehow mutual and I immediately feel relaxed in his home. His partner Inga is equally welcoming and takes time to chat to me despite having a house full of guests. I’m quickly handed a beer and invited to get some food from the old disused bakery that sits in the back garden, and is being utilised tonight as a very cool bar and food serving area. Jürgen’s eye for simple, elegant design is evident throughout.
Jürgen has a striking presence, so despite the crowded party I spotted him immediately upon arrival. He is a tall, athletically built guy, so it’s hardly surprising to learn he was a top-level water polo player for twenty-five years, keeping goal for SGW Köln. Since retiring from playing he’s been coaching this same team for the last four years. He also now works as the general manager of a local swimming school just outside Cologne.
So how does a water polo player from Bonn come to want to race a fixed-gear bike with no brakes around a Brooklyn dockyard? For some hints we need to go back to 1996, when Jürgen had an apartment in the East Village, Lower Manhattan. He speaks about his time in New York with a genuine warmth and fondness, spending five good years travelling back and forth from Europe until the early 2000s. It’s clear that even now he does not need much of an excuse to make a return visit to this part of the world.
He’s always ridden a bike, for as long as he can remember, but he tells me back then in New York only the messengers rode in the city, as there was little or no biking infrastructure in place and the chaotic traffic made it simply too dangerous. He recalls a time when a New York cabbie refused to drop him at his friend’s apartment on Avenue D, letting him out early to walk the rest of the way through what was perceived to be a dangerous neighbourhood. Despite NYC’s rapidly improving crime rates, there was still a hint of edginess about this particular little corner of North America. Nonetheless, it clearly left lasting positive impressions.
In 2004 he built up his first single-speed, which was a conversion from his old Atala road bike. He still has the bike and uses it frequently, proudly showing me how he kept the original rear wheel, replacing the cassette with spacers to ensure the chain runs straight and true. That year he worked as a guide for the T-Mobile Team hospitality program ‘Dutch Basic’ at the Tour de France. Here his job was to situate a camper van close to ‘Dutch Corner’ on Alpe d’Huez ahead of the race. Not only would he lead a group to the summit of the Alpe on race day, he would be there for a few days to prepare ahead of the race.
“Those were the days when I was really fit,” he tells me. “I’d cycle down to the village every morning for breakfast and then back up to the camper – wearing flip-flops. Another day I led the group over the Col du Télégraphe, Col de la Madeleine and to the top of Alpe d’Huez in one ride.”
So it’s clear the boy can ride a bit.
Not being so heavily into the race scene at that time, the first couple of Red Hook events in 2008 and 2009 came and went. The race made its way onto his radar around the time of its third edition, still relatively underground, raced mainly by bicycle messengers, and the pros not joining the scene until a little later. But once Jürgen had discovered the race he was quite literally ‘hooked’, following the thrills and spills and every year becoming more curious.
By 2012 he thought about building his own fixie. Even six years ago it was difficult to find fixed-gear components in Germany. The only available route was to look at track bike options. The scarcity of parts and the rarefied nature of the scene was seemingly no barrier to Jürgen’s desire to be a part of it. The whole vibe and style around this niche aspect of cycling had drawn him in closer still.
By 2015 he had decided that he wanted to have a go at the race himself, but as he told me the entry format makes it quite tricky to achieve if you are not a pro or live local to the race. You have to apply to enter quite far in advance, and there are now a series of qualification heats to earn your place in the race proper. The exact date of the race is often only confirmed long after entries close, making it quite hard to book flights, take time off work and prepare correctly. He toyed with the idea for a couple of years, searching for the right opportunity, before finally committing in 2018 that he would book the flight and time off for the race, and go as a spectator if he did not secure the opportunity to actually race.
That tactic proved effective as his entry into 2018 Red Hook Crit Brooklyn was confirmed on 2 April, with the race scheduled for 28 April. The proverbial just got very real indeed. Four weeks is not really enough time to start to train properly. His only increase in bike-specific training came in March, when he started spinning four days per week for 45 minutes per session. The theory being this was the approximate time that the race would take to complete, and if he could last that long he would be doing pretty well indeed.
I ask if he thought about any special diet or if he tried to lose weight specifically for the race. Not at all, and no other changes were made except for the bike. His Cinelli Vigorosa is a beautiful machine, and clearly his pride and joy. It was already two years old, so he treated her to some new wheels for the race, and of course removed the front brake. The Miche Primato cranks are 165 mm in length and his chosen gear is 48 x 15. To the rear of the seat tube his son Theo attached a rare four-leaf clover for luck. He also reminds me he received some very nice new kit to race in. Otherwise no changes.
The race being on Saturday, he arrived into JFK on Thursday and openly admits he was not really thinking too much about the race itself. He was gripped by the excitement of being back in New York and what the Red Hook Crit has grown to be. At the airport he spots some riders from Team Cinelli arriving from Milan.
“They don’t look like me,” he thinks to himself. “1.60 m and 45 kg, with varying amounts of facial hair, tattoos and piercings.’ Jürgen stands 1.93m tall and let’s say his right leg alone might weigh as much as these skinny little pros. He describes his emotions at this time as being more of excitement and curiosity than anything like fear or intimidation. He decides to skip the ‘pre-pre-race party’ at a distillery that night in favour of catching up with old friends for drinks.
Friday night comes around and he decides to join the ‘pre-race party’. He heads out to the Brooklyn brewery, which has an open taproom every Friday. His pre-race meal consists of beer, burger and fries. Then more fries. And onion rings. And more beer. Strong beer. I’m curious to know why he’s not taking the opportunity the night before his race to rest up and eat something vaguely nutritious. His response confirms I really have no clue about the ethos of the RHC. Of course, there is no disadvantage to having a few beers the night before, because everyone is expected to join the pre-race party. And they do so. Even the pro riders all indulge a little in the spirit of the occasion. Jürgen explains with a smile, that's really what it’s all about – one great big party.
Jürgen watches the early Men's Heat
Race day. It’s early afternoon back in Europe when the WhatsApp messages start to fly around. Jürgen informs us he’s taken his bike on the subway, travelling approximately five stops from his accommodation down to Brooklyn. It’s raining lightly, and he’s skipped breakfast.
“Don’t forget to keep it rubber side down,” is the best advice I can think to offer. “Any more useful advice please coach?” he replies.
“Get another coach?” I offer back.
He rolls up to sign on and attaches race number 207 to bike and kit. There are no pro team buses like the UCI WorldTour. All the riders pretty much care for their own needs, with the exception of Specialized, who are there with a small van and a few mechanics.
He’s drawn in Heat 3, due to start at midday, so he takes advantage of the available time to watch the first two heats, hoping to get some last minute tips. The nerves start to kick in a little as he begins to appreciate that just about everyone is taking the corners pretty much at the same speed they ride the straights, more or less 40 kmh. The sound of the pedals clipping the tarmac bring home that the really fast guys are fearless and simply do not lift off the gas. ‘I should definitely have practiced riding fast without my front brake,’ he thinks to himself. Oh well, too late now. His straight-line top speed of 43 kmh is not so far off the fastest riders, but his technique in the technical bits of the course – well, this was virtually non-existent because essentially, when and where can you go to practice riding flat-out, fixed gear, no brakes, on the road?
At this point in telling me his tale of the race, Jürgen stops and asks me whether I know the story of the most unexpected gold medal in history – Australian short track speed skater Steven Bradbury at the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games? For those that are not familiar with this extraordinary event, entering the final lap Stevo is sitting in fifth of five places, ‘comfortably fifth’ one might say. As the leading four competitors enter the final bend they contrive to wipe each other out, leaving the way clear for the Aussie maestro to casually stroll across the line, seemingly barely out of breath, claiming the gold medal and looking for all the world like the race played out exactly as he had planned it.
I’m already laughing before he’s finished the story. Now I understand your confidence, I think to myself. The lack of training and preparation, it’s not so important when you have an attitude that positive. We are simply dealing with one of the most optimistic people on this planet.
The crowd is growing and there are several thousand spectators by now amassed behind the barriers. They cheer all the participants equally, whether they are a paid European pro, a local bike messenger, or in our case, a retired water polo player from Cologne. Jürgen leaves the relative comfort of his rider ‘cabin’ space, where he’s left his bag and other possessions. He had been chatting openly to a few other guys in this area, but as they make their way to the start grid they all fall silent.
He wheels his Vigorosa along to about three quarters of the way down the grid and finds his start location. The seeded guys at the front of the grid already have about 50 metres on our hero before the race has even started. It’s a gap he can barely afford to concede to experts from Team Cinelli, Specialized Rocket Espresso and the like. Everyone seems focused, giving the occasion due respect. After all, in just over a minute 70-odd guys, the majority of whom have never raced together before, are going to be hurtling around Red Hook at more than 40 kmh. Without brakes.
As an elite sportsman, Jürgen has experienced many high pressure situations in his career, including tense promotion and relegation matches. But this felt very different. Strangely more intense, yet clearly less important in terms of his individual performance, with nothing resting on the outcome. He was entering the unknown and – importantly – putting his own personal safety in the hands of other competitors. Thankfully the weather had improved and the course was dry. “Perfect racing conditions,” he tells me.
New York, New York
“It’s the best thing I’ve ever done in my life.”
The countdown commences. “One minute.” The adrenaline that had been slowly building all morning suddenly surges and Jürgen feels an intense pressure building inside. Further announcements are made, “45 seconds . . . 30 seconds . . . 15 seconds . . . 10 seconds”, before the final digits are each uttered in turn to signify the race start. And they’re away! There’s an explosion inside Jürgen as suddenly the pent-up energy is released. It's a case of balls out from the gun. He’s under no impression whatsoever that he should be saving himself for the latter part of this qualification heat. The strategy is simple, go as hard as you can for as long as you can, and leave it all out on the road. He hurtles full gas into the first bend, and makes it safely around. He’s not making up any places yet, but he’s not lost any either. He negotiates the second bend safely too, lungs bursting already from the effort. Approaching the third bend he looks up to see two riders colliding in front of him. He takes evasive action to avoid their crash, and in the process is forced to unclip his foot. By the time he manages to ram his cleat back in to the pedal, he’s been gapped by 100 metres or so. He completes the remainder of the first 1 km lap without any other major incidents, but the damage is already done.
The second lap is just flat out all the way, but he simply cannot close the gap on the guys in front. The lost momentum from the crash on the first lap has cost him dearly. He passes the start/finish line to signify the completion of lap two, but he can already hear the noise of a moto rider behind him. This is bad. If the race leader catches you, that's it, your race is over. The moto is the first signal that the race leader is near. He can hear it closing on him, maybe 50 metres behind, but gaining ground all the time. Jürgen presses on with all he has. The moto beeps its horn and blue flags are waved from the side by marshals to signify his race is done and he needs to stop. The records show a race time of 4 minutes and 15 seconds at the time he crossed the line to complete the second lap, some 12 seconds behind Giovanni Longo, who was the second rider to be eliminated from Heat 3.
I ask if he’s disappointed to fly to the other side of the world for less than 5 minutes of racing. He’s totally and emphatically clear with me. Absolutely not. OK, his race wasn’t exactly perfect, but he cannot be too disheartened. He tells me that even without the delay caused by the crash in front he might only have survived another two laps. With better luck, real training and more experience of how to race, he thinks he might manage as many as six laps before being caught by the leader. But it was never about being competitive, it was only ever about the experience of participating. After a short pause for thought he looks up and says, “It’s the best thing I’ve ever done in my life.”
After his heat ends he decides to go back to base, change and shower, then catch the subway back to the race to watch the final. By then the weather had changed for the worse and the circuit, in sharp contrast to the dry heats, was cold and wet with thunderstorms overhead. To his eye, it made no difference to the speed and ferocity with which the fast guys tackled the corners. The conditions made for some more crashes, with riders slipping out on the bends, but thankfully no one was seriously injured that night.
After the race everyone joined the post-race party and he tells me all about the great atmosphere and camaraderie that exists among the riders. He explains that it really does feel like one big family and he was totally welcomed inside their world, although he adds that it does feel a bit like a casting session for the coolest people on earth. He’s clearly relieved that nothing bad happened in terms of any serious crashes, but insists that even as an elite athlete competing at the top level for twenty-five years, nothing he’s experienced to date could compare to the sheer adrenaline rush of racing the Red Hook Crit.
In the days after the race we search through hundreds and hundreds of race photos, desperately trying to find at least one of Jürgen in race action. Sadly the photographers had not captured him, naturally preferring to focus their lenses on the riders at the business end of the race. Just as we were about to give up the search we spot the Conquista colours lurking in the background, stood at the side of the course, watching the race. The final indignity!
Meanwhile, back at the football party in Bonn, Germany have equalised. But the tension remains high as time is running out for the current World Cup holders, who surprisingly lost their first group game.
“I have a nice DVD from the 2014 semi-final [where Germany defeated Brazil 7-1],” Jürgen announces to the group.
The laughter lifts the tension briefly.
“Am I the only one who knows how this ends?” I ask. Without waiting for a reply I tell them confidently, “Don’t worry, Germany will score a late, late goal – probably in the final minute, and will win the game 2-1.”
No one actually tells the annoying Englishman to shut up, but I sense it’s only their politeness that saves me an earful of abuse and maybe the need to avoid some empty beer bottles coming my way.
My prediction loses even more credibility when Germany have a player sent off in the 85th minute. As the match enters its 95th minute Germany are awarded a free kick on the edge of the penalty box. Tony Kroos steps up to wallop the ball into the top right hand corner. ‘Postage stamp’ as we islanders call it, or as the Brazilians say, ‘where the owl sleeps’. The party erupts in euphoria and the referee blows the final whistle more or less immediately after the restart. Germany win the game 2-1 and I’m proclaimed as some kind of future-predicting witch doctor. We celebrate long into the early hours of Sunday morning and there is no one happier than me that Germany won the game and I got to spend a wonderful evening in the company of some of Jürgen’s very happy, very drunk friends.
When we reconvene the next afternoon, with sore heads and great memories of the last night’s party, I enquire tentatively, “Will you give it another go next year?”
“Yes, of course!” he says. “But next time, you guys are coming with me – we’re gonna cruise around Brooklyn on a trandem!”
Why do we get the urge to do such irrational and dangerous activities? Perhaps the brain of elite sportspeople is hard-wired differently to the rest of us mere mortals. Their urge to compete, to seek out those pressurised situations that push mind and body to the limit is exaggerated and extreme. Retiring from competitive sport appears to have left a little vacuum in Jürgen’s world. Red Hook Crit gave him the opportunity to feel that rush once more, but this time without any expectation or consequences linked to his performance. And what’s more, it delivered the opportunity to do this in a part of the world he has a deep love for, while immersed in this world of stylish cycling culture. Cycling remains a sport that is incredibly accessible to its followers. From its pre-race parties through to racing with the pros, perhaps no event embodies this more than the Red Hook Crit.
This feature first appeared in Conquista 19.