Photo by Cristiano Valli

Seasoned athletes on customized racing bikes hurtled along Treat street Friday night right alongside first-time riders for the first local fixed-gear criterium race through city streets.

The Mission Crit (short for “criterium”), a 40-minute, multi-lap sprint open to anyone with fixed-gear bicycle and a few dollars for a registration fee, is only the second race of its kind in San Francisco. Organizer James Grady arranged a similar race in a parking lot south of AT&T Park for his birthday last year, anticipating swift police intervention for blocking city roads without permission had he held it in the Mission.

This year, Grady went legit, going to an SFMTA hearing to petition for permission to close Treat Avenue and Harrison street between 16th and 18th streets, which also required rerouting a bus. The $10,000 event was supported by a Kickstarter event and a few generous local donors with deep pockets, with costs kept low by using no lighting and keeping amenities minimal. Winners were awarded donated cycling gear and a total of about $700 in cash prizes.

“With the huge growth of cycling in the Bay Area, we need something. I mean look at all these people, a lot of these people didn’t know what was going on,” Grady said. “And they just came, and it’s exciting, because it’s fast!”

James Grady, Mission Crit organizer, before the race began. Photo by Cristiano Valli

He was right — plenty of people attended the race because they stopped in passing or happened upon it by chance. Marta Crowe  and Paul Mckellar, who live nearby, heard shouting and thought someone was watching a game on television. When they came out to investigate, they stayed to watch some of the race.

Though at first casual observers were in the majority, the crowd quickly swelled, packing sections of sidewalk with spectators who shouted encouragement to the cyclists whizzing by.

“I’ve never been to a criterium before, in fact I don’t even know how to say the word, so I thought it was something I should see,” said John Hamiga, a casual spectator and avid cyclist who had noticed the event on Twitter. He and his friend Vanessa Monzon, who said she was just beginning to get into cycling, watched with interest, though as the wind picked up once more and temperature kept dropping, Monzon did wish for hot chocolate or tea. (The primary drink of choice among spectators seemed to be beer, carried in messenger bags and backpacks.)

Racers before Mission Crit began. Photo by Cristiano Valli

Tucked away next to the portable toilets were several sets of warm-up rollers. Marc Marino balanced his bike (from Low Bicycles, a racing bike creator based in the Mission) on one of them, riding in place to keep his body ready for the race ahead. He’s been doing races like this for a few years, sometimes flying across the country to participate. A resident of the Outer Sunset, Marino was pleased to be attending a race he could bike to, and ended up taking second place.

“Each course presents its own special little obstacle,” Marino said. In this case, it was the 120-degree turn around the corner of Treat and Harrison. Marino it wasn’t daunted, but said the turn and navigating a course packed full of riders of all different levels contributed to the difficulty of the course.

But it wasn’t just about the bikes or the course. The race was a gathering, a cultural event for bike messengers and their kin. At least it was to Nick Hedlund, a city native and former bicycle messenger, whose main mode of transportation is still cycling even though he’s “retired” from being a messenger. To him, the race meant bringing some visibility to the popular and diverse cycling and bike messenger communities, which often overlap with other subcultures like punk and skateboarding.

Michael Dorman, a 16-year-old Mission Crit competitor. Photo by Cristiano Valli

“Just hearing about something like this is a very positive thing for the neighborhood, especially for messengers themselves and for cycling culture,” said Hedlund. “It’s very important to have things of this nature happening,” he added.

And though it was athletically challenging, the race brought out all levels of competitors, including 16-year-old Michael Dorman, who followed his brother into the cycling world.

“So fun it’s like, unreal,” Michael said. “It’s probably the funnest bike experience I’ve ever witnessed…Riding with a whole bunch of other dudes who love doing the same thing you do.”

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