On a recent evening under the cover of darkness, a crowd gathered to watch 20 cyclists anxiously waiting for spotters to give the okay that traffic had cleared and the race could begin.
Over the course of the last three months, cyclists from all over Texas have made the trek to San Antonio on the last Sunday of each month to compete in the Midnight Crits. The word crit is short for criterium, a bicycle race that takes place in a circuit road race.
These riders, ranging from 18 to 37-years-old, take part in an underground bike race that only few know about. This race takes place without barricades or without stopped traffic. It’s typical that a cyclist in this race can find him or herself riding next to a truck, pulling out in front of a VIA bus or taking a corner blindly only to see a pair of headlights pointing right at them.
Race organizer Joshua Serna determines the location of the race and gathers the entrance fees from riders. Serna provides prizes for the winners which can consist of bicycle frames, cycling kits and even cases of beer.
In order to keep the integrity of this underground race, the exact location will not be divulged. Typically a message will be sent out hours before the start of the race to disclose the location.
This was the last race of the season — the championship race. It took place off of Broadway Street close to downtown San Antonio.
One of the participants in the race was Bobby Garcia. Garcia is a Northside ISD school teacher by day, competitive cyclist racer by night. Before the race began, Garcia patiently waited his turn to race and explained the ins and outs of the Midnight Crit.
“The Midnight Crit is like an underground street car race, no one knows it’s underground unless you’re told about it,” Garcia said. “Word of mouth is the main way someone is going to know about the race.”
The race began and after the first lap, bells rang signaling to the racers a car was approaching. The sounds of bells continued to echo at every turn for the next 45 minutes. There are moments when car horns filled the air or the occasional whistling and clapping from the 50 or so people who were in attendance. Around every lap there was a possibility that something could go wrong.
Esteban Martinez, one of the racers and champion of the fixed gear race, has been racing for three years. He started riding more when he had to use his bike as a means of his only form of transportation.
“We understand we have to look out for cars. We know to be aware; we use all of our senses,” Martinez said. “However sometimes you are in the moment and you take that turn blindly and hope that a higher being is out there to guide your line.”
As the race came to an end, the racers smiled and congratulated each other for finishing the race without any injuries. The winners took their places on the podium and were greeted with flashes from cell phone cameras. One of the organizers handed Martinez a bottle of celebratory champagne. Martinez quickly popped the cork and sprayed everyone in attendance.
The Midnight Crit for Martinez along with other new participants was their first organized street race.
“It’s helped everyone who’s wanted to get into competitive racing, but didn’t know where to begin, a place to start,” Serna said. “Not everyone has a thousand dollars for a nice road bike to start racing in sanctioned events.”
Riders frequently talk about how money matters less than camaraderie.
“Being in a group of people who don’t care about the rules and regulations, and just want to get on their bike and race, is more pure than any expensive race,” Martinez said. “If you like racing, well come out and race. Don’t ask questions about how much money will I get. Just come out here and prove to yourself that you can do it.”
The number of participates in the Midnight Crits has grown over the past three years explained Serna. He talks about where he sees the races over the next five years.
“I hope the Midnight Crit gains more exposure and the city grants us usage of the courses,” said Serna. “I still want the underground aspect; just nothing too mainstream. You still have to know someone who knows where the races will be.”
As this season comes to an end another one will start in February. Spectators will have more opportunities to see these cyclists perform in the coming weeks.
“If you want to see a raw performance with passion, anger, sweat and tears, then this is where it’s at. We aren’t getting paid to perform,” Martinez said. “You can go out to a movie and understand that those people have rehearsed. However you can come out here and see a kid who has never raced before shine like the [explicit] sun.”