One of the first events of this year’s Berlin Fahrradschau was a panel discussion about the future of fixed gear racing in Germany. For the uninitiated, a fixed gear crit (short for criterium) is a race on a closed circuit where everyone has to ride a fixed gear bike. They are often held on city streets, with the popular Red Hook Crit series (held in Brooklyn, Milan, Barcelona and London) bringing a lot of attention to the sport.
Germany has a strong fixed gear racing scene with several well-attended races held every year, many of which are organised by Rad Race, who presented the Last Man/Woman Standing races on the Saturday night of the BFS18. There’s also a series of fixed gear races working together under the German Fixed Crit Series umbrella.
On the panel were 8 key people from the Berlin/German fixed gear scene, including Stefan Schott from 8bar, Benedict Herzberg from Standert, Ingo Engelhardt from Rad Race and Johanna Jahnke from East London Fixed. Chairing the panel was Hagen Lindner, one of the riders for Mess Pack, a Berlin-based bike team who race in crits all over the world.
Hagen, together with team mate Raphael were kind enough to share a few minutes with me to chat about the team, cycling in Berlin and fixed gear racing in Germany.
How did you guys get started?
Raphael: Basically, we all have a background as bike messengers. Not really in the same formation we are today, but the core of people who started the Mess Pack team was just a bunch of friends who worked together at one messenger company. It was a special company, kind of a collective, and we worked very closely together and organised things by ourselves. As a group of friends, we started to participate in small races and events, where it was just cool to have a team name or something we could call our own. That was basically where we started. That was about 4 or 5 years ago.
There first race we participated in was a Rad Race in Hamburg, in 2014, on the Heidbergring…
Hagen: …It was 2014. It was not under the name Mess Pack yet; it was after that we had shirts printed.
So, everyone in Mess Pack is or was a bike messenger?
R: Yeah. That was also part of the name Mess Pack…nowadays it’s changed slightly – a couple of people have moved to other cities, but we’ve also got new members involved and always a kind of criteria was that they have a background, or still work as a messenger.
How often and where do you race?
H: It depends on the season, obviously, but actually from April to September there is a race nearly every weekend. It’s a bit slower in the Summer, but we also do road races in between. It’s most of the time around Germany. Most races are in the north/north-east of the country, which is good for us because Berlin is very close to most of them. We also do international races: some of us go to Red Hook. The first one is end of April in Brooklyn – two of us are going. Last year, a few went to Barcelona and Milan.
We also attend cycle messenger championships, German, European and worldwide – not all of us, but we try to go as often as we can as a team.
How often do you race in Berlin?
H: There’s the 8bar race, there’s the annual Rad Race. There’s the Standert Crit, which is new, so those are three bigger races.
R: There’s the fixed42, which is based on the Velothon, definitely one of the biggest races in Germany, and definitely the biggest in Berlin. (apparently the biggest fixed gear race on the planet – Ed).
H: So this is the fourth race, and then…
R: …and then there are other small road races – not on fixed gear bikes – around Berlin which we use for training. There’s a small series, in Märkisches Oderland, a region north of Berlin and there there are 5 or 6 races over the season.
Is Berlin a good place to ride? Is it a safe city for cycling?
R: When you have a certain background as a messenger, you would probably say it’s quite rough to cycle in most parts of the city. We are used to it, so it doesn’t affect us so much. There are definitely a lot of places where, for example, my wife would never cycle because it’s just too dangerous. Which is really not as it should be.
H: I think Berlin is pretty safe compared to many other big cities, the traffic is not as easy to predict as in other (North American) cities where there’s more of a grid system like New York, so it’s a little more hectic. I think as a messenger, you have a little bit of a different understanding of what traffic is, what’s dangerous and where to cycle. I, myself, cycle on the street, not on the bike path, which I think is often the safest place to be.
R: I think the main thing is, if you’re confident on your bike, and you feel like part of the traffic, then usually you’re fine. I think if you’re really anxious and you always stick to the places where you’re told to cycle, you could have trouble. They also often don’t take care of the bike paths very well.
What’s next for Mess Pack?
H: Tomorrow (Rad Race Last Man Standing) is the first race. Then I race a cyclocross race on Sunday, which is also part of the (Berlin Fahrradschau) show. That’s gonna be the last cross race for the season, which are usually in Winter. We also do a lot of alleycats, so there’s a big alleycat coming up in Hamburg, which I might do. Then the first road races start, then the fixed gear crit season starts with the 8bar crit. A week later, a bit north of Berlin there’s a two-day event called Steuerradtage, also part of the fixed crit series. And then there’s Red Hook Brooklyn.
Cycling is a pretty male-dominated sport. How is it for the girls in the team? Do they get treated well?
R: I think that because many of the girls have a messenger background, that they’re also tougher than many and are used to claiming their space and fighting back a little bit. Recently at the 6 Day Berlin there were a few (sexist) comments said that were really unpleasant towards women, and made them feel that it wasn’t their place.
H: It totally depends on the race and who’s organising it. Most of the time we’re lucky because the fixed gear crit scene is from a background of messengers and people from the punk scene who have a certain understanding about equality – the races are more welcoming. That’s not only feedback from the girls in our team, but other female riders we know.
Is fixed gear racing becoming more popular in Germany?
R: I guess so. The main source of this popularity is coming from the international scene. With Red Hook, which is a huge event, which also started small, but they put a lot of marketing into it. Those events got a lot of attention in the media, which had the result of many pro or semi-pro cyclists getting into the scene, which made the scene a lot bigger over the last couple of years. I think that’s a good and a bad thing – it brings more attention which allows people to stage bigger events, but the downside is that you have certain people who feel excluded because this started as a small, niche thing and it’s now getting more mainstream and professional. I would say yes, it’s becoming more popular.
H: …and it’s not necessarily growing. It’s becoming more selective. We’ll see different, more selective formats in the future…
R: …it’s got more professional. You can compare it to live music, if you have a band who plays in front of 50 people at a small club and everyone loves the band and the concert. Once it becomes a band who plays in front of 10,000 people it’s not the same band any more and it becomes difficult to keep the old fans and old vibe. That’s just what’s happening with the fixed gear scene.
How does someone get into racing fixed gear? Do you have be an athlete? A lot of people see bike racing as a sport for elite athletes and are put off getting involved for that reason.
R: That was exactly the point, say three or four years ago. Everybody just got into it and started doing it. I actually bought a track bike just because I saw the race on the car track. It was so much fun. There was no one wearing bib shorts, just racing in cut-off jeans and a t-shirt. I thought, wow, that looks like fun. That was my main motivation. Nowadays, because it’s so professional it might scare people off getting involved. That’s why there’s now a development to form A and B races, to make it more available and accessible to beginners, which I really appreciate.
H: I would say start small, go to local events, meet people, go to alleycats, race them – that’s always fun and it’s actually a race. It’s not on a closed track, but it’s cool. There you meet people you can start training with, go to other races with. Then just give it a shot. If you like it, you’ll grow with it. You don’t have to be an athlete.
R: In Berlin, there are a also couple of regular training rides. Every Thursday Standert Bicycles do a group ride. Stefan from 8bar just announced that he’s going to do one on Tuesday, so there are basically two to three days a week where you can do a group ride to just try it out.