Editor’s update 3.30.14: On a rainy and cold race night, Jo Celso won the inaugural women’s Red Hook Crit. Liz So finished second, followed by Ash Duban. Podium photo: Affinity Cycles

When Jo Celso lines up at the start of this year’s first-ever women’s field for the annual Red Hook Crit cycling race at the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal on Saturday night, she will already have beaten the most formidable of foes: cancer. 

The 25-year-old, who rides for the otherwise male Wolfpack Hustle Track Team in San Diego, CA, received a diagnosis of Hodgkin’s lymphoma half-way through her first season of racing in 2011. Remarkably, Celso came back 6 months later to claim victory in the women’s field of the popular L.A. Marathon Crash track race. (Photo below: Mikey Wally)

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It’s all part of the world of unsanctioned urban racing, in which the Red Hook Crit is a force, having grown from a small neighborhood event to a series that draws an international field, as well as crowds of spectators who thrill to the excitement of night racing on track bikes without brakes or gears. At Red Hook, women have raced with the men. But race organizer David Trimble says he recognized demand for a separate women’s field as the race grew — there are now six qualifying heats on the men’s side. “Our long overdue ability to control a second field” made adding the women’s race a reality for 2014, he said.

Celso joins an inaugural field of more than 35 women from the U.S., Italy and Puerto Rico. A key player in a vibrant women’s racing community based around the San Diego Velodrome, the young racer talked with us recently about the new women’s race, biking on chemo and what it’s like to be female in the male-dominated world of street racing.

Have you raced Red Hook before?

I came out last year and I didn’t qualify; none of the women did. I remember walking away frustrated. I felt like there was just this big gap between a person like me and some of the pros and semi-pros, especially the guys who are winning and placing.I felt like that was the essence with a lot of the women. We felt like there was just no place for us. But when I heard they were putting in a women’s field at Red Hook, I went from not wanting to be there to really wanting to go.

You’ll be riding 18 laps around an .8 mile course at the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal for a total 15 miles on Saturday night at speeds averaging around 23 – 24 miles. What’s it like to race at high speed on a track bike without brakes or gears?

It’s pretty terrifying! You enter into it with a healthy level of fear. This goes for any racing. It’s this almost over-the-top “I can do this” attitude. Because otherwise there is no way to combat that feeling of “I’m going to crash and smash my face in.” You’ve got those warring attitudes the whole time.

When you can get into the groove, then it stops being scary and starts being challenging and exhilarating. It makes you want to work hard.

What’s your outlook for the women’s race?

I’m excited just to go. For it to be the inaugural women’s Red Hook, hopefully the first of many, it’s more important for me to be there and to support something this big than it is to win.

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Red Hook and Wolfpack Hustle are not sanctioned by any racing authority like USA Cycling. What’s the appeal of underground races?

Red Hook set the bar for making exciting races. Of all the races I’ve been to, sanctioned or unsanctioned, the men’s finale at  last year’s Red Hook was definitely the coolest race I’ve ever watched. It was exhilarating just to stand on the sidelines and watch those guys duke it out. It’s great as a spectators’ event as well as a racers’ event.

With the [Wolfpack Hustle Unified Title Race Series] last year and Red Hook continuously, you’ve got these underground events where you’ve got sponsors and music and vendors. When I started racing, we would never see food trucks at races and now you can pull up and there’s a line of them.

When did you start to ride a bike as an adult?

I bought my first bike in early 2010. I realized that I was burning so much money getting to and from work, and I didn’t want to spend any more on gas. When I got into cycling I met some people and made some friends and everyone was going a little fast and that got me going. It was really fun to be a part of the culture.

How did commuting lead to racing?

At the beginning of 2011 I met a guy who said, “You’ve got to try this. This is something you will excel at.” At first he invited me on a ride thinking I would be what people stereotype women as: kind of  slow, out for exercise. He kept challenging me, thinking I would struggle with some of the rides he threw at me. I guess he was surprised and saw potential in me.

What was your first race?

My first race was at the beginning of 2011. It was a tiny, sanctioned crit up in L.A. I was really scared, but I think the hardest thing was just to get out there and try it.

Then you had a set-back…

I got in half a season in 2011 – April to July — then I got diagnosed with Hodgkin’s, and it was one of those things that just put the brakes on my progress.

I did a race in April, my second race ever, and I reached up to touch my shoulder and I noticed this little tiny bump on my neck. I actually placed second to a woman on a break. The woman who beat me became a pro. So I felt super excited and super healthy. But the bump didn’t’ go away. I went to see the doctor, and five or six tests later we discovered that it was cancerous, and it was growing.

It was pretty unexpected. I didn’t have any symptoms, I didn’t feel sick. There was nothing lifestyle-wise that would have indicated it.

What was the road back like?

With chemo, I never stopped riding. It really knocks you out; 10 miles at an easy pace felt like 30 miles at a training pace. And then there were days when I couldn’t get out of bed. It was frustrating because I felt I should be able to do everything that I would when I was healthy, but it was lot better than sitting around and watching Netflix all day. My oncologist was an advocate of me riding my bike to keep me as physically healthy as I could be and on top of that emotionally happy.

What was it like to return to racing?

It was surprising. I remember going to pre-race registration for the L.A. Marathon Crash race and picking up my number and feeling anxious. I thought, “I don’t know if I can do this or finish this.” But to finish it and to then to be the first woman across the line, was one of those things that boosted my confidence in myself again and got me excited about riding again.

What’s the women’s racing scene like in San Diego?

I’m so blessed that I ended up here to learn and to ride. In Southern California our track scene is incredibly strong. We’ve got the San Diego Velodrome, and then if you go about and hour north we’ve got the Velodrome in Carson, which is one of the most beautiful tracks in the world. Then farther north there’s Encino. But San Diego is unique in that it’s laid back and really friendly toward women. When I started, we raced with men, and there were only 4 or 5 of us. But thankfully there was a group of women down here that wanted to really get us going, to see more of us on the track. They wanted to get a women’s field going, so they started clinics and we all sort of connected. We would have a beer and go out on an easy ride together and talk, and everyone was invited. It didn’t matter how fast or slow your were.

The track racing world is very male dominated. What’s the dynamic between the men and the women?

It’s kind of all over the place. I have some guy friends who are really supportive, and they share a lot of my views. They want to see women riding and training and trying it. Then there are guys who pooh-pooh the women’s racing. It’s frustrating when they indicate that our racing is easier, that it’s not serious. But there are other guys, especially at the elite level, who realize we are very serious racers. Some of the women are stronger or as strong as the guys. So the argument becomes nullified in that some of the women can race with the men successfully.

This seems to be an exciting time in racing history. There’s the new Women’s Tour of Britain, the new one-day Tour de France race for women. Are you perceiving changes in your community?

Yes, even on the very local level. More people are recognizing us as a viable field and that we’re putting the numbers out and there’s more attention to women’s racing. There’s change going on right now.

Do you think we’ll see more races for women evolve?

I’ve noticed there are more women looking at bikes, even if they’re not racing. I think there’s just a lot of interest in riding and seeing women race and rooting for other women. I think it will continue to grow, especially over the next couple of years.

The racing season is just getting under way. What’s in store for you?

This year I’m dipping my toes into some of the really big races. I just signed up for Redlands [a five-day stage race in California that draws an international field]. I’m super nervous, but I’m super excited. A lot of it is to going to get experience and to grow as an athlete.

What do you see for yourself in the future? Where do you think bicycle racing will take you?

I’m not entirely sure where this will take me or where it will end. If you had asked me five years ago, this is not where I would have seen myself. As a kid and even as a young women I hadn’t been athletic, so to find out I was relatively fast on a bike was definitely a pleasant surprise.

This started as something simple, and it keeps growing, and I keep finding new opportunities and new things to learn. And it’s the kind of challenge that’s just obtainable enough that it makes me want to work for it.

Based on your experience, what advice would you give to women who might be interested in getting into racing?

Just to try it. Go into it with no expectations. The hardest part is realizing that you have to be prepared to feel really humbled. I swear that 90 percent of racing and training is failure. You have to lose a lot of races, and it’s really disheartening when you don’t’ do as well as you expect of yourself. But any time I can walk away, no matter how badly I did, and pinpoint what I did wrong I feel that’s a successful race for me.

Responses are condensed and edited.

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3 Responses to In Red Hook Crit Womens Race, a Victory Before the Start

  1. [...] starts off with a little re-cap from the Red Hook Criterium and shares some of Velojoy’s interview with Jo Celso, who won this year’s inaugural women’s Red Hook Crit. Are you a woman who wants [...]

  2. [...] starts off with a little re-cap from the Red Hook Criterium and shares some of Velojoy’s interview with Jo Celso, who won this year’s inaugural women’s Red Hook Crit. Are you a woman who wants [...]

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