How a Swiss pro rekindled his love for racing on his No. 22 Little Wing

Apr 30, 2018

What it’s like to ride Brooklyn's Red Hook Crit on a No. 22 Little Wing

2018 Red Hook Crit Brooklyn race No. 11

“Fixed-gear bikes make a specific sound when they crash,” says Robin Gemperle, a Swiss pro rider on the Red Hook Crit circuit who rides a custom No. 22 Little Wing. They don’t sound like road bikes, which Gemperle describes as more of a scratching, with the various parts sliding out and grinding against the tarmac. “With a fixie, the pedals just keep spinning,” Gemperle says, describing it as a launch, and a quiet moment before the thunderous thud of the human body and the 17 parts that make up the bike landing on unforgiving asphalt. “Every fixed gear rider knows that sound.”

A year ago, in Brooklyn, N.Y., Gemperle watched a horrific collision play out in slow motion just feet front of him. With five laps to go, the leader of the chase pack clipped a barrier, causing a chain reaction of others going down with him. Gemperle sped helplessly at 35 mph into the suspension of bodies and bikes. Time sped up, engulfing him in the chaos. But he is strangely at peace with every aspect of fixie crit riding, including slamming into other riders, with no ability to stop. “The feeling of knowing I was just about to crash was somehow addictive,” he reflects on last year. “It was pure adrenaline. The Red Hook is pure adrenaline.”

Gemperle is excited about racing today, and even crashing, because he found peace on a fixed gear bike, and competes on his own terms. It wasn’t long ago that Gemperle was a teen mountain biking prodigy, bombing through technical runs effortlessly, and feeling nothing.

Photo: @terrybarentsenLost in the Woods

Gemperle’s father first brought him to mountain bike events in the forest around Aarau, a Swiss town nestled beneath the Jura Mountains near Zurich. He was 10. It was quickly discovered that Gemperle was a fearless rider, and extremely talented. As a teenager, he was funnelled into a special sports high school so he could focus on mountain bike racing. At 16, Gemperle was recruited by the pro team Scott-SRAM. He was supposed to feel like he’d made it; instead, he started to dread getting on a bike. “You’re rather young when you find out you have talent,” Gemperle said via Skype from his university in nearby Zurich, where he studies architecture. “People tell you that you should do it because you're good, not because you love it,” he says. “The trigger for me was when I felt like it wasn’t about cycling; it was about racing. I had no passion for cycling anymore.”

The breaking point for Gemperle came a year after joining Scott-SRAM as he worked a shift at a local cafe. He dreaded leaving to race. “I didn’t care if I won, got 10th or 20th,” Gemperle says. “It’s supposed to be the opposite. I was a kid, and I had made it as a pro. That’s supposed to be the peak. Instead, I wanted to stay working in the cafe all day.” After a brief stint with a Giant development team, Gemperle walked away from a pro mountain biking career at 17.

"Racing is something that should be fun."

He continued to ride everyday–a cheap fixie put together by his friend Julian Meier, who owns a local bike shop and shares Gemperle’s preference for simple, clean designs. “It was just a road bike conversion. I had no money and needed to get to town,” Gemperle recalls. But after some time away from mountain bike racing, he started to have fun on it. He found the machine’s simplicity freeing.

Photo: @terrybarentsenBarcelona and Red Hook

In 2016, Meier convinced Gemperle to try racing again so he entered a fixed-gear criterium race. He travelled to Barcelona for the Red Hook Crit event there. It was an epiphany. “I found out that racing is something that should be fun, and not just a job you have to complete,” he says. “I was totally amazed. I was so scared I wouldn’t make the qualification for the finals, but I also didn’t expect to achieve anything there.” For the first time in years, Gemperle cared about the outcome of his race, but more than that, he was enjoying riding for the sake of it again. He placed 16th in the main race as an unattached rider, just five seconds back from the series leaders.

"It’s about the passion for cycling, not just being part of a package."

Gemperle joined a team for the 2017 Red Hook Crit series. He headed to New York to race. His friend Meier tagged along, in search of the perfect frameset. “He had been talking non-stop for the past two years about the American No. 22 frames,” said Gemperle. “Julian had to have one.”

After landing, Gemperle and Meier headed directly to Deluxe Cycles near the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Meier dragged a suitcase with him. When they got there, Meier unzipped it. It was packed with parts. He looked at the owner and said, “build me a Little Wing.”

The two friends spent the days leading up to the crit riding around the city, most of it with other crit racers in Prospect Park. “I was on a team bike, but Julian’s Little Wing got all the attention,” Gemperle laughs. He finally took it for a test ride, down a quiet street. “The most central aspect of the Little Wing is that it is beautiful,” he says. “I felt immediately attached to it. If you look at it, you can tell that it is definitely addictive.”

Photo: @terrybarentsen"The most beautiful bike I've ever seen"

Gemperle finished 13th in both the Brooklyn crit and the overall 2017 championship standings. And although being on a team was enjoyable, he couldn’t help but think about that No. 22 Little Wing. “I didn’t just want to sign a contract, and expect to ride a new bike each year,” Gemperle says of the team-rider dynamic. “It’s about the passion for cycling, not just being part of a package. There are too few spots in teams, and you have to take what is offered.”

"The No. 22 Little Wing is compact; it accelerates so quickly, yet it’s very predictable."

So Gemperle did what few do in a discipline where being on a team helps with travel, entry and protects your position in a race. “I really wanted to do my own thing,” he says. But No. 22 didn’t have a fixed-gear crit team. So he decided to be bold, asking if he could start a Red Hook team of one.

Gemperle sent a direct message to No. 22 via Instagram. “I said something like, ‘I feel that this is the most beautiful bike I’ve ever seen,’” he says. He explained that it was central to him to love what he’s doing. “I also said: ‘I don’t want to do this for just a season and ask for another bike. This is the bike I want to ride until I’m done racing crits.’”

A Rainy Night in Brooklyn

This year, Gemperle is No. 22’s team, and came to the Brooklyn crit with his custom Little Wing.  Before the main races of the night, it started to rain. There was a dearth of rollers to warm up on near the course, so Gemperle decided to take his Little Wing for a ride in the neighbourhood. Gemperle ripped up and down an empty street lined with old factories as the light faded and the drizzle turned to rain. “It felt like the calm before the storm,” he says.

"The Red Hook is pure adrenaline.”

“The first half of a race feels very long to me,” he says of crit finals. “I’m a bit scared about the second half; you know that there’s so much work to do to get to the end. It’s over almost before it starts.” It started to rain heavily with 10 laps to go, then Gemperle heard that familiar violent thwack just behind him–a crash. This year, Gemperle evaded danger, Then he went to work, catching about 10 people in the final laps. He finished 15th, and was one of the few non-team protected riders to finish at the front of the race.

Photo: @terrybarentsenIt was Gemperle’s third race on his Little Wing. “I know the bike now,” he says. “It’s compact; it accelerates so quickly, yet it’s very predictable. I understand the bike.” He feels titanium is unique because it is incredibly responsive, yet ages into a powerful yet familiar tool. The more it’s used, the better it feels. “It’s a very beautiful thing. It’s not just another carbon frame that has no character at all; you don’t just beat it up.” Gemperle says he was actually excited about the foul weather. He knew that the silt on the tarmac would kick up onto his legs, rub against the frame and “scratch the top tube a little bit,” he says with satisfaction in his voice. “It starts to get a bit of patina [thin layering]. I like that aspect of titanium–it has to live a little bit. You have to see that this stuff is used. You use it forever. There’s no real reason to ever change.”

Gemperle is focused this season on proving he can get on the podium by riding a bicycle he loves, and doing it in a way that brings him joy every day, especially in the quiet moments between races–training on a country road, commuting to school or warming up on an unfamiliar street while the race echoes in the distance. “I always have to keep in mind that I’m having fun,” he says. "I take a step back, I have to remind myself, I had a great time here, with my friends, on a bike that I love, in New York.”