Two Scoops of Rocky Road, Please
A Day at the Rouge-Roubaix
by Randy Legeai
Photos by Malcolm Schuler
The “Rouge” is a sometimes brutally hard race where everyone is lumped into one of two fields and sent out with minimal support to contend with a 100-mile circuit that includes something like 15 miles of unpaved roads. You can pretty much bet that your legs will be sore for a couple of days after this one.
I was riding the “A” race that includes Cat. 1,2,3 and Masters and was happy to see a nice sized field of about 65. There’s a 3-mile neutral ride from the hotel to the course, and I was hoping things would stay cool for a while because I know the REAL race doesn’t start until about 65 miles in when the route leaves the asphalt for the second time.
So we get to the course and the racing starts and one mile later I look down and see “29” on my computer. There are more surges over the next hour and the pace stays fairly high, but the group stays together. I’m trying to conserve and stay out of trouble toward the back of the field.
We hit the first dirt section at 25 miles and at first the pace is pretty steady at 23-24. This road is in good shape with some nicely hard-packed dirt except for the curves where the gravel and sand are deep. After the first couple of miles the pace starts to creep up as the front of the pack starts trying to reel back someone who has gone solo. For the rest of this dirt section, every time I dare to take my eyes off the road and glance at my computer, I see speeds of 28-30. OK, so I’m impressed. Definitely the fastest I’ve ever gone off-asphalt and it’s enough to split the pack. We come to an unmarked fork and there’s a brief discussion at the front. We stay left, which as it turned out was the correct route according to the cue sheet. Behind us, the rest of the race goes right. So we finally come out of the dirt as Frank Moak (Herring) flats. A couple of teammates drop back to assist and I’m happy that the pace stays moderate. A few miles later Frank and company are back and we see Brennan Percy up the road ahead. As we catch, he comes alongside and says he thought we were the “B” group because he had been dropped on the dirt section. I quickly figure out what’s happened. Everyone we dropped on the dirt is now a couple of miles ahead of us because they took a shortcut! Not a problem, though, because we catch all of them within the next few miles.
At about 60 miles I start working to stay near the front in anticipation of the difficult second dirt section at 65 miles. Behind us in the “B” group, one rider has been T-boned by a deer on the dirt road and thrown into the ditch, but he’s back on the bike and will ultimately finish his race. Our race is starting to heat up as we approach the second dirt section and the front of the group stays strung out. The Mad Duck guys are all over the front of the group now and I am spending a lot of time riding in the wind alongside the paceline in order to maintain position. Every now and then I can slip into the paceline but riders aren’t being very generous about letting guys in up there. We make a left turn onto a rough road that leads to the second dirt section and I’m up near the front behind Troy Porter (Herring). It’s a good spot and as we cross an old wooden bridge with tire-grapping slots I hear an odd-sounding crash behind me. Someone has gone down on the bridge and Rob Konrad (Adam’s) hits him, breaking his fork and landing, Jan Ullrich style, way down in the roadside ditch. No time to look back, though, because we immediately hit the second dirt section which features a mile-long climb in loose gravel and sand. This is always a decisive point in the race and I’m maxed out in my 39x23 by the top, trying my best to keep my rear wheel from spinning out on the loose surface. There are a few more miles of steep climbs and “close your eyes” descents along this stretch and it slices the field up into ribbons. Along the way I get whacked across the face by a low-hanging vine that nearly draws blood. I cannot quite hold the lead group of 10 or so riders, but finally pop out onto the pavement with the 2nd group. The lead group is about 20 seconds up but it’s flying. Someone is off the front and they are in full pursuit. My group is having trouble staying together and our paceline keeps coming apart. A couple of us are working hard to keep the pace fast enough to close without shattering the group. After a few miles of hard chasing and a final surge, we make contact. I take a quick headcount. There are only about 16 riders left. I’m sure there’s a chase group, but I can’t see it. The pace stays pretty fast, but there are no big attacks. Herring still has Moak, Alexander and Porter. FCS has Duncan, Hallock, Rogut and Seagrave. Memphis has Breure and Knoop, and Jason Snow up there too. The killer dirt hill at mile 81 is coming up fast but my legs are still OK.
We round the left turn onto the final dirt road fast and the gravel immediately sucks away the momentum. I hear a crunching sound to my left as Frank Moak looks down at his derailleur which has exploded and calmly says “I’m done.” Three riders lose traction and are off their bikes running up the hill. I’m over on the right in the tire track stuck behind a couple of riders who I’m afraid are going to lose it at any moment. A group of four or five riders shoots past up the hill on my left but there’s nothing I can do about it now. I’m in my lowest gear and all over the bike, riding very ugly as I try to keep enough weight on the rear wheel to keep moving. I see a photographer up near the top of the climb documenting the agony. I latch onto the back of a little group of six or seven riders as I come over the top and this group is definitely not throwing in the towel. I am having serious trouble now on the climbs and almost lose it in the loose gravel. Near the end of the dirt section I lose a few bike lengths and am only able to make it up by taking a kamikaze run down the next hill. I’m obviously not thinking too clearly - perhaps a prerequisite for surviving this brutal little piece of off-asphalt racing.
As I finally hit the tarmac again I’m a bit off the back and hurting bad, but Chris Alexander (Herring) comes past and lets me catch his wheel. It is do-or-die time. We chase hard for a mile or so and finally regain contact with four other riders. There is a group of 7 or 8 up the road somewhere but our chances of catching over the remaining 15 miles are slim. Behind us I can see nothing but empty road. This six-man group stays together, picking up one other rider along the way, and most seem content to keep the pace fast enough to avoid being caught. Meanwhile in the lead group Troy Porter takes a flyer near the end and makes it to within 500 meters of the finish before being caught on the climb by Snow, Knoop, Duncan and Hallock. Bruere and Rogut finish out the rest of the leaders. Our group is about a minute and a half behind and as we finally make the turn onto the last stretch there are a couple of attacks. The group shatters and Chris and I come in together in 12th and 13th at around 4:26. Behind us are a couple of lone riders, with the next group over two minutes down. I wait for my teammates to come in, one by one, over the next 30 minutes.
The logbook will get another “survived the Rouge” as I mentally kick off another season of road racing in the South.