Rouge-Roubaix Race Report
Waiting for the start in St. Francisville, I'm shivering slightly despite my double jerseys, knowing full well that in a couple of hours I'll be wishing I'd left one of them in the car. Keith and I start out side-by-side for the three-mile neutral roll to the official start. My thirty-seventh racing season is officially underway. I wonder once again why I do this as we fly down the first descent at 35 mph.
The "A" group of Cat. 1-3 and Masters riders is, I guess, around 75 strong and there are teams from Florida, Texas, Mississippi and Louisiana. I tell Keith I'm afraid it may be a fast start. Indeed, a break goes off the front within the first few miles, but the pack doesn't react much. I'm happy with the pace and have already implemented my Rouge-Roubaix strategy, which is to do as little work as possible except immediately before and during the long sections of gravel and dirt. For those sections, all bets are off!
There will be many stories about this year's Rouge-Roubaix road race. Already infamous in four or five states, this annual festival of pain encompasses 100 miles (actually only about 97 this year due to a last-minute course change) of some of the most scenic and poorly maintained roadways in the Felicianas. For various reasons, there were more crashes and flat tires this year than I've ever seen before.
I started this race, as I have before, knowing full well that I was getting in over my head. Coming early in the racing season, area cyclists are still all over the board in terms of fitness, so at least you know you'll always have someone to ride with. You just don't exactly know who it will be.
Things remain fairly calm for the first 25 miles or so, interrupted only by an attack by Michael Olheiser, last year's winner. He's wearing his National Champion stars and stripes jersey, making him easy to pick out. I finally roll up to Keith and ask how far to the first gravel section and he says that we're almost there. We quickly work our way up near the front and round the turn onto the gravel about five back, just behind Michael. Olheiser immediately pours on the gas as the gravel sucks up our momentum and the road pitches up. Instinctively, I respond right away, but fifteen seconds later I realize I'm in serious trouble. I'm rapidly and unexpectedly sinking into O2 debt and my legs are already loading up. I have no choice to ease up and watch twenty riders stream past. Finally recovered from my stupidity, I blend in with the group, but already there is a break of about twenty off the front. The next five or six miles are rough. The gravel this year is fresh and big and there are numerous riders standing on the roadside with flats waiting for the entirely inadequate follow car. With two or three miles of gravel left to go, there's a crash just ahead of me as one rider loses it in the loose gravel and two other plow into him. One of them is Rob K. Jason, Matt and I thread through an opening and continue. We're leading what was probably the third group. The group ahead of us is already long gone. I see a couple of Herring guys on the side of the road with flats. The group up ahead has been out of sight from almost the beginning, and Keith was with it. Then, I see Keith on the roadside with a flat too. Finally we hit the asphalt and things settle down a bit.
There's a fairly long stretch between the first gravel section and the second one, and our group grows. Historically, the group gets split on the gravel, but most riders catch back up on this stretch. With ten miles or so left before the second stretch, we catch Kenny B. who had been in the front group. I ask him how many people are up the road and he says there are two groups of ten or eleven up the road. I know we won't be seeing most of them again. In our group is Scott K., and he is obviously frustrated with our pace. With about five miles to go to the second dirt stretch, he and another few riders get away and build up a gap of maybe 20 seconds. Just before we get to the turn onto the next gravel road, Herring's Bain Foote and a few other riders catch us. Bain had flatted on the first gravel road and has been flogging a small group of chasers ever since.
We make the turn onto the next road and cross a dangerous plank bridge. I'm in good position near the front as we turn onto the second gravel road and immediately begin a long leg-breaking 1-mile climb in loose gravel and sand. I'm wishing I had something lower than the 39x23 I'm in. When we hit the climb, the riders just explode all over the place. I look up to the top of the hill and I can see most of Scott's breakaway on foot, pushing their bikes. Bad sign! There is nothing resembling a paceline as each rider tries to find rideable road and struggles with spinning and sliding wheels. Two-thirds of the way up my front wheel washes out and I have to put a foot down. I'm not the only one, either. I walk up the hill, leaning on my bike, until the road is a little more firm, and remount. A lot of riders are already over the top. I finally get going again and catch up to a few other riders and we slip and slide our way over the remaining hills until we finally meet asphalt again. My shoulders and lats hurt from pulling on the bars, and my ring has started to cut into my finger. I'm hurting now and having trouble focusing on the road because of the constant pounding. A little chase and we catch a few more and eventually have a nice little group again. My legs are not feeling all that good, and there are still over 30 miles left to go. I gulp down some more HammerGel. Every now and then a few more riders catch up to us from behind.
Somewhere around 80 miles in, we finally hit the final gravel section. It's easier than last year's final stretch, but my legs are really hurting now and I struggle with the large gravel and sandy climbs. The rider I'm following heads over to the right side of the road and I blindly follow him right into a bunch of sand. I have just enough time to say "this is bad." We're both off the bike walking up the hill. Riders are disappearing in the distance as I finally find a spot to remount, but again, there are other riders around me in the same situation. I chase and catch a couple of other guys and am trying to settle in a bit when I lose it again on a steep climb. I was probably shifting at the time and I almost crash, getting one foot on the ground at the last moment. I've dropped my chain and have to stop to reseat it, then I walk a bit more to a spot where I can remount, miss clipping in on the first two tries, and finally continue.
I'm pretty much alone now. Most of the riders who were in my group are up the road -- a few are behind. I'm no longer really in "chase mode." I'm just trying to survive and stay upright until I can get off of the gravel. A mountain bike rider I am not. When I hit the asphalt road it's so rough and full of holes that it takes me a few miles before I'm convinced it's not gravel. I look back and see a lone Herring rider about fifteen seconds back and ease up so he can catch. My worst nightmare is to have to ride this whole last section alone. When he catches I lift the pace one or two mph, back up to maybe 20, but when I look back again he has dropped off. I'm on my own again. For the next ten miles or so I ride in my own private pain tunnel with the vague sense that there must be a group chasing me, and then I catch a glimpse of a jersey up ahead rounding a curve. A few minutes later I roll up to three riders and latch on.
I feel like I've been saved from a fate worse than death. If we can just all work together for the last seven or eight miles we'll do OK. Then, with fewer than five miles to go, a group of six or so catches us and immediately rolls past. I accelerate to go with them and four or five leg muscles cramp simultaneously. They are only going maybe 20 mph, but my legs are obviously toast at this point and they rebel. I end up with a small group of four or five that includes some of our original group and some of the group that caught us, and after a while my legs begin to recover a bit. With three miles left, Rob flats. He's already crashed on the first gravel section and had to chase back on after commandeering the front wheel of the rider who took him down. He's riding tubulars, so he goes to the back and just rides in on the flat. I end up with one other rider for the last couple of miles, and then, on a climb almost within sight of the finish, he drops off. I end up finishing 29th, which was perhaps my worst ever overall placing. Some years you're lucky and can ride the whole way, other years, you walk....