Rouge Roubaix Race Report
It was a cruel twist of fate to have Daylight Savings Time begin on the morning of this year's Rouge-Roubaix. With a pre-dawn temperature of 32F but an expected noon temperature of around 65F, clothing choice was going to be a big compromise. The plan was to meet Viv and Branden at about 5 am to drive up to B.R. in time for the start, so I went to bed a little early Saturday night after setting the clock to DST and the alarm to 4:15 a.m. Shortly before midnight I woke up and looked for the clock on the night table. Thinking something must be hiding the numbers, I reached up to move it only to find that the lights were out. They were out everywhere. No power as far as I could see up and down the street. I waited half an hour or so to see if it would come back on, but finally gave up and set my cellphone alarm instead. Good thing I'd awakened in the middle of the night or we would have been very late.
So we made the two-hour drive up to St. Francisville, watching the thermometer drop from the lower 40s in New Orleans down to 32. The parking lot at the hotel was very busy for the start and we all debated what to wear, or not wear. I ended up with a base layer plus three jerseys, arm-warmers, knee-warmers, etc., yet still spent the first ten miles shivering. Forty miles later I'd feel extremely overdressed. Having your handlebars erupt into uncontrolled shivering while in the middle of a 109-rider field can be a little uncomfortable. Somewhere along the way it struck me that this was the 10th annual Rouge-Roubaix. It doesn't seem like it's been that long. Finally I started to warm up as the huge field squeezed its way down a narrow winding country road under a full canopy of trees.
I looked down at the computer. 20 miles. With the first dirt section at around 24 miles, I knew it was time to make my way closer to the front. This was no easy task, of course, since the pack was basically ditch-to-ditch and lots of others had the same idea. Slowly I worked my way toward the front and hit the dirt in a pretty good spot, somewhere within the front twenty or so, I guess. The road was well-packed this year and the gravel wasn't deep, so it was more of a dirt road than a gravel road. Somewhere behind, just before the turn, there had been a big crash. I wouldn't even learn about it until thirty miles later. The dirt and gravel demands your full attention, and even though there wasn't a break off the front this year, the pace remained brisk on this relatively flat road. I saw 27 mph at one point. Soon after we got back onto the asphalt, all hell seemed to break loose ahead of me. Apparently the riders near the front had reached an agreement to make a nature break and suddenly they all started pulling off the road and hitting their brakes. This came as something of a surprise to those of us nearer the back and almost resulted in a big pile-up.
The next long stretch on the road was surprisingly uneventful. Usually there are repeated attacks along here as riders and small groups try to establish a gaps before hitting the second gravel section at 60 miles. This year, though, the Metro VW guys from Dallas were staying on the front riding fast tempo. I always try to rest as much as I can along this stretch, so I dropped back a ways to where I thought I was around mid-pack. Glancing back, though, I was surprised to discover that I was instead at the back of the pack. That's where I found out that there had been that big crash. Even so, the group was still pretty large. There must have been around 60 or 70 in the field. With five miles left before the second dirt section I again started trying to move up. The problem was that there wasn't enough pressure at the front to string things out at all, so everyone was bunched up and getting more and more anxious the closer we got.
Somehow, after a long and concerted effort, I worked my way reasonably close to the front by the time we turned onto the dirt. This second stretch had a bit more gravel, but was still pretty fast and solid by Rouge-Roubaix standards. Right away we hit the mile-long climb that usually splits things up. Behind me I heard Brooks anxiously saying, "Randy, I REALLY NEED you to move over so I can come past on the right." I looked up the road at the disintegrating field and the long climb and calmly obliged. Brooks shot past and I wondered how he'd maintain that pace all the way to the top. A little while later I passed him and coming over the top I could see riders scattered all up and down the road in small groups. Most of them, of course, were in front of me. Finally I reached asphalt again and found myself immediately in a loose group of five or six other riders. Twenty seconds up ahead we could see the main group coming back together, and fifteen seconds ahead of them a smaller lead group. We were all hurting, but after a little encouragement we got a paceline going and started to chase in earnest. I was glad to have Russ Walker in our group because I knew he would keep the chase going. The problem, though, was that the big group ahead of us was also in full-on chase mode, so although we were going full-bore ourselves, we weren't making much headway. Glancing up the road it looked like the main group was closing in on the break, so I started to hope that once they caught they would all ease up for a while. The follow car passes us and we pick up a little draft, but I can see that we're going to catch anyway as the two groups up the road start to come together. So after chasing for five miles or so we were all safely back in what remained of the main field. I sucked down some more HammerGel, drank some water, and looked around. The group was now down to maybe 40 and we had been the last to make it across.
The final, and most difficult, dirt section was quickly approaching at mile 80 and as usual my legs were already feeling the miles. I can't remember another year when the lead group was still so large by that point, though. Clearly it was all going to happen on the viciously steep climb at mile 80 and the run-in to the finish in St. Francisville. So here's where I made two really crucial mistakes.
Shortly before the turn onto the last dirt section I found myself sitting practically ON the back talking to another rider and not paying attention to the mileage. Suddenly I look up and see the front of the group making the left turn and already know I'm in serious trouble. I shift to the small ring and prepare for the agony. We hit the climb right away and the front of the group just attacks it like it's a bump in the road. I'm feeling OK, spinning the 25 up the early part of the hill right behind a little string of riders. Somewhere ten or fifteen guys ahead of me a rider loses it and has to put his foot down. Everyone behind him, including me, is forced to stop, unclip, and start walking up the hill. I hear Frank Moak mumble something like "It's over" as he puts his foot down (it wasn't, for him). Now I'm really losing ground. Cyclocross is not my forte.'
So I run up a few steps and realize that the surface doesn't seem all that soft, so I decide to try and clip in so I can get back on the bike. Mistake. Huge mistake. I try once and my foot slips off the pedal. I try again and clip in but the grade is so steep I can barely move the bike. I can hear the guys in the following car, which is now immediately behind me because I'm dead last, screaming encouragement. "Come on Randy, ride that bike!" I inch up a few meters and lose it and have to unclip again. The race is disappearing over the top and I'm running up the road again. Finally I get clipped in again but the group, scattered as it has become, is already far up the road. I'm on my own. Up and over another hill and I see a water bottle rolling around in the gravel and Russ just getting back up to speed after losing it on the edge of the road. He latches on and we roll through the rest of the gravel. The race is long gone, but we pick up another rider, maybe two, so we have a little group. Soon the follow car passes us and I watch as it disappears down the road -- always a rather depressing image.
A few miles later we come up to two teammates excitedly switching bikes or wheels or something, and after a while they come screaming past us. Russ latches on and I try, but both calves are starting to cramp every time I stand so I have to let them go. Now I'm with one other rider and we have about ten miles left to ride. He seems to be suffering even more badly than I, so I'm taking really long pulls. My calves are feeling better, so we're rolling along at a reasonable pace but when I go to pull off I discover he's off the back. Not wanting to ride the last eight or nine miles alone I wait up for him and we get going again. He takes a couple of pulls, but twice again I find he's dropped back. Just before the last time he asks me how much farther because his computer is reading something like 99 miles. I have to tell him that it will be closer to 104 by the time we get to the finish, and you can almost hear the air coming out of him. So I ended up riding in the last three miles solo.