Epic. Yes, that word may be overused by me and many people. But, that’s the only word to sum up Rouge Roubaix. What an experience! My teammate Lennie and I drove down from Birmingham, Alabama to Zachary, Louisiana – the nearest town to the start in St Francisville with hotel rooms still available – but still about 25 minutes from the start. The Best Western we stayed at was awesome – with a great breakfast the next morning.
We ate a great breakfast and then drove over to St Francisville. My day was already made within 2 seconds of walking into the registration area as I immediately noticed a 3 foot tall printout of the TopoCreator map I had made for the race. I was surprised and elated to see the organizers had found and printed the map for everyone to see!!! Check out this picture I took of it after the race –
By the time we finished getting everything ready and rolled to the start line, the official was giving last minute instructions. Two minutes later we were off for a somewhat agonizing 23+ miles of “scrum” — fighting for position and to maintain position near the front of the pack before the first dirt road. An early break with three riders rolled off the front and established a 5 minute lead as the pack was content to roll along at a very leisurely pace. None of the big players (as far as I could tell) were up the road, and a couple big teams were not represented in the break — so I knew that it was doomed. Still, when you hear of a 5 minute lead, it’s hard to imagine bringing that back!
I had pre-programmed the entire route into my Garmin – so it was giving me turn-by-turn directions. I knew exactly how many miles we had left until the 1st dirt/gravel road. When we got within a couple miles of the turn onto the dirt road, the pace really picked up as did the scrum (battle for position). A small crowd was gathered at that first turn and we dove into it and blazed ahead. It was exactly what I expected for about the first 15 seconds. Then I realized that there were two definite “lines” that you needed to take either side of the center. It wasn’t what I was expecting, but I thought “ok, no problem” just get into the line and don’t lose the wheel in front of you.” Well, that lasted for about another 15 seconds before we hit the first really loose stretch of gravel/sand/rocks and my bike started to fish tail like crazy. It was hard to ride in a straight line as your wheel would slide out from under you and push you off of the two main “lines”. If you strayed too far then you got into really loose sand and could fall or scrub all kinds of speed. I made it about a mile holding on for dear life to the wheel in front of me with my heartrate pegged in the 190s when I moved a little too far left and hit a deep section of gravel. My wheel slid out and I had to stop pedaling and basically coast to a near-stop to keep from falling. I got started again, but I had gotten passed by a lot of people and lost not only my momentum but pretty much all of my nerve. I was much more tentative and riders continued to pass me and pull away.
Eventually a small group of riders caught up to me, and I decided that I was going to do everything I could do to stay with that group even if it meant falling and breaking something. I struggled to keep up mostly on the flatter sections as they tended to have pockets of sand/gravel, and I would fishtail losing momentum and have to push it really hard to either catch back up or keep from falling off the back of the group. My Garmin beeped at me two times to let me know that we were coming up on a turn. Each time I thought, “Surely, this must be the end of the first dirt section”. But instead, we simply turned from one dirt road onto another one. It was the most agonizing 8 miles I have ever ridden. Several times I thought I had reached the end of my limit and was going to get dropped, but each time I was able to either rest for just a couple seconds or push myself just that little bit harder to keep from losing the wheel. I also realized that I was pushing too small a gear and that you could make it through the sandy sections easier if you were pushing a big gear and reducing the number of pedal strokes which impart a sideways force. By the end of that section, I had ridden 25 minutes with an average heartrate of 186. Keep in mind that my LT heartrate is only 180, and my max is 197!!!
Finally, my Garmin beeped for a third time, and we could see a group of people gathered up ahead so I figured surely it was the feed zone at the end of the Louisiana “pavé” — and sure enough, it was! I grabbed a neutral water and drained it as we started to roll on the pavement. There really was no chance to recover as we drilled it to try to catch up with the main group. At this point, I thought for sure that there was no hope of catching the group, but I also thought there’s nothing to lose – so I pulled 100% as several riders also were just completely burying it with every pull. Within 10 minutes, we caught sight of the peloton at least a mile up the road. This motivated us even more and we pushed even harder. A few minutes later we could see that they were spread out across the road not going very fast so we knew that we were going to be able to catch them. We made it and still had about 20 miles to rest and recover before the next dirt section.
There were a few attacks early in this long stretch of the race, but they were brought back and the pace settled down into a fairly steady pace. It was still pretty slow, but faster than the long 23 mile rollout before the first gravel section with Hotel San Jose setting the pace. They weren’t happy that nobody else was helping them – so with less than 10 miles left to go to the second gravel section. They began attacking the group. This led to a number of accelerations that were fairly quick brought back, but eventually they got a rider away. I bridged across to a small chase group with two more Hotel San Jose riders and an Aerocat rider (I think it was Emile Abraham). Emile put in a hard pull, then I pulled through, and then the Hotel San Jose rider barely pulled through. Even though we had a good gap on the field at this point (maybe 10 seconds?), they didn’t want to do anything to help bring the small group of us up to their one rider. So with two of them not working, our chase was doomed and the pack caught up to us a couple minutes later.
Fortunately, I had a chance to rest as I was expecting a huge counter attack when we were caught – but it didn’t happen. We had closed the distance enough to the lone rider, and we were now only a few miles away from the next section of Louisiana pavé. The counter attack didn’t materialize, but our pace was noticeably quicker as we approached the dirt. My Garmin counted down the miles and beeped at me with 0.2 miles left to the turn. We made the sharp turn and flew up the road. This section was only three miles long, and the first half mile alternated between pavement, dirt, gravel, potholes, and even a few mud puddles. During this section, Mike Olheiser (Warp9/Moonstar) flatted and pulled off to the side. I found out later that his teammate, Travis Sherman, saw it happen and traded wheels to get Mike back into the race as quickly as possible. This all happened about a quarter mile before the base of the day’s longest climb – a 0.83 mile climb with an average grade of 6.4% and a maximum pitch of 10.5% for a quarter mile. The hill was sandy and rocky, but rideable at the bottom. Mike Olheiser caught up to me and passed me, and I decided that I was going to hang onto his wheel for as long as I could up the climb. Well, that lasted about a quarter mile when we made it to a deep sand pit and Mike was able to power right through but I got tangled up with another rider and had to stop. The road was too steep and the gravel too loose to get started again. So I ran and pushed the next tenth of a mile up the hill before there was a hard packed section where you could remount your bike and continue up the hill. By the top of the hill, the race was completely shattered with riders everywhere and small groups forming across the rest of the gravel section. This one wasn’t too long so by the end I was in a group of about 6-8 riders. We pushed the pace very hard and picked up riders coming off of groups ahead of us. Knowing the final outcome, I now realize that we must have been the fourth group on the road. In my head, though, I was thinking that we were either the second or third group. So I was very, very happy with my position after this gravel section compared to my position after the first gravel section.
We pushed really hard and got a good rotation going with a long gradual downhill section for the next 10 miles before the last section of pavé – but we never caught sight of any groups in front of us – only a few riders who had gotten dropped from the group(s) ahead. By the time we reached the last section, there was maybe 12-15 of us in our group. This last section of pavé was by far the most fun. It was basically a path through a national or state forest area with lots of banked corners that you could fly through even on the dirt/gravel. The road was constantly turning and a good chunk of it after the first couple miles was downhill. Midway through this section, Emile Abraham caught up to us by himself and started to blow right by our group – but that helped rally us and we notched it up a bit to keep up with Emile through the rest of the forest. Even after we made it back onto paved roads, the roads were still constantly turning with lots of sharp uphills and downhills. Emile continued to drive the pace along with a strong Warp 9 rider and two Myogenesis riders. I helped pull, but I was also starting to conserve energy thinking that we weren’t going to catch any other groups and that I needed to have something left for the sprint within our group. Also, my Garmin was faithfully ticking off the miles left in the race – 10 miles, 9 miles, 6 miles … and with about 6 miles to go as we rounded a corner, I see another Aerocat rider coming back to our group. It was Andy Crater. He and his teammate, Emile, who was in our group ratcheted up the pace again driving really hard. And for about 3 miles I couldn’t imagine why they were pushing the pace so hard. Then it dawned on me, that Andy’s group must have just been up the road – but out of sight because of all the turns! Sure enough, with about 2 miles left in the race, we caught their group of 6 riders (including 3 Hotel San Jose riders).
But shortly before we caught that group, the craziest, coolest, scariest thing of the race happened. We were approaching an intersection and I saw a car entering the intersection ahead of us. We were still about a quarter mile away so I thought “no big deal, the car will be long gone ahead of us by the time we get there”. Well, about a minute later we see the car stopped in the middle of our lane. I had no idea why so as I am sitting in third wheel in the rotation, I yell “go around”. So we fly around the car, around a corner and immediately see why the car was stopped. There was a 75meter long one-lane spillway bridge around the corner and a rather large pick-up truck already on it crossing the bridge. We had already committed to going onto the bridge, as we were going 25-30mph around the car. The two guys in front of me decided there was enough room so they motored ahead and so did I but at the last second I realized that with the truck’s mirror sticking out you had to pull your arm in to keep from hitting it! So right after I did that, I cringed waiting to hear the sound of one of the riders behind me plowing into the mirror, then over the side of the spillway into the river and eaten by alligators – but it didn’t happen. We all made it safely through and with that bit of adrenaline pumping through us we quickly closed the rest of the gap to the small group of riders in front of us.
At that point, the pace plummeted as the cat and mouse games immediately began. By this point our group had over 20 riders in it – and with one mile to go, Andy Crater rolled off the front of our group with a Myogenesis rider. There was no immediate chase, but we caught them with 1k to go and there was a bit of a lull before the pace went up again and we flew through the last series of 90 degree corners taking you into the 500 meter to go hill. I was sitting in fourth wheel, but got swarmed going into the final corner. I came out of the corner in 8th or 9th position going into the base of the hill. You could tell the 101 miles had worn on everyone though, as I started picking off riders all the way up the hill — even as I was cramping myself. We must have been the most awkward-looking group of riders sprinting. At the top, I came across the line in 5th place for our group which later turned out to be 18th overall. Pat Allison finished just ahead of me with Eric Murphy just behind me. Whew, what an awesome, fun, epic race. Tired, exhausted, but already looking forward to next year.
My teammates Mike and Lennie did well to finish the race – as there were many, many strong riders that weren’t able to do that. Both of them stayed upright, pushed it hard, and persevered to the finish. Good job, guys!
Lastly, here’s my annotated heartrate data.
- Easy aerobically, but stressful fighting for position and or wondering if I would be able to move up to the front by the first pavé section
- The first turn, several short-lived attacks. Eventually a group of three gets away without key teams represented
- The first pavé – heartrate jumps from 155 to 194 in less than a quarter mile
- The end of the first pavé – average heartrate of 186 for the 8 mile section
- Chasing and working hard to catch back on
- Attacks in the middle of the long road between the 1st and 2nd pavé sections
- The start of the second pavé section
- The start of the third pavé section
- Responding to an attack on a hill
- The final sprint