Going fast in endurance racing is much more complex than being fit. You need to pace, eat and pedal, perfectly. Not to mention bring the proper equipment! Every little detail can add up to the difference between standing on the podium and finishing an hour down on the winner. It’s a very fragile balance, one that must be walked carefully to do well. I tried to walk that line carefully on Saturday at the Hilly Billy Roubaix, in the Wild and Wonderful state. Two weeks out the weather forecast looked quite unusual. Instead of the typical 90 degree temps that flog racers, the predicted temps looked to be surprisingly low on race day. As the date crept closer it became apparent that this was because a massive storm was going to roll through, dumping inches of water during the race.
This changed a lot of things. While Hilly Billy is a gravel/dirt/road race, it always has a few muddy spots, even during the driest of years. So match those roads up with some serious rain, and we would be in for an adventure with nature. I chose to bring my Specialized Epic World Cup mountain bike instead of a cyclocross bike for a few reasons: 1. It had bigger tires that would do better in the mud and would be less prone to flats in the gravel, I ran Maxxis Aspens and I suffered 0 flats but had good traction; 2. I wanted a trouble free drivetrain, rain and mud don’t exactly make a bike work better (even after submerging my SRAM XX1 drivetrain over 10 times, it still worked flawlessly, I was impressed); and 3. Suspension on rough WV downhills is pretty comforting to have. So with that choice, I was off.
The day came and rain had been pouring for a long time before we even hit the start line. The staging area was just a big puddle and all of us were totally soaked by the time the race started. But, given the pleasant 72 degrees, it wasn’t too bad. We began in typical fashion, blazing fast descent and within 3 minutes about 15 of us were off the front of the 300+ person field. A few gravel rollers greeted us immediately and Merwin Davis, Cole Oberman and Nick Waite were all on the front, out of the saddle, making us work for it.
First match burned.
A few miles in we hit the first steep and fast descent, right into a series of mud puddles (that were more like car sized bogs). I was happy where I was until I looked back and realized I had become the last person in the group due to dropped riders. When the second to last guy in the group went down in front of me in the first mud bog (he was on a cyclocross bike) we were gapped ever so slightly, maybe 4 seconds. No big deal, right?
When you’re navigating endless mud bogs, it is very helpful to be in a group. It’s somewhat like playing Russian roulette. You look at a massive pool of muddy water stretching across the road, and you pick a way through: left, right or middle. Your hope is that the way you pick isn’t deep or filled with obstacles and you can ride through easily. In a group, you can watch as inevitably every direction is picked by someone ahead of you, and you can go the way that looked best. So I’m 4 seconds down but am only looking at what is 1 second in front of me and thus playing the game alone. Thankfully my Screws weren’t fogging so I could actually see despite the mud spraying everywhere. But even still, I quickly picked the wrong side of a puddle and rode my bike completely under water; as in, over 3 feet deep. My cyclocross companion chose the better line and was now back ahead and catching up to the group. I extended my gap to 10 seconds wallowing out of the deep hole and soon was out of sight of the leaders. Great. 4 miles in and I lost the lead group.
I hit the road finally after slogging through what seemed like 100 bogs and was alone. Now, in most races I do, being alone is totally fine. You don’t get any drafting help while on trails so it’s great being by yourself. But at Hilly Billy, you want help. The road sections link up the gravel and dirt roads, and having companions to share the work with on those roads will increase your speed drastically. I couldn’t see anyone in front or behind me, so I just rode along easy until a group of 3 caught me and we were able to work together. However, they were blazing and motivated, unwilling to give up the lead group and after about 10 minutes we caught back on; I couldn’t believe it.
Second match burned.
Right as we caught them the road turned up, and we climbed for a while, ending with a rutted and muddy steep pitch over rocks. It was great fun in the pouring rain, except for that at 40psi in my tires, I was struggling to find traction and once again, a small gap opened to me and the rest of the group. I had to dismount to get through the peanut butter and lost more time. Here we go again.
A quick and rocky descent followed and I could see 3 riders about 15 seconds ahead who also had been gapped off the lead group. Jordan Snyder, Jeremy Burkhardt and hard-man 50+ rider Gunnar Shogren. I slowly reeled them in on a road section, and closed it up on another long gravel climb. It was harder than I would have hoped, but they were not done with the lead group yet, whereas I assumed a second catch would be impossible. We crested the climb as three and accelerated, Jordan, Gunnar and myself.
Third match burned.
Another road section waited and we got to work. Hammering. Following these guys down gravel descents was crazy. They were flying, putting me into a death grip on my ESI grips in the pouring rain, mud and deep gravel. A tight paceline with hard pulls got us into view of the lead group again; seriously unbelievable. A few minutes of work later and we caught them again, this time right before a river.
Fourth match burned.
Technically, it was a long gradual climb on gravel, but a nearby stream had overflowed into the gravel road and made everything but the center of the road a moving river. The rain still hammering, we slogged our way up the climb that got steeper and steeper as it went. Just over the top another downhill lead to a flatish road and some antsy cyclocross riders went off the front while people were sitting up eating. Everyone looked at each other and eventually the chase was picked up. A bit of disorganization led to a fracture in the group and I was now in a group of 5 with Oberman, Waite, Dan Wolf and another. Now, Waite used to be one of the better road pro’s in the country a few years back and Oberman is currently one of the best mtb pros in the country, so I wasn’t too concerned that my group would be left out of the fun. And sure enough, we got organized, and another chase brought it all back together at aid 2.
Fifth match burned.
I hit the aid station just behind most of the 9 guys in the lead pack and after searching for my drop bag for what felt like an eternity, I found it and got moving, but about 10 seconds too late. I watched the lead group crank up the steep climb ahead out of aid 2 and knew that was it for me. You can only burn so many matches in a day, and I had burned 5 in the first half of the race, far too many for a race 70 miles long. I began thinking about my mistake. I hadn’t positioned perfectly and had ridden a few sections sloppy. I hadn’t paced well at all. Wanting to have companions on the road sections had led to many unnecessary pushes that would ultimately leave me tired over the rest of the race. How much time did I save being in the group? Was it really worth it? Looking back, I don’t think it was, because the next 35 miles were SLOW.
I slogged on and saw Gunnar drop off behind me. I was happy to be in 10th place considering the talent ahead of me, but knew anyone could catch me in the closing miles. I got busy drinking Infinit GoFar to make sure I had all the calories I could stomach, and was very glad I had brought some Napalm for some extra caffeine. That was a life saver, and kept me somewhat on the gas instead of fully unraveling.
I rolled on alone, into the rain, into headwinds, up climbs and down very remote WV roads. It’s a beautiful place, even in the rain, and I’m glad JR Petsko puts on the race every year. Speaking of JR, around mile 40, he rolled up on me in his truck with Bill Schieken (In the CrossHairs). They chatted with me for a minute which helped boost my spirits on the particular climb I was on. Thanks guys.
A while later, I checked behind me and saw the inevitable; a rider was closing on me. Jeremy Burkhardt was coming and around mile 50, made the catch. We talked for a bit before he soldiered on, leaving me to my miserably tired self. A bit later Brian Patton, eventual single speed winner, rolled up and passed me around mile 55, hunting for the next SS rider that was up the road. It was pretty demoralizing going backwards through the field, but it was happening slowly, so I was hoping to hang on for the last 15 miles.
On any other day, this would be a fun 15 miles. Steep, narrow climbs with some twisty descents make it very fun and interesting. But when all you want is to be off your bike, it was painful. With about 10 miles to go, I hit some extremely tight and fast descents. The rain had stopped finally and I realized that (thankfully!) my brakes were working awesome as I almost over cooked a turn through more gravel. Mud, rain, grit, gravel and everything possible in between and the Magura’s were still kicking. That was a relief. Having good equipment is such a mental boost late in a race.
Shortly after my fun descent, two riders came up on me, Matthew Weeks and Ron Glowczynski. It was nice to see a familiar face in Ron, but they were both flying! I pushed hard to hop on Ron’s wheel and soon Matthew had a gap up the road. Another climb came and Burkhardt was on the side of the steep climb fighting cramps. He joined our group making it a trio and we rolled on.
With a handful of miles left we worked a tight paceline to try and reel Weeks in. The third to last climb came and would leave us within sight of the finish, so I knew it was time to empty the tank. During long races, I always try to save a bit of mental energy and competitiveness for the end. So I unloaded everything I had and left Ron and Jeremy to bridge to Weeks. I caught him and Merwin Davis at the base of the second to last climb, a grassy one, and descended through a field a bit faster than they could on their cyclocross bikes. I was flat out, tucked down, and rolling, hoping to get a few precious seconds to hold them off.
The last road climb to the finish line is only 2 mintues, but it might as well have been 20. I saw Weeks coming. I stood, pounding the pedals. Then I sat, spinning fiercely. I fought the bike up the hill, trying desperately to get more out of my legs, but they were dead. Weeks passed, riding strong, and I rolled in for 9th in the U40 group and 11thoverall (results).
Not bad. I rode considerably faster than in 2013, even with our monsoon conditions, but I broke my cardinal rule: go out easy and pace carefully. Yes, riding in the lead group taught me some great lessons which is helpful, but overall I think it would have been a faster day if I had hung back and worked with Ron. If we had worked together all day, I think we both could have finished even faster than we did. Oh well, that’s racing. It was fun, and I got beat by some of the best in Hilly Billy’s strongest field yet. Hopefully I’ll be back next year!
Awesome race recap video from the Gravel Cyclist
Short film by In the Cross Hairs