Cycling bloggers say it again and again every year, but it's true: I can't believe the road season is back again. It seems like just yesterday that I was running all over Staten Island so that people could jump over barriers and run along the beach with their bikes on their backs. Since then there's been a whole off-season full of behavior that would make my coach cringe (Sorry, Roger) A few pigs worth of pork had been consumed, and I've lined the pockets of far too many Trappist monks this season.
When I speak to my fellow cyclists it seems that many of them have had a bit of a hard time kicking off training this year. Should we blame the weather? Sure- let's do that. The 12+inch dumps (I'm talking snow here) kill weekend rides, which are the bread and butter of base training. A winter full of wine, food, and regrettable decisions is hard to give up, but as the scale tips farther and farther away from your ideal and delusional race weight, reality must rear its ugly head. Before you know it, its time to give up your Friday nights in hopes of 6 am central park cycling glory. So how does one prepare for a return to the life of a spandex-clad monk?
For me, two words: Rouge Roubaix. For the past three years, I've made the hilariously stupid decision of having the hardest race of the season be the first race of the season. My teammate Tim and I can't stay away from this hidden gem of a Spring Classic: 101 miles, 30 of which feature offensive, minefield-like unpaved sections that make Battenkill's "un-pave" feel like a track velodrome. Oh, and by the way, even though this race is in Louisiana, it's quite hilly. Myriad short, punchy, unpaved climbs result in almost 4,000 feet of climbing. And what's not to love about an obscenely unpaved 18% grade at mile 85?
We got in two days before the race and stayed with a mutual friend in Baton Rouge. The most eventful part of the flight was realizing that I paid more to get to the airport and get my bike on the plane than i did for my ticket. Even though JetBlue's $50 bike box fee is relatively reasonable, I'm still infuriated by the fact that I'm charged for a sub-50 lb piece of luggage just because it's a bicycle. However, on the way back I discovered a fantastic way to bypass paying to get your bike on the plane: Simply say that your bike box is a massage table. There you go. Maybe I’ll have business cards made: “CJ’s love-you-long-time massage service. Where every ending is happy.”
We got suited up in our brand-spankin-new kits and went for a spin by the Mississippi Levee. It had been so long since i had ridden in warm weather- I couldn't have been happier. As we sprinted for telephone poles, a pressing questions was mulling around in the back of my head; Am I actually going to survive this race again?
Last year's Rouge Roubaix completely tore me up. Every part of my body was shredded, and I (like many) had been bonking by the end of the ride. I managed 18th place last year, but that was also with a week of Roger's Tucson cycling camp under my belt.
This time around I didn't have much confidence in my training up until 2 weeks before the race. Sure, I did a few reluctant 2+hr sessions on the trainer and got out for longer rides when I could, but I wasn't hungry for it like I was hungry for any number of delicacies I had been consuming all winter. I'd say my biggest obstacle as a bike racer is my torrid love affair with pork and foie gras products.
The night of the race we had two dinners. Sushi at 4PM and Pasta before bed. A small ocean's worth of water was consumed, and we slammed some endurolytes in preparation for the upcoming pain fest. A laid out the buffet spread for the race. I decided to bring an extra bottle of water, 'cuz bonking at a Roubaix is about as fun as carnal relations with This.
We woke up early and zoomed over to St. Francisville in our rock racing-esque SUV. We got to the hotel and registered. right by the registration tables was a course map with a lovely elevation profile that resembled tiger woods taking a lie detector test about his business trips.
The air was a bit cold and clammy and we spent about an hour debating wardrobe selection. I decided to be a little cold at the start and go short sleeves. it would later warm up to the mid-60's range, so it was a good call. After pinning on the number and slathering on a metric ton of Sportique, we were ready to go.
the first twenty miles of the race are relatively tame. our pack of about 60 cat 4's rode in a rather un-excited fashion. My biggest priority of the first 25 miles of the race was to initiate a tinkle-stop before the first dirt section. It's long been speculated that i have the bladder of a newborn infant, and I didn't want that to be an issue later on in the race. Tim and I informed the field we should take a pee break, and a few along with us pulled off to whizz. the rest of the field, though, kept going. after about 5 minutes of riding at threshold, I finally caught back on. Hilariously enough, that's when THE REST OF THE @#$!% FIELD DECIDED TO STOP FOR A BREAK. not being one to waste energy (lazy) I was a bit riled up. Tim calmed me down and we kept going.
photo by Allen Richard
The first unpaved section was around mile 25 and is an 8 mile-long, sandy, pebbly mess. it's also where a violent acceleration happens, and the entire field gets strung out and eventually disintegrates. I would say about 10-15 people rode away from where I was in that dirt section.
I was able to organize a chase group with about 5 or so other riders and we quickly started chasing upon exiting the dirt section. We had 20 mi or so till the next dirt section, and everyone worked together quite nicely. short, sweet pulls were the name of the game.
Mile 65 would mark the start of the really nasty stuff- a short, 15% unpaved climb known as “Big Bertha” awaited us- some members of the group got dropped in the 2nd dirt section, and most were forced to dismount due to a lovely sand pit right in the middle of one of the climbs.
Between the 2nd and 3rd dirt section is a stretch of rolling asphalt- probably about 20 miles long. Last year this was the stretch where i started to hurt. I don’t think i was drinking enough or being disciplined enough about eating. I know- of all people, how could forget when you eat? This year i refilled all my bottles at every feed zone, stuffing water bottles down my jersey like a cuckolded domestique. I also brought along Nuun tablets and made sure to eat something every half hour. up until the last 5 miles of the race i felt great and had no problems staying smooth.
the 3rd and final dirt section comes around mile 80-something and goes on for about 5 miles or so. within that final hilariously bad stretch of road, you’re greeted with short punchy climbs between 10-18% and descents that should be reserved for MTB’ers and CX’ers. Many a dude wiped out or had their tires go pop. This definitely wasn't a good race for tubulars or carbon wheels. I stuck with my Campy Eurus wheels and the never disappointing Vittoria Pave Clincher. Those tires are bulletproof and are without a doubt the best tires for any unpaved road race.
the worst part of the race is most certainly the last road section up to the finish. You’ve just gone through the last unpaved stretch and you and your taint are hoping for a little solace. No way, Jose- while the last 10 miles are technically “paved,” the road is mostly chip seal and littered with potholes that make you wonder if you’re riding through a minefield. At this point all but 3 people in the chase group were actually taking pulls. Myself, a kid from Arkansas, and a dude from Natchez who looked like a bumblebee. I couldn’t tell if the rest of the group was pulling the douche move of waiting to attack at the last bit or if they were truly shattered.
The final stretch to the finish line is quite ugly: about a 500 meter uphill with a dip in the middle. as we turned into the final stretch, Arkansas gave me a nice little leadout and I sprinted my fat ass uphill for half a kilometer. I got a nice gap between me and the other guys who decided to sprint, and churned to the finish line as my legs filled to the brim with lactic acid. Note to self- never sprint for 500 meters uphill ever again. I was about to vomit when I crossed the finish line, but had a good 5 bike lengths from the rest of the guys.
The minute I crossed the line I rolled over to the curb and collapsed on a patch of grass. I started hallucinating and could have sworn I saw an ethereal Phil Collins telling me to head towards the light.
I had no idea what place I came in, and frankly I didn't care. I had finished in about 5 hrs and 13 minutes, and Tim had come in about 3 minutes ahead of me. We drove back to the start and shoved food and beer down our gullets. Everyone had a glazed look in their eyes and they all moved with a drawl that would make a normal Southerner seem like a coked-out NYC I-banker.
once we got the results, I was pretty happy: Tim came in 12th and I nabbed 15th. the first year I raced Rouge I came in 20th. Last year I got 18th. As long as I beat myself year over year I’m happy.
The next day we drove over to New Orleans to reward myself and undo all the good I did by riding 100 miles. Giant gulf oysters and Po’ Boys. Hoo-rah.
Call me a masochist, but there’s no better way to kick off the road season. Once the hardest race is behind you, everything else is a relative cakewalk. This race has also brought back my desire to train. Hell, maybe I’ll try and upgrade to 3 sometime this season. Sometimes, though, It’s just fun being an excitable cat 4.
See you guys in the park.