Wild, Wonderful West Virginia

Welcome to the “Hell of Appalachia!”

Prologue:

The Hilly Billy Roubaix—now in its seventh edition—pays homage to the Queen of the Classics—Paris-Roubaix. Commonly known as “Hell of the North,” Paris-Roubaix doles out cobblestone punishment unmatched in the roadie world. For all its grit and devotion to pain, I dub the Hilly Billy Roubaix the “Hell of Appalachia.”

My introduction to the race was a video by In The Crosshairs which chronicled the 2015 edition. “That looks like fun,” I naively thought to myself. When the registration opened this year, I signed up in the first few days.

Right now you're asking yourself, yes, but are there any more portojohn pictures?
Yes, but are there any more portajohn pictures?
Sheeeeeeeeeit
Sheeeeeeeeeit

Friday, June 24, 2016:

I left work early to hit the road. The mountains on the drive through Maryland and into West Virginia are no joke; that much was evident by the climbing lanes on I-68.

My first stop in Morgantown was Pathfinders, the local outdoor supplier and bike shop, to pick up my race packet. From there I went to Sheetz to load up on supplies for the cooler and procure one of the many made-to-order sandwiches. I opted for a sub and added a small order of fries. I regret not getting a bigger quantity of fries.

The man walking through the Sheetz parking lot with a (presumably loaded) handgun on his hip was a little unsettling. This was my first encounter with a townie, the majority of whom I saw were either grossly overweight or skinny as a rail. Best practice is to keep interactions to a minimum, as townies are not to be trifled with.

When your whip is bigger than the horse you rode in on.
5-star Yelp review
5-star Yelp review

Finally I arrived at Mason-Dixon Historical Park, the start/finish of the Hilly Billy Roubaix and my campsite for the evening. I met Lori, the landowner and operator of the park, who checked me in and gave me a rundown of the site. I chose to camp down the hill from the main pavilion and closer to Dunkard Creek, which forms a natural border around most of the property. I set up my hammock, rolled out my sleeping bag, poured myself some bourbon, and settled in with my book and journal.

As the sun set beyond the hills, an army of fireflies descended on the open field. A nearby flood light attracted a swarm of insects and bats which feasted on them all night. I could hear the bats dive-bombing in the darkness, wings flapping in rapid succession as they swooped through the cloud of insects. But the best thing about sleeping in the hammock was the stars. There is no better way to fall asleep than under a blanket of stars.

Saturday, June 25, 2016:

The peaceful bliss of the morning is interrupted by the roar of a gator vehicle. Through an all-encompassing fog I see Lori behind the wheel, making the rounds at 7am to clean restrooms and scrub toilets. She is industrious.

Good morning, West Virginia!

“Had I known you were driving up this morning, I would have asked you for a ride.”
“No thanks, I like to jerk off when I’m driving.”
“I’ll hold the wheel for you.”
-Anonymous

Breakfast was a half-pound of bacon, half-dozen eggs, and french press coffee. Afterwards, I prepped for the race and made my way to the startline for the 10am send-off.

Miles 1-4 – The race starts out on pavement and then makes a sharp left up the first unpaved climb of the day. The pack largely dismounts and pushes their bike up the hill.

Mile 4.5 – The first of many steep gravel descents. I am terrified as I put my hands in the drops, release the tension in my shoulders and elbows, and let go of the brakes.

Mile 13 – The pack turns onto the infamous Little Indian Creek Road, and it’s…not that bad. It’s paved and there are some rolling hills. It’s here that I turn up the speed. I blow past a number of riders, including a paceline five or six riders deep. My legs feel strong.

Mile 17 – The pavement of Little Indian Creek Road ends abruptly and resembles more creek than road.

Mile 17.5 – The creek is a mud slip-n-slide and I keep pedaling to maintain what little control I have. The more I pedal, the faster I go. I’m struggling to keep the bike upright when my front tire hits a rut and gets stuck in the mud. I go head over handlebars into a gigantic mud puddle yet come out relatively unscathed.

“Cross is coming!”Me, shouldering my bike in knee-deep water

Mile 19 – Knee-deep water forces everyone to dismount and carry their bike.

Mile 21 – Aid Station #1: I refill both water bottles and devour two brownies, a banana, and handful of peanuts. I don’t stick around long.

Mile 26 – A singlespeed rider is powering uphill out of the saddle. I compliment his dedication to purity. He, in turn, openly questions his sanity.

Check Point #2 arrival
Aid Station #2 arrival

Mile 33 – Aid Station #2: I refill both water bottles and grab an ice-cold Coca-Cola, two handfuls of peanuts, and a brownie. The legs are definitely feeling it.

Mile 38 – Yet another mountain to climb and my legs cramp up. I stop and do some light stretching. A passing rider suggests I load up on pickles at the next aid station.

Mile 41 – A narrow, paved road hugs a creek stained fluorescent orange. Whatever it is, it’s unnatural. My heart aches for the people and the land.

Cresting the hill.
Cresting the hill.

“I’m here for all your liquids” –Me, entering Aid Station #3

Mile 47 – Aid Station #3: I refill the bottles and consume two pickles, two small dixie cups of pickle juice, one packet of electrolyte pills, two dixie cups of peanuts, one gel, and a Coca-Cola.

Mile 62 – Aid Station #4: I refill both water bottles and consume two pickles, two packets of electrolyte pills, two dixie cups of peanuts, two gels, and two ibuprofen. A little girl offers me a otter pop. I gladly accept it.

Mile 65 – With less than 10 miles to go in the ride, I enter zombie mode. My energy has been zapped by the sun and the countless hills. I am hurting.

Mile 66 – I roll up to a mystery aid station in the woods where I enjoyed two dixie cups of gatorade and two handfuls of potato chips. I leave with a newfound resolution to finish the race.

Mile 69 – The gravel finally ends and I am dumped onto Route 7. Recognizing I’m only a few miles from the venue with nothing but pavement ahead of me, I give it everything I’ve got. I pass a couple riders.

Mile 74 – About 6.5 hours after leaving the start line, I finally cross the finish line. I collect my mason jar mug, toss my bike aside, and head for the shaded pavilion where beer and pizza are waiting to be consumed.

Anatomy of the post-race finisher: covered head-to-toe in mud, strained smile, and half-full mason jar mug of beer.
Anatomy of the post-race finisher: covered head-to-toe in mud, strained smile, and half-full mason jar mug of beer.

High Points:

  • Crossing the finish line.
  • No flats; no mechanicals.
  • Passing a group of riders on a paved section of rolling hills, my sweet spot.
  • Climbing hills people had to walk.
  • Pickles: I was never the biggest fan of pickles, but after witnessing their magical ability to alleviate muscle cramps, I’ll never speak ill of nor turn down another pickle again.
  • Meeting a lot of awesome and generally rad folks. It takes a certain breed of crazy to want to compete in this race. Zen-like qualities also a must.

    “Is everyone there as crazy as you are?”


  • Post-race cool off in Dunkard Creek. I sat in my race shorts on a rock ledge in the middle of the creek, beer in hand, letting the cool water wash away the dirt, sweat, and salt from my body. I wasn’t the only one who thought it was a good idea.
  • The king-size bed at the Quality Inn Morgantown.

Low Points:

  • Muscle cramps. It was a struggle to keep salt and electrolytes in my body. Lesson learned: eat more pickles.
  • Walking hills others were able to climb.

    A dip in Dunkard Creek
    No better way to cool off than a dip in Dunkard Creek.

Epilogue:

The Hilly Billy Roubaix was HARD, and yet for all the pain not once did I ever consider quitting. The last 10 miles were the most challenging. My pace slowed to a slog as I pushed all thought from my mind to focus on keeping the pedals turning. I spent those miles alone. The solitude of riding a bike is a quiet respite and a lonely endeavor. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Tenspeed Hero gets it.

Last week I was contacted by Bike Rack Racing, inviting me to join the team. (They had an opening and I had inquired months ago.) I graciously accepted the offer. It’s the perfect segue to help me figure out what’s next in the saddle. I’m excited to be part of the team.

The Hilly Billy Roubaix tested the limits of my body and my machine. Both passed. And while it taxed my body, it renewed my soul.

It's just a little bit dirty.
It’s just a little bit dirty.

Weekend Digits:

3: Number of confederate flags I saw displayed in various fashion.
0: Number of Donald Trump bumper stickers seen in the wild. There is hope for this country yet.
6 oz: Amount of pickle juice consumed at aid station #3.
6,719 ft: Cumulative elevation gain

Climb, Descend, Rinse, Repeat
Climb, Descend, Rinse, Repeat

43.8 mph: Max top speed
13%: Grade of the steepest climb
1: Number of swigs of warm Old Grand-dad downed in the parking lot post-race. Not to be turned down.

To find more data, click here.

Weekend Playlist:

Kamikaze Townies
Bon Jovi Wanted Dead or Alive I’m a cowboy, on a steel horse I ride.
Miike Snow The Heart of Me Dip into the lake, the mountains shake the fear of God into the heart of me.
Beyoncé Formation I got hot sauce in my [gear] bag, swag.
R.E.M. Nightswimming I didn’t come all the way to West Virginia to not take a dip in some freshwater.
Justin Bieber Sorry Sorry, not sorry.
Ra Ra Riot Absolutely It’s the Summer of Matt in the Year of Absolutely.
Waters I Feel Everything You definitely feel everything on a bike without suspension.
Arcade Fire Deep Blue Here, in my place and time, and here in my own skin, I can finally begin.
Pretty Lights Country Roads No trip to West Virginia is complete without a little John Denver.
Tame Impala ‘Cause I’m a Man Muppets!
Beach House Space Song Eventually life falls back into place.
Chet Faker Gold If only I could ride a bike half as good as these women can rollerskate.
Beck Dreams Heaven is a king-size bed.
Faces Ooh La La  I wish that I knew what I know now when I was younger.

Training:

My preparation and training was wholly unprofessional. What I lacked in knowledge, I made up for in miles, effectively doubling my weekly average from March to a week before the race. I also made weekly visits to FlyWheel where I took pride in dominating the top of the “torqueboard.”

From February to March I lost 20 pounds, due to depression and my abstinence from alcohol. It was a difficult period in my life, but rather than hide from my emotions and feelings, I fully embraced them. Riding a bike was one of my mental and physical outlets. It was the reason to wake up early, to work extra hard so I could sneak in a lunch ride, and to skip happy hour so I could chase the sun. Hains Point became my Mecca; often times making multiple pilgrimages in a single day. Eventually I put on more pounds and improved my state of mind. Come race day, I was in the best shape of my life.

Packed and ready to go.
Packed and ready to go.

Equipment:

Traitor Slot XL Frameset
Velo Orange Grand Cru Handlebar
Velo Orange 80mm Stem
Velo Orange Grand Cru Headset
SRAM GX 1000 32-t crankset – 175mm
SRAM Rival 1 Shifters
SRAM Rival 1 Rear Derailleur
SRAM 1175 10-42 cassette
Mavic Crossride 29er wheelset w/XD conversion
Brooks Cambium C15
Avid BB7 Disc Brakes

I used every gear on that 10-42 cassette and in hindsight, it was the perfect ratio for the Hilly Billy. No front derailleur meant that there was less to go wrong. By the end of the race, my shifting index was a little off, but I still had the full range of gears.