by Steve Bell
I thought I would relay my experiences of the Barry Roubaix gravel race of 2017 which is named after its Northern European namesake for being tough and brutal, but has switched the sections of cobbles for sections of Michigan gravel interspersed with blacktop. It generally lives up to its name and reputation, and this year it did that in spades – oh what misery! For whatever reason, I really like this race. Every year I have raced it, it is different, the weather, the competition, the tactics, and the final outcome. There are three distances to choose from, 22 miles (The thriller), 36 miles (The Chiller), or 62 miles (The Killer). The killer it was.
There were some important lessons to learn from the race, all of which highlight exactly what you will hear multiple times from Robbie, Dave and the VQ coaches during VQ events, camps, and rides.
There are four learnings from the race this year, and one reinforcement from years and events past:
- Pay careful attention and consideration to equipment / clothing choices when preparing for your races or rides. Consider the race profile, the weather conditions, your strengths, abilities and weaknesses, the distance and competition. Prepare well.
- Never ever forget about nutrition, both water and calories.
- Always think about a solution rather than focus on the problem of the moment
- Your body is stronger than your mind (95 %of the time for most of us)
- Never stop pedaling, hoping, or trying - you will always surprise yourself
So, promising to be a brutal day for racing, clothing choice would be key. Dress for the end of the race is the preferred strategy, but you have to be able to get to the end - and thereby is the rub. The choice is always hard and for today it was:
- Waterproof booties to keep the feet dry were a priority – warm as possible, less water weight
- Belgian leg warmers was the choice, as for the above - to avoid having to pedal an extra 2 pounds of weight when tights or leg warmers were sodden.
- Windproof long-sleeve undershirt / short sleeve shirt / arm warmers
- Water proof / resistant jacket
- Cap to keep rain out of the eyes and some warmth for the head
- UV sensitive glasses
- Wind / water resistant gloves and undergloves
So here is my report and recollection of the race.
There was a small break in the rain right before 10 o’clock, and it wasn’t actually raining at the start of the race which was a blessing, so we got the pleasure of shivering in the 39-degree warmth and enjoying the pre-race nerves in slightly better weather conditions than were to come as the day unfolded.
I was positioned well at the line up a couple of rows back and once we were off I moved up rapidly on the left to sit in the top 10 to 15 for the first opening miles. As usual the first right turn off Cook Road and onto the gravel was accompanied by a dramatic increase in pace and pressure - and the race was on! A tailwind kept the pace even higher than normal.
The goal on this first section is to make the first selection on the Three Sisters. I increased my positioning to the top 5 as this section can get you dropped and end your race chances quickly if you get caught behind a slower group, or someone who can’t climb, (see 2014). Even more importantly this year we were already hitting the tail end of the first group, adding to the traffic and risk.
I kept my general position between 3 and 10 for the next couple of gravel sections, it had started raining, some of it hard, and the spray, gravel, dirt was pretty thick; being closer to the front helped in minimizing this, and allowing me to pick a preferred line for the best grip (the sides were getting pretty soft and you slowed down quickly if you hit those), and to keep the spray out of my face.
There were more hills than I remember from past years and the previous night’s heavy rain made it hard going -the price of speed this year was a higher percentage of power than in those past. The group was smaller now, the pace starting to tell, and racing was still on. The initial pressure seemed higher and went on for a lot longer this year – the hills were hit hard and every switch from blacktop to gravel led to a surge in speed, this went on for an hour before there was a marginal slackening in pace.
It was starting to get colder now, the first part of the race had a tailwind, good for speed and warmth, but once past the Sager Road diversion at mile 18 the course was either heading east or north and south with cross head and cross tailwinds. It was still raining and the Garmin temp was varying between 32 and 34 degrees. My hands were frozen and numb, as were my feet; making a fist would squeeze all the water out of my gloves in a wave, but making a fist was getting harder, and the water and dirt had finally breached the waterproofness of my booties. This was around an hour 30 into the race. It was wet and cold before that but now it was very much more uncomfortable, and becoming a growing factor in my performance.
My water proof jacket was not really waterproof it turns out, only water resistant, and that is a crucial difference. My arms and sides were now soaked and very chilled. (Learning #1)
This is where another error crept in as well. It is harder to drink when it is cold and being this cold my hands were also so numb that getting the bottle in and out was a gamble as fumbling was a very real possibility. 95 % of my nutrition was in my bottles. My solid food was in my back pocket and unreachable. Also, when it is cold your body uses more calories just to keep warm, never mind putting out the effort to ride. By an hour thirty I was starting to shiver intermittently and looking for spots to hide in the group to keep out of the wind. (Learning #2)
At 2 hours 10 into the race, the cold was settling deeper into my bones, shivering was getting worse and my lack of nutrition telling - my body gave up, or maybe my brain gave up, and I bonked & blew-up. My peddling slowed, my speed dropped, I slipped from 5th in line, through the group, out the back, and the group was gone. Even 20 to 30 seconds of little effort and moving slowly gave me some energy and warmth and I tried catching up with the group, jumping on a few wheels of others suffering similarly, but the group was hovering around 30 – 45 seconds ahead and the effort trying to catchup took me back to cold and shivering. I was pretty much as far away from the start line as the course goes so knew that it was going to be a long slog back home, if that was even achievable.
Mentally I was looking for a reason to call a halt to the misery and climb into a sag van if one happened by. I stopped long enough to drink some calories, and then just rode on. A couple of minutes later Sean Metz came by, asked what was up, and then said hop on my wheel and hang on. Well I did and that proved to my saving (Lesson #3). Even though sticking there was almost as hard as just riding, it allowed me to visualize riding a few more miles at a time, although riding 20 miles to get to the finish was not yet a reality. The next twenty miles were just brutal and seemingly never ending, but breaking it into small manageable chunks made it possible. (Learning #4)
Around five miles to go another rider jumped on behind me. Finally, we hit the outbound paved section of road, which meant we had 1.8 to go. We were home! Turning the last corner, the finish line was right there, the rider behind me took off, I had no intention of pipping Sean at the line so let him go.
Once over the finish line I thanked Sean for his encouragement and help and took off to find food, warmth, dry clothes and rest. At the car I could hardly stand from shivering and numbness, I had to ask a fellow rider to unclip my helmet as I my hands were so number I couldn’t do that.
Car heater on, dry clothes on, recovery drink consumed and half a burrito helped, but it still took almost 30 minutes before the shivering stopped.
Results on the day were still confused as many had pulled out, or cut the course short, results had me placed 11th, even though I was sure there were not 11 of the 51+ masters in the group that dropped me, and I had picked off a couple in the last 20 miles, so as I was warm enough to drive and home was beckoning I headed out.
When all was done and sorted, I actually placed 5th with the same time as the rider who took 4th in the masters group - he sprinted off my wheel at the finish. (Lesson #5)
I have only been that cold twice before in my life, once stuck on a ski lift in a storm, and the second time 3 hours into the Citizen’s Tour of Flanders.
Will I line up again next year?