The Chainlink

Chainlink Ride Report: Rapha Prestige Midwest

By Eric Alexander

The Ride:
Last weekend, we took part in the 2016 Rapha Prestige Midwest. As the name implies, the race is organized by the high-end clothing company Rapha, as well as a new cycling start up company called Blackriver. The race is invite-only (you fill out an online application) and is limited to 23 four-person teams.

To create a unique challenge, each team must complete the ride as a group, riders can encounter a variety of road surfaces, and the route is not released to the riders until a day before the event.

The location of Rapha Prestige changes from year to year. The 2016 edition took place near Wisconsin's Blue Mound State Park, which is known and loved by area cyclists for rolling terrain, frequent sharp and steep inclines, as well as sustained 40-50 mph+ descents. The road to the top of Blue Mound is a legitimate "category 3" climb on a bicycle, offering Midwest riders a rare opportunity to go uphill on a bike for extended periods of time.

My team for this adventure consisted of Brett Ratner, Louis Willyantino, plus a very strong rider (and bicycle industry veteran) named Chris, whom Rapha graciously grouped us up with when we unexpectedly lost our fourth rider the week before the ride.

Team captains received a pre-ride briefing before rolling out.

The Gear:
In a day full of things gone wrong, here is where my first mistake was made. Initial correspondence indicated a gravel-heavy route, causing me to choose my favorite whip for mixed-terrain expeditions; the Twin Six Standard Rando. The bike itself was not an issue but the tire selection was.

As it turned out, the final email we received from Rapha stated that the route was going to consist of all paved roads. I didn't have a set of tires on hand for pavement and it was too late to get any. So I stuck with the 38mm gravel tires, and inflated them to 90 psi to help with rolling resistance. Even with that much pressure, they were still slow rolling, especially when attempting to pace with the many seasoned road racers on the ride, all sporting carbon road bikes and 23mm slicks. The second area of poor judgment was the gear I packed. Most of the rides I do are unsupported and not on pavement. Because of this, food and water stops are rare, and there are many more opportunities to wind up stranded by flats and mechanical issues. With this ride featuring exclusively pavement, and four reasonably-spaced convenience stores on the route, I missed an opportunity to pack just the minimum to help keep the weight down (particularly useful for hills).

The terrain west of Madison, Wisconsin is rolling, and at times, steep.

The Journey:
The ride started at the Cress Spring Bakery, located near the base of the park. Ahead of us were 120 miles and about 10,000 total feet of climbing, including a pass over the top of Blue Mound. After attending a quick 6:30 am briefing session, we rolled out at our team's scheduled 7:08 am departure.

Not a mile into the ride, Chris suffered the first mechanical of the day in the form of a freak broken spring in his pedal cleat. We unsuccessfully attempted to fix it, so in true Rapha Prestige spirit, Chris chose to soldier on unable to clip into his left pedal.

With that figured out, we rolled on into the hills of the driftless area of Wisconsin. While the skies were dreary and the temperatures indicated a winter that doesn't know when to quit, the scenery was gorgeous, the smells hinted at spring, and the roads were challenging but not pain-inducing.

Everyone was feeling great, but then the rain started to fall. We knew it was going to rain at some point, but it was supposed to hold off until the afternoon. It was only 8:00 am. Then, around the 20 miles in, our bad luck continued as I was starting to feel sick with stomach pain. I also felt very weak, like I had ridden far more than a mere 20 miles. I began to wonder why I was feeling this way and tried and combat the feelings by eating and drinking, not knowing if I was just hungry or dehydrated. This was not helping and I was just getting slower and holding up the group on many of the climbs. Brett had been wondering if I was having a problem since we have ridden much harder rides than this, so clearly, I was struggling far more than usual. All the while, our pace was steadily decreasing and teams who started well after us began passing us one by one.

Chris was being a really good sport about it all. But we felt bad holding him back, and told him it was cool if he wanted to drop us. He graciously declined at first, but on a particularly long uphill section out of the town of New Glarus, he finally did. 

At the 35 mile mark, we had stopped for a moment to assess the worsening situation. Will, also pushing a heavy gravel bike, was starting to feel the effects to the hills too, and I was slowing to a crawl whenever the road pointed upward. After some calculations, we figured it was going to take us another seven hours to complete the route at the pace we were riding. The rain was also picking up and temps were dropping. We decided to call it off and figure out a route back to the start.

This decision was not easy for me, as this would be the first event that I had ever quit before the finish, and with me being the reason the group didn't go on made it even worse. In the end, we headed back on a 30-mile ride to the start and wound up with a total of 65 miles and 4,300 feet of climbing. Not a wasted day, but also not what we had set out to do.

Rapha put on a great event, and sent everyone home with nice swag, whether you finished or not.

The Conclusion:
Giving up is not something I do. I can go into a bunch of reasons why I think I didn't feel good, but in the end it’s just a bunch of excuses. With that being said, I think only 13 of the teams completed the entire route. The rain was steady all day and the temperatures dropped to the low '40s as the day went on. The teams that did finish were all at various stages of hypothermia, and did not look good when they rolled into Cress Springs Bakery. Would I have turned around if I had felt OK? Who knows.

Despite the ride not going as planned, the rest of my day was still pretty great. I changed into dry clothes, and enjoyed a meal from the amazing food truck Rapha arranged for the post-ride event. I also helped with the teams finishing up, checking them in, getting them hot drinks, and just hanging out and meeting new people. All in all, I can't complain.

Brett's Take:
Not finishing really sucked, particularly after completing a 127-mile ride the week prior, and having several 200-kilometer Horribly Hilly Hundred rides under my belt. But slogging through 120 miles of hills, cold, and rain when you're sick sucks worse. Like Eric said, I've seen him crush some really hard rides, and it was pretty clear something wasn't right. I too pride myself on grinding out hard miles, but all things considered, I think we made the right call.

As far as I'm concerned, the team did a great job despite the circumstances. Between Eric getting the flu, Eric and Will having to push heavy gravel bikes up the hills, and Chris practically having to pedal with one leg, everyone had their share of adversity.

Also, the thing about unsupported rides is that no matter what happens, you still have to find your way home...and in this instance, the roads didn't get any flatter and the weather didn't get any nicer once we made the decision to turn around.

So in that respect, every team who signed up for the Rapha Prestige deserves a lot of credit, regardless at what point they decided to bail. And the teams that finished? Much respect.

Anyway, big thanks to Chris for being a great guy and a good sport (and putting up with my incessant babbling). And bigger thanks to Rapha for putting on a great event and inviting us to participate. We'd love to take another stab next year if you'll have us back.

Additional Info:
If you need a break from Chicago's flat landscape and want to seek new challenges, it's well worth a drive to the Madison, Wisconsin area to get some hills in.

The aforementioned Horribly Hilly Hundred is the most popular (and arguably the toughest) ride in the area, but 2016 registration is currently closed. The Dairyland Dare is equally tough, takes place later in the summer, and registration is currently open. Another option is to find some popular routes on Map My Ride or Ride With GPS and do a self-guided tour. If you're really ambitious and want to attempt the Rapha Prestige route, you can find it here.

Just beware that 10 miles out there feels like 20-30 miles in Chicago. So your first time out, set realistic expectations and bring adequate water and food. Also, take your time on the downhill sections if you're not used to traveling at high speeds.

There's convenient parking at the top of Blue Mound State Park, but that means you'll have to ride (or walk) to the top to get back to your car. Bring cash for parking if you plan to leave your car in the park. And after you've worked up an appetite, the Grumpy Troll Brew Pub in Mt. Horeb is a popular place to eat.

About the Authors:
Eric Alexander is The Chainlink's new gravel and adventure contributor. We first encountered Eric a few years back on the final stretch of a particularly windy, cold, and rainy gravel ride called the Dirty Mudd'r. Since then, he's proven time and time again, when the going gets tough and you're deep into a difficult day in the saddle, he's definitely someone you want pedaling by your side. Eric participates/competes in various endurance riding events as a member of Team Twin Six.

Brett Ratner (brett@thechainlink.org) has been a professional journalist for more than 25 years. He has contributed to dozens of publications, including The Chicago TribuneThe Nashville TennesseanThe Nashville SceneGuitar Player, and Musician. Brett began commuting by bike in 2005. Shortly thereafter, his interest in cycling expanded to century rides, bike camping, and trail riding. The competition bug bit in 2012 and nowadays he occasionally races cyclocross, track, mountain bikes, criteriums, and gravel for The Bonebell.

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