Jeremy and Geoffrey share their experiences racing Dirty South Roubaix for the first time.
Photo by Matt Gholson
By Jeremy Bloyd-Peshkin
Really, this is all winter’s fault. The roads were icy, the days short, I hadn’t been riding much, and was deep in the throes of cyclocross withdrawals when a friend sent me a link to the race. At the time, nothing sounded better than 100k of gravel with an unknown amount of climbing in Southern Illinois. I signed up the day registration opened. Over the next few months, details began to emerge and finalize. The route was set mostly in and around the Shawnee National Forest (a good thing), the elevation profile showed 4,500ft of climbing (not such a good thing), and the roster started to fill. My bike was still a bare frame in my shop, and true to form I finished building it two days before the race. So armed with a single-speed ‘cross bike, plenty of snacks, and a teammate, I hit the road and headed south.
We rolled into Alto Pass bright and early, and any worries of getting lost instantly evaporated - the block-long downtown was full of bikes and bike racks. This was definitely the place. We unloaded, registered, and ate bagels while more riders filtered into town. It was a perfect morning - a little chilly still, but completely clear and warming up fast. I watched as everything from road bikes with 28c tires jammed between the fork blades to plus-tire tandems came off the racks, and couldn’t help but notice that there were only five other single-speeds. Granted, the race was only a hundred riders in total, but I surely I wasn’t that crazy. Or maybe I was. There was no more time to dwell. The race organizer called everyone over and gave us instructions. The race would be 64 miles. The final section into town would be closed to traffic. The GPS route ends two miles early for some reason, just keep going. All corners will be marked and there will be volunteers at any confusing intersections. There’s a lot of good gravel and much of it is downhill, so be careful. The neutral roll-out will take us out of town behind his truck. Got it? Good. Let’s go.
As the truck rolled out, I watched for groups to form and latched onto the back of the front group, expecting to get a feel for the riders on the easy roll-out. But it wasn’t to be. The truck kept speeding up, and before long we were doing 25 on the way out of town. The truck disappeared, we branched left onto a gravel descent, and the group exploded. A mile in, I was redlined trying to keep up. So much for that, time to find a rhythm.
The thing I’ve learned riding and racing on single-speed and fixed-gear bikes is that finding a rhythm to your ride is the key to finishing it. You can only pedal so fast on the downhills, and I find that my legs burn out if I maintain the wrong cadence on the flats for a long time. So I had to find a rhythm that worked for me and that worked strategically for the race. I’m a mediocre descender - I can’t pedal and I don’t weigh enough to go all that fast, but I don’t brake either. I can keep pace on the flats, and fly up the climbs. So that became my strategy. Bridge up on the climbs, get dropped on descents, and hang on for dear life on the flats. And it worked quite well until I hit the first rest stop, where I dropped off the group I was in to refill my bottles. The next section looked long and unsheltered on the map, and was directly into a headwind. So I stood around at the rest stop waiting for a group to come by I could jump onto. And I waited. And waited. And eventually I just got on my bike and rode off, only to be caught by a group a few minutes later, because of course. I jumped into the rotation and we blasted off down a levee.
A million curses upon that levee.
It was perhaps eight feet wide with two ruts, each filled with loose coarse gravel. We were in a quartering headwind, but the shape and texture of the road meant we couldn’t spread out into the right shape of draft, and were stuck in what basically amounted to a straight paceline, so we all suffered in the crosswind. But there was really nothing to do about it so we continued to pull each other mile after mile after never-ending mile on top of that levee with no shelter. But the pace was just right to make for a good cadence, and so I was feeling good and when the group started to slow I got into the drops and left them. Mercifully, there was only another mile of levee left, and then I turned and started to head back North. Which was great because I had a tailwind. Not that it mattered, because the course took a turn back into the forest and onto a rough jeep road. The gravel increased in size from peas to golf balls, and got deep, loose, and steep, like riding up a wall. I got off and walked. Even walking was hard work, and so it was a relief to get back on and ride. But the road was getting even worse. It had gone from gravel to chunks of rock, and was all but a rock garden on the descents. I was all nerves, but my bike carried me through and so I would return the favor by carrying it up each following hill. And then as suddenly as that nightmare began, it ended and I was winding back along smooth gravel and broken pavement with the wind at my back. I wasn’t quite sure if it had happened at all.
The road stretched on and on, and I didn’t see another rider in any direction. I knew I was on route, but didn’t know where in the field I was. I’d been group-hopping all day and now I was alone pushing my own air. But it was back to a cross-wind, and I was on pavement and feeling pretty good (if a bit hungry) so there was nothing for it but to keep pedaling. I saw a rider in way out in front of me as we entered the Trail of Tears forest, and caught up to him as we passed a volunteer waving us off the road and into the campground.We suffered the steep climbs together, and it was a relief to know I wasn’t the only one walking on the steep parts. I often find that riding with someone else makes it easier for me to come out of my head and enjoy where I am, and I needed it at the time. It was gorgeous. We were on a trail maybe four feet wide winding through bare state forest, light filtering through the trees. The temperature was perfect. The trees blocked the wind. I was on my bike, and life couldn’t have been better. Until I realized I was out of water, at which point the appropriate thing to do was retreat back into that dark place in my head and hammer until I got to the rest stop and could refill again. It was only a few more miles, and shouldn’t be a problem, but I’m terrified of running out of water so I stood up and hammered out of the woods, along a bit of highway, and back along the smooth gravel until I hit the rest stop. Alone again. The mechanic told me he hadn’t seen anyone come through in a while, and asked how I was doing. I told him Trail of Tears seemed like a pretty accurate name, and he laughed. He gave me my bottles back and I took off. There were only ten miles to go, and I had no idea when another rider would be along for me to work with so I couldn’t waste time by waiting again.
Back on the gravel, I counted down the miles on my GPS until the finish and tried to pace myself. Ten miles to go, I feel good, I want to finish with nothing left. Get in the drops and hammer. Get in the drops and hammer. Jump this hole in the road and hammer. Drink water. Hammer. Eat. Hammer. I got off the gravel and onto the state highway. Two miles to go. Hammer. One mile to go, you’re on a climb. Zero miles to go, and you’re nowhere near town.
In my exhausted state, I had forgotten that the GP track cut off two miles early. So I slowed down, and climbed the rest of the hill looking for any kind of sign that I was still on the route. There was none, so I kept going. And then I saw a volunteer waving me off the road. And cones. This was it! Town! The final stretch! Hammer!
And so I rode across the line, collected my high-five, and promptly collapsed.
What a race.
At the end of the day, I’d done 16th overall, 4th in my category, and 2nd of the single-speeds. A solid way to start the season, but I definitely made mistakes and have lessons to learn. First and foremost, wasted time adds up. Stopping and refilling bottles is necessary, but I brought food and didn’t need to be distracted by the stacks of snacks at the rest stops. I also didn’t need to wait for a group, I could have ridden at a lower effort level and one would have caught me. That way I could have been moving, even if I was moving at a slower pace. The time I spent at the first rest stop was the time I was off the podium by. Pacing is also critical. There were long stretches of road in the middle of the race where I caught myself taking it easier than I should have. It’s fun to just be out riding on a beautiful day, but it’s also a race and should be treated as such.
Photo by Matt Gholson
By Geoffrey Harding
The Dirty South Roubaix 100K + was the first race that I have ever competed in. Over the last few years I have done many organized long distance road rides but none of them were competitive or as challenging as this race was. I was definitely nervous before the start and I made several mistakes that certainly changed the outcome of my day. First of all, I was so worried about getting my clothing right and making sure my bike was ready to go that I completely forgot to drink any water before the start of the race. The only liquid I had all morning was 1.5 cups of coffee.
Photo by Marcus Janzow
Photo by Jeremy Bloyd-Peshkin
Jeremy Bloyd-Peshkin is an engineer, machinist, and racecar driver from Chicago who really doesn't care how many wheels a vehicle has as long as he can race it. He credits Flint's leaded water for his trust issues with freewheels, and can often be found riding brevets fixed-gear, attempting to unicycle down stairwells, or inventing new and strange forms of profanity. He's probably drinking coffee right now.
Geoffrey Harding is a husband, father, engineer, and year round cyclist from Chicago. He races for The Chainlink and loves traveling around the city with his family by bicycle. His preferred time to start a ride is 5am but that’s negotiable if it means riding with friends.