By Sal Ruibal
Photo by Rich Hays
Those guys in Paris-Roubaix ain’t so tough. The April 7th race doesn’t even start in Paris, so right off the bat there’s a whole slew of road not traveled. The start in Compiegne is like a mini-Bruges, an old courtyard surrounded by a bunch of skinny European riders shivering in their skivvies, sipping espresso and standing in front of TV cameras saying stuff like, “It is what it is,” and “Roubaix is, eh, Roubaix.”
On this Saturday morning, in balmy 27-degree Hastings, Michigan, 3,000 folks in thermal everything are heading out to race bikes in the Barry-Roubaix, an insane mix of 30 or so race categories that range from road bikes to mountain bikes to fatbikes to “ride whatcha got,” with $7,750 in prize money to be taken from the cold, undead hands of race director Rick Plite. And there’s a chance of cold rain, too. Several sections of the course have been deleted due to a thick layer of ice.
And while the real Roubaix riders get a hot shower after the race, all the legal-age racers at Barry-Roubaix get free beer at a Founders Brewery street party.
In five years, Plite says, the race has grown from 288 racers to 3,000 this year, almost a 1,000-percent increase.
These faux-Roubaix races are a testament to the powerful impression the “Hell of the North” has made on American cyclists who have seen the epic cobblestone races on television or DVDs. There are plenty of knockoffs of Le Tour de France, such as three-weeks of showing up at the gym to ride a stationary bike for an hour or sitting in a bar taking a shot of tequila every time Phil Liggett says, “He’s reaching deep into the suitcase of pain.”
But Paris-Roubaix is the most popular because it is the most brutal. We identify with riders who fail majestically more than we love the pampered princes of the peloton. We love to hurt.
There is one big problem: Not a lot of real pave’ to be found. Not a problem because the good ol’ USA has more gravel roads than it knows what to do with. I’m not down with the “gravel grinder” monicker, though. I like rough roads, especially those with dirt sections, lumpy asphalt sections, potholes and rocks. Real gravel tends to get washed to the curbs and ditches. Give me crushed rock, especially the kind that’s about the size of an ice cube.
Harrisonburg is the cycling capital of Virginia and home to many pros, so you know the H-burgers know how to ride and party with style and purpose. The Harris-Roubaix event is a big deal, with a bike parade down Main Street and a convoy out to rolling hills where a cozy farm hosts the gathering, which includes a pot-luck feast, a few easy riding laps in the hills followed by balls-to-walls racing for bragging rights.
The June 22nd Hilly Billy Roubaix in Morgantown, W.Va, is a late bloomer but has its roots in the same earth as the famous European race: The Roubaix cobbles hardened the roads in the countryside so farmers and coal miners could move their goods over the muddy roads in the Spring. They were never meant to be raced on by bicycles, but the farmers and miners probably spent their Sunday afternoons banging away on their sturdy bikes, racing to the velodrome in the next village, finishing with a hot bath.
Race founder JR Petsko got his inspiration from a couple of legendary tough West Virginia characters, Gunnar and Betsy Shogren.
“Gunnar and Betsy would drag me on rides in the Spring,” he says. “The back roads around Northern West Virginia and Southwestern Pennsylvania are old. Why is that important? Well, back in the day moving all the dirt they do to make road now a days wasn’t as easy.
“When they made road back then they just followed the lay of the land, and around here that means up and down. So the Shogrens would drag all 250 pounds of me on these silly roads. Believe it or not they helped start a love affair between me and that sort of ride. As I got in a little better shape after a year, the Shogrens talked me into going up to P.A. for Iron Cross. The very next week I was on a mission. We have roads around here that are even better, I thought to myself. After a few years I pieced together a killer course and the HBR was born. We had 70 riders the first year and will have 320 this year.
“Over the 72-mile course you climb a lot, 6,500 feet almost! However you will see things at the HBR that you normally don’t see at a bike race. For one, our volunteers and course marshals dress up as Hilly Billies and when you see them on the course you can’t help but laugh. Also the after party has become legendary. We really push the hillbilly theme with our event and that is one thing that helped make the event so special. Yeah, the HBR is hard, but we have had some very remarkable people finish. We have had a first-time racer on flat pedals finish, a 62-year-old grandmother on a comfort bike and even a tandem, so I always laugh when people tell me it was so hard.”
Your narrator has been lucky to ride (slowly) on the Paris-Roubaix course and it is as advertised. The cobbles there are chunky and the gaps are muddy. I almost froze in the wicked headwind. I prefer the tighter weave of the Flanders pave’ because on its steeper climbs, riders there need a better grip. I consider staying upright to be a major milestone, pun intended.
On Roubaix Sunday, consider riding the toughest, gnarliest road you can find. On that sacred day, hard men (and women) won’t be hard to find.