Cleveland Does Hilly Billy Roubaix
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Muddy riders inch up this West Virginia gravel road one by one. Sweat pours from every racer’s brow as each strains to discover another controlled burst of leg strength enough to move the cranks round once more. Participants in Hilly Billy Roubaix calm their pounding minds to achieve the balance necessary to stay upright while navigating a human powered machine through endless lanes strewn with softball sized gravel. Relying on already menacingly sore core and lower back muscles to gain sufficient rear wheel traction, riders slowly crest this unforgiving road. As it turns out the HBR requires quite a bit of preparation and determination.
After completing a simple online registration process, entrants in the HBR received an email with data garnered from a course pre-race using a Garmin GPS device. Registrants squinted at topographic data and elevation gain figures angling for insights which could cajole pre-race jitters. They stared at the 6400 feet figure in the elevation gain column, counted 14 separate peaks in the topographic breakdown and tried to fill in course details based on a satellite image marked by a neon loop which undulated through 65 miles in the outskirts of West Virginia.
Training for a race like the HBR in pancake flat Cleveland can be a difficult proposition. Would-be HBR racers faced an unorthodox training regimen of hill repeats and long solo hours in the saddle. Some of them were lucky enough to have teammates to ride with, Scum City Racing sent four members: Evan Wachs, Robb Kranz, Renato Pereira-Castillo and Russell Lee.
As race day approached the Cleveland folks made plans to head to Morgantown West Virginia a day early to be well rested for the ten o’clock start time. The hotel room the night before the race was filled with discussions regarding cassette range, tire choice, repair kit contents, past adventures and a last minute cyclometer installation.
The next morning the Cleveland contingent pulls into the gravel lot behind the race staging area in shock after driving through some of West Virginia's starkly hilly countryside. The question on everyone's mind “Will we have to climb that hill?” The picturesque HBR course heaves and rolls through varied landscapes, we encounter isolated coal mining hamlets, summer cottages nestled in hollows crisscrossed with muddy streams, dairy farms perched atop ridiculously steep green hills and strangely beautiful red clay roads carved through clear cut forest.
Riders from all around the region congregate around the registration tent. We eye each others bikes. The top three finishers will cross the line on hard tail lightweight mountain bikes with skinny minimally knobby tires, others chose to beef up ordinary cross bikes with climbing gears and higher volume and thicker semi knobs and as always there are single speed rigs around. Some even bring old road bikes and others just ride off the shelf cross bikes.
The start is a courteous affair as everyone settles into a comfortable rhythm. The field is bunched for the first ten miles, as steep climbs lead to some fairly technical muddy single track sections. True to pre-race warnings, the course dishes out an extraordinary amount of flats; it seems that every 400 meters for the first ten miles we pass an annoyed rider wrestling a tire off a rim to change a flat.
Mile counts fade into oblivion as the unrelenting elevation gains slice the field into thinner and thinner sections. We pass riders reluctantly afoot shouldering their bikes as they slowly trudge up the steepest and rockiest climbs. Walking racers gladly clear the path for those strong enough to muscle up these steepest sections. The top of one particularly agonizing climb boasts a tent with bluegrass musicians, fig bars, and a keg of beer. Some chug 2 or 3 beers and hop back on, others skip aid stations altogether. The descent after the aid tent dares riders to release their iron grip on the brake levers for even a second but most choose not to. Technically challenging descents guarantee that riders get no rest after long climbs.
A total of three sanctioned aid stations dotted throughout the course offered small but significant comforts; the opportunity to drink a bottle and stock up on vitals. At the last aid station, local volunteers cheer as riders trickle in, offering ice water and words of encouragement, “only ten miles to go!” Ten more miles of brutal climbing and rolling paved roads.
Crossing the finish line brings a mix of relief, excitement, pain and exhaustion, finishers drink beer, eat pizza and celebrate each others strengths, as they share accounts of off road crashes, mechanical errors, physical hardship and camaraderie.
The Cleveland contingent piles into cars to drive back home and talk abounds about the next two Ultra-CX races in the series. Three Peaks, a 51 mile race with 10,000 feet ascending and >60 % unpaved roads starting in Banner Elk, North Carolina (often billed as America's hardest cyclocross race) and North America's original Ultra-CX race, Iron Cross in Pine Grove Furnace State Park, Pennsylvania. Everyone agrees that the ultra-cross series a whole other level of challenges, both difficult to prepare for and rewarding for those who choose to take it on.