I had heard of the Barry-Roubaix Gravel race, but never thought I was the sort of rider that would take on this sort of challenge until this year. This is my third year taking cycling seriously, and last fall I had a better-than-expected cyclocross season. I knew this would be a stout challenge fitness-wise, so I started logging trainer miles in January and got outside for longer rides as the weather permitted. I had set my sights on the 36-mile race (it comes in 24-, 36- and 62-mile flavors), but I knew that was going to be difficult, since it’s about 80% gravel with plenty of hills thrown into the mix.
A few of my other teammates had also decided to do the 36-miler, so we trained outside logging some windy weekend winter miles and threw in as much southeastern Wisconsin gravel as we could.
Bike selection: I had a few choices for my bike, and it weighed on me heavily. Should I bring the most logical choice, my cross bike? Complicating this was the fact that I had switched to CX-1, so I’d only have a single-ring set-up which could leave me at a disadvantage on any power section in the flats or downhill. Or, I could run some narrower tires on my mountain bike, but the gearing wouldn’t be any taller, so the only benefit with the MTB would have been if conditions were muddy. Then there was my road bike, but I couldn’t squeeze on very wide tires — the 25c Challenge Strada’s wouldn’t be wide enough for what I was going to encounter…
So as the race week came closer and conditions were looking to be dry, I made my decision — run my cross bike with Challenge Almanzo tires – at 33c with a file tread and some small side knobs, they are made for gravel grinding. I’d definitely be at a disadvantage with the gearing, but since I had no previous experience with this race (or really anything like it), I’d just see how things went.
The Local Forecast: Weather was much chillier than I wanted. It hovered in the 20s before the race started and my Garmin recorded the temperature at an average of 30 degrees for the duration of the ride. Luckily, the sunshine was there in full force — without it the day probably would have bordered on miserable!
The Start: The 125-strong women’s 36-mile field huddled together awaiting the start in wave 13. I saw some friends from Ohio and ended up chatting it up in the last row of the wave. When the race started, I realized I should have been more proactive in my positioning, so I had some time to make up right from the start.
I easily passed what felt like half of the group as we may rolled out of Hastings on the pavement. The first section of gravel gave me great hope for the day, since it was in such fantastic condition. It had rained earlier in the week, but all the reports from the Barry-Roubaix crew were that the ground was packed down hard. The gravel was loose in sections, but it wasn’t soft or muddy at all. Early in the race, it was dusty from the sheer mass of riders on the road, but as the morning wore on and the riders spread out, dust was rarely a factor.
The first twenty miles went by quickly – the rolling hills, bare trees and ponds that dotted the landscape made for a picturesque ride, but I wasn’t really soaking in the scenery. I was focused on passing people, keeping my heart rate in check (sort of) and trying to latch on when faster riders passed by.
The highlight for me was the roughest section of gravel – Sager Road – at mile 18. It was a one-mile long, two-track road that you’d definitely need 4WD if you choose to traverse it by car. Bike handling skills were critical in this section and many riders were lacking. Most stuck to the well-traveled and packed-down right track, leaving the left track open for passing. It was much rougher, but I was able to maintain speed without getting caught behind anyone. At one point, a rider I was passing toppled into me, but luckily it was just a glancing blow, and he didn’t take me down. I’m sure I gave a little too much effort on this section as a few miles later I really felt the race beginning to take a toll.
My energy had been pretty good up to that point – I ate a gel at 40 mins, then again at 1:15 (right before Sager Road), but my heart rate had been pegged in the range reserved for 45-minute cyclocross races, so I knew I was probably going to be in a little bit of trouble.
The route just felt like one hill after another. In what I had read, it should have been 2,200 feet of climbing, but my Garmin hit that mark with plenty of miles and feet of climbing yet to conquer.
At one point, I knew I was in for quite a climb when a spectator at the foot a hill yelled, “This is the hill you heard about!” and sure enough, it was a beast. Steep, long and soft in spots. I passed people huffing and puffing like crazy. It was a “stand-up in your easiest gear at a cadence of 50rpm” kind of hill. Sure enough, there’s a Strava segment for this section called “The Wall”, and it hits a 17% grade at points. It came around mile 25 – that point where I was “pretty sure” I could finish, so I wasn’t in the best mental state at the base of the climb. But as I began passing people on the hill gave me a surge of confidence and I just kept repeating my little mantra “just keep climbing”.
Once I hit the “10 miles to go” sign, the hills definitely felt harder. I knew I could finish, but I definitely notched my effort back. When I finished the last section of gravel and was deposited onto the finishing miles of pavement, my energy and mindset were bolstered, and I dropped a small group I’d been riding with in an effort to leave it all on the road in the last 4 miles.
Less than a mile after hitting the home-stretch of pavement, a lone rider passed me – fast – he had to be the 62-mile leader. Sure enough, less than a minute later, a whooshing train of about 30 men rolled by me chasing. There was one final hill leading into town, and I had a front-row seat for an attack from the chase group. Later, I’d find out that my old teammate from Cleveland John Proppe was in that attack, but it didn’t stick. The rider who was in the solo lead ended up winning, and it was super cool to have seen some of the race unfold.
In the end, I was spent. I raced my best race and finished in 2:35 with an average speed of 13.9 mph. I’m happy with that result since “racing” any sort of distance is definitely a weakness of mine. I’m sure I could’ve gotten that average speed up, if I had a few more gears at my disposal (and more fitness – duh), but I finished mid-pack in my age group.
Overall, it was a really picturesque route on some awesome gravel roads. And the production level of the whole event was really impressive with a police presence directing traffic at all major road intersections and volunteers held signs at the more minor gravel road intersections. I had no fear of getting lost at any point in time since it was so well-marked.
If you haven’t considered a ride like the Barry-Roubaix, you really should. It offers a challenge for riders of all abilities. Whether you’re just getting serious like me and want to tackle the 36, you’re a bona fide racer like my pal Johnny and are ready to take on the leaders in the 62-mile, or if you’re more like my partner Colleen and want to stretch your legs for a leisurely 24 miles working up your appetite and your thirst, this definitely was an experience that offered a little something for everyone.
In case you’re curious, here’s the link to my data on Strava: https://www.strava.com/activities/276149698/analysis