The 2017 Cheesehead Roubaix was all about braving the elements. Noah Rickun has been a long time Team Belgianwerkx member and was one of only a handful that started the ride to finish the entire route. Thankfully, he survived the harsh conditions to tell his story.
It’s taken me four days to sit down to write this little recap of the 2017 Cheesehead Roubaix. Partially because I just regained feeling in my fingertips, but mostly because I’ve been suffering from PTCD (Post-Traumatic Cheesehead Disorder). Grieving is a process, after all.
I’ve never been asked to write anything for Belgianwerkx before. I bet that’s because I’m one of the slower and fatter riders on the team and my limited cycling experience doesn’t lend itself well to sharing anything insightful with you. I think Jessica asked me to do this because I may have been the only one on the team dumb enough (and stubborn enough) to finish Cheesehead. Note: I didn’t ride alone. My buddy Ben Stern (who should be on the Belgianwerkx team…sign up already, would you) and I rode side by side for the entire 100km. I’m grateful to have had a partner – not sure I would have felt safe out there by myself this year. So, thanks, Ben.
OK, here goes nothing:
I spent an hour on Saturday night preparing my gear. Everything was in sound working order…including my new Panaracer Gravel King tires that Nick put on for me. I was super excited to see what they could do on Lover’s Lane, and also excited that a 32mm tire fit on my road bike (Cannondale Synapse with disc brakes).
It was 39 degrees with a 55% chance of rain when I left my house, although it was already raining. And it never stopped. Not for one minute. It also never got warmer. Did I mention the 10-20mph winds? Let’s just say the conditions were absolutely perfect for the sufferfest on which I was about to embark.
I picked up Ben and headed to Newburg. The first thing I noticed was that the parking lot at Fireman’s Park was pretty much empty. I saw a few riders hanging out under the shelter, so I proceeded to layer up and head over to join them. The next thing that surprised me was seeing Dave Hanrahan in blue jeans. That’s only happened once before when we were both spectators at the Downer Classic, and I had no intention of spectating now. What was Dave doing? He welcomed us all and explained that he felt it was his duty to make sure the riders were safe, so he’d be driving the SAG wagon this year. I won’t lie…I didn’t see a reason for Dave to do this at this point. I didn’t understand why attendance was so low (like 40 riders instead of the usual 300). I mean, it was just a little wet, right?
Man, was I wrong.
The ride turned out to be an exercise in mental strength rather than physical. Don’t get me wrong, you have to be able to ride 63ish miles with 2,000ft of climbing on sometimes-not-paved roads, but that isn’t really the hard part. The hard part is keeping a level head on your shoulders when you’re really cold, really wet, and really frustrated with the fact that no matter which direction you’re heading, somehow the wind is in your face.
We started the ride in one big group and mostly stayed together until Lover’s Lane. Nobody was pushing that hard, and drafting wasn’t exactly comfortable because there was so much water and road dirt coming off everyone’s rear wheels…especially from the guy riding the fat bike. I swallowed a gallon of water from that guy before I decided to drop back in the group and let somebody else drink from his wake.
If you’ve ridden in the past, I know what you’re wondering. Did I ride all of Lover’s Lane? No, I did not. Lover’s Lane was mostly ridable this year, but there was a section that had turned into 12 inches of mud that I just couldn’t make it through. Of course, that’s the one picture of me that surfaced on Facebook – the one where I’ve got one foot on the ground. Nick couldn’t have managed to get one shot of me riding and looking tough on that hill, huh?
By the time we hit the Belgianwerkx aid station we were soaked. Chilled to the bone. Some riders gave up (that was probably the safe and smart thing to do) for fear of hypothermia. Ben didn’t even get off his bike. He rode in a circle waiting for me to clean off my brakes (actually, I convinced Nick to do it) because they were making so much noise from all the mud, rocks, and wet gravel that had built up on the rotors and in the calipers. I ate a banana and attempted to drain out my shoes a bit. I also borrowed Nick’s camouflaged gloves and hit the road.
There were about ten of us riding together at this point, but we separated within the next ten miles. I thought Ben and I got dropped. It turns out a bunch of guys took a shortcut but forgot to invite us. No biggie, I was hell bent on finishing the ride so I probably wouldn’t have followed anyway. I was feeling like I was about to bonk (I had hardly been eating because my fingers wouldn’t allow me to get anything out of my jacket, let alone unwrap it) so I asked Ben to pull something (anything!) out for me. I realized I’d been riding for three hours and hadn’t even finished one water bottle. Not good. So we committed to reminding each other to drink and eat for the remainder of the ride. That helped.
Nick’s gloves blocked the wind, so my hands did better later in the ride, but they felt tingly and heavy and even disconnected from my body. It wasn’t until we finished and I removed the gloves that I realized about a liter of water had accumulated in the gloves. My boots were worse. Every pedal stroke made a squishy noise that reminded me of just how stubborn and stupid I was to continue.
We picked up another rider (Brian, I think?) wearing a Tosa Spokesman kit. There’s strength in numbers. The conversation distracted us. We carried on.
We rode the gravel road next to Harrington Beach, and I proclaimed, “Great news! This is the coldest part of the ride, and the wind will be behind our backs on the way home.” I was wrong. It was a vortex. That’s okay, why should any of this ride be easy? I found pleasure in the pain. I knew I would finish, and I knew I’d have something to brag about.
We hit the railroad tracks and the park, and suddenly Dave appeared in his minivan. He made sure we were OK and went about his picking up of road markers and sign posts he had placed throughout the course. This was the best-marked course in the history of unsupported rides anywhere. I never checked my cue sheet. I rode without GPS. Dave had painted arrows and a little CR at every turn and intersection. Thank you, Dave. Really. Thank you.
Riding through the park, some soccer dad yelled at us, “You guys are crazy to be out here in this!” I smiled. I felt proud.
There’s that last hill (it’s short but steep) on the residential street before you ride back into Newburg. I stood. I gave it my best. I zig-zagged back and forth at 2mph until we hit the summit and I knew it was almost over.
We arrived at my Jeep to find that nobody else was in the parking lot. I thought it was because it took us 4.5 hours this year. I thought everybody else finished earlier. I didn’t realize until later that nobody was around because only 9 or 10 of us finished at all.
Getting into the Jeep was an experience in and of itself. I couldn’t unclip my helmet because I had lost all feeling in my fingers. They just wouldn’t do what I wanted them to do. Ben and I were laughing, but deep down I was a little worried that I did something more stupid than I had thought. As I began to change out of my clothes, I started shaking. I’m grateful I had a change of warm clothes, but it took a long time to make the switch. To all the residents of Newburg: I apologize for any nudity or other unsightly happenings. I did my best, but there was just no elegant way to get out of all that muddy and wet gear.
I cranked the heat and drove Ben home. We were too tired to even get his bike off my rack, so I took it home with me. When I got home, I did what any normal cyclist would do at this point…I drank a protein shake. Followed by a beer. Followed by a double cheeseburger from Culver’s. Followed by another beer. Followed by a frozen pizza. Followed by a few more beers. I know it’s not the ideal recovery meal, but what the heck: I rode the Cheesehead Roubaix!
I thought about the day. I replayed the good, the bad, and the ugly:
Great course, as always.
Well marked, as always.
Fun, as always.
I finished, as always.
No flats or other mechanicals (that’s a first for this ride).
I made a couple of new friends.
My Garmin was FUBAR from the start. DOA. I resorted to using Strava on my iPhone, so I had proof this thing happened.
I forgot to turn on my Fly12 camera, so I don’t have any forward-facing footage.
We were too wet and too cold to take even a single picture.
I was naked with another guy in the back of my Jeep while several Newburg residents watched in horror.
Upon reflection, I realized that much of endurance sports is about proving to yourself that you can do something. No, it’s about proving to yourself that you can do ANYthing.
Every time I finish a feat (a marathon, a half marathon, sometimes even a tough 5k…a new distance bike ride, etc.), I feel unstoppable. It’s a feeling that transcends athletics into regular life, as well. I have developed a quiet confidence in my everyday life because I know that, though I may be slow, I will always finish.
People have asked me how the Cheesehead Roubaix was this year. It was…I don’t know, how do you sum this all up in one word?
One thing’s for sure: I’ll be back next year.