The Hilly Billy Roubaix is the ultracross race closest to my heart. It’s local (one and a half hours from me, in Morgantown, WV), and as the race gets closer, most local bike discussion revolves around course conditions, predicted weather, bike choice, tire choice, and general trepidation. Promoted by JR and Gina Petsko of ABRA racing, it is well-marked, and numerous volunteers come out in hillbilly attire to marshal the course and cheer us on. In fact, without the numerous volunteers, who stood in the rain for countless hours this year, this race would not be what it is. Thank you, volunteers!!!
With its 72 miles of gravel, road, and mud, it is the longest in distance of the American Ultracross Championship Series races – and in my opinion, the most physically taxing. The climbs are not as long as Three Peaks, and there are no crazy run-ups like Iron Cross, but the bumpy roads and constant short, steep hills wear me down more than the other races. Perhaps hard efforts generate reverence and affection – I was moved to write a song about the race! [Youtube video of my parents and me performing the Hilly Billy theme song here.] In the spirit of the event, I even painted little bottles of moonshine on my nails.
After my 2013 race, in which I was nursing some cracked ribs and had been off the bike a few weeks, I was expecting to feel better this time around. And as it shook out, 2014 was my best year yet! A good omen was that the course conditions were perfect…for me. Water-logged and muddy with heavy rain is what really amps me up.
The main competitors I was watching out for were Crystal Anthony/Riverside Racing and Nicole Dorinzi/Pathfinder of West Virginia. Crystal is a highly talented and accomplished mountain bike and pro cyclocross racer from Massachusetts. [A very good Cyclocross Magazine interview with her about her career and experience at 2014 cyclocross worlds is here.] Nicole Dorinzi/Pathfinder of West Virginia has finished ahead of me at this race three years in a row and recently climbed away from me on the final steep pitch of the Tour of Tucker County road race, so I knew she was in good form.
I had a good, steady start near the front of the group. About 3 miles in, Crystal rode by me on a moderate climb, and I watched as she effortlessly wove her way through the riders ahead of us, and out of sight around a bend. Nicole soon appeared and rallied us to chase. I fell off her surge, but was able to catch back up on a flatter stretch of road. Nicole and I raced together for the next few miles, but I discovered I had a small gap coming out of Little Indian Creek Road – one of the many infamously bombed out, muddy back-roads with car-eating potholes. (See photo.)
[I must note here that it is unusual for me to get ahead of Nicole on any technical section because she is a skilled technical rider, but I can only imagine that I had an advantage riding a mountain bike with 40mm tires, while she was on a cyclocross bike with 33’s. Five days before the race, I had a bike issue which required me to switch bikes from my normal disc cyclocross set up. Teammate Gerry Pflug suggested I set up my Specialized Carve with a rigid fork and my cyclocross wheels. Somewhat of a purist, I had never raced a mountain bike in an ultracross race, but the fluke situation worked in my favor. I was more comfortable than ever on the descents, and the bike handled great in the mud.]
My gap out of Little Indian Creek did not last long. Nicole and the group she was with worked her way back up to my group on the flat asphalt section which followed. During a sustained gravel climb, however, I was able to get a gap on her, and maintain it. Here is where Derek Clark/Dynamic Physical Therapy showed his strong riding and knowledge of the course. He lives close to the route, and knew where to power down, when to let up and recover for a coming climb, how long the climbs would last, and basically coached me through the stretch between the crest of that particular gravel climb and aid station 2. Little did we know, however, the larger group Nicole was with was gaining on us bit by bit. By the second aid station, mile 38, she was only about a minute back, I learned from a rider who had bridged up.
After the draining climb out of aid station 2, we hit a flat asphalt section and some “new horsepower” in the form of about five riders caught our little group, and took pace at a fast clip. I hung on as long as I could but our small pack exploded on the next long gravel climb. At that point, it was me and Scott Bond/Speedway Wheelmen of Indiana remaining, with some ahead, others behind from our former posse. Here I must give great credit to Scott. Without his pacing up the climbs I surely would not have kept speed. I was hanging on for dear life on the climbs, my eyes half shut, open just far enough to make sure I had his wheel in sight. In fact, the rest of the race was spent in a semi-delirious blur, hanging on and trying to keep a leg cramp at bay that had been threatening to shut me down. Scott gave me a pace to hold and something to focus on beside my legs, and took us both to the finish. His pacing was also very helpful on any slight down-grade because I was totally spun out on my mountain bike gears. In fact, I was out of gears on most flat-ish sections.
Finishing in second place, at 5:05, I set my best time by 10 minutes, on the slowest conditions I’ve raced it. Crystal smoked the course ahead of me. I’m so glad she came! She provides a model of great strength and tenacity to follow. Looking ahead to the next four races in the ultracross series, I am sure that this race put some good fast miles on my legs that will help me going forward.
Congratulations to Rare Disease Cycling teammate Lesley Butler, who finished 5th place.