“Always keep riding […] Because there’s always someone who’s had a puncture […] and you can come back a lot in this race.” –  that’s what Matt Hayman said before he won Paris Roubaix last year.

Rouge Roubaix is not Paris Roubaix. It’s not a world tour event. There are no cobbles, but three wicked gravel sectors, enthusiastic volunteers, lots of potholes and bad roads, and everybody gets to ride the same epic 105 miles.

Me and two masters racers drove up to St. Francisville, LA on Friday and spent Saturday exploring the town and its surroundings on bike to shake out the long drive. Picture stop at the Mississippi river included – for someone who grew up in Europe and heard of the Mississippi only through Tom Sawyer that’s kinda cool.

 

Cool was also the start to the race next morning. A cold front had arrived the night before with lots of rain, but at least the rain had stopped by the time racing started. It took me a long time to stop shivering on the bike, in part because everybody was apprehensive about the distance and we had exactly two (!) attacks in the first 40 miles. Gravel sector one approaching I moved into top four position and was inherently surprised no one else had the same idea.

Thanks to last night’s rain, gravel sector one was more of a mud fest than anything else. Slick, greasy mud up to two inches thick at the worst spots definitely took some skill to move through. With a slight uphill and two corners at the beginning of the sector, I followed the leading three or so riders. Glancing back after a few hundred yards, we already had a solid gap of 100m or more. Stephanie Smith rode the entire (!) gravel sector at the front at a good clip, me and three other girls glued to her wheel. After what seemed like an eternity, the five of us finally came out of the sector covered in mud and with a very solid lead. For the next twenty miles – until gravel #2 – we kept a steady pace and nothing major happened other that one girl got a flat and we never saw her again.

Rolling into gravel sector two, Stephanie used her “keep safe at the front” tactics again and we had a very decent tempo until Blockhouse climb. I was the slowest going uphill and already feared a 30 mile solo ride, when I saw Emily Gass getting back on her bike in wicked sandpit right hand turn after a downhill. Getting through it was no problem, but let’s just say that I’m glad I didn’t ride that in a 50 man pack…

Emily and I probably were probably 60-90 seconds down on Stephanie and Christy Keely and started chasing once we were back on the road. We saw the lead vehicle a few times up the road, but we weren’t making any progress and I figured we’d duke out third place between the two of us.  Thanks to last year’s extreme weather protocol, I had never ridden gravel sector 3 but I heard it was epic, steep and fairly technical. I made sure to be in the front leading into it, and man, it was just an epic dirt road . It started out with a steep climb (I passed a cat 4 rider who preferred to walk it) and I ground it up at 6 mph and 30rpm. Not only was it steep, the road also crowned in the middle, had a nice foot-deep ditch and was cut deep into the hill from years and years of use. Absolutely stunning! On top I looked back and noticed that I had dropped Emily by quite a bit – I was now I third! The rest of gravel sector three continued just as beautiful, rolling up and down and winding through the area with a few technical descents and a wicked puddle. I played it safe, figuring my technical skills were good enough to keep or even extend my lead and secure third. To my big surprise, I caught Stephanie at the end of the sector. Her saddle had slipped and she was clearly suffering because of it. Suddenly, I was in a very good spot to get second! We rolled together but not actively chasing Christy who was in the lead. Her, because she couldn’t, and me because I wasn’t confident we would catch her and I didn’t want to pull Stephanie around just to be outsprinted (From what I gather, Christy had been riding solo since mile 85 and very likely had somewhere around 5 min on me when I caught Stephanie. Impressive!).

I noticed that I was doing far better on the rollers and patiently waited for the last hill at ~3 miles to go. I rode up hard tempo, established a gap and crossed the line in 2nd! Stephanie came in third a few seconds later, and Emily another minute after me.

After a quick shower back at the hotel, the other two girls were kind enough to re-take podium pics with me (sorry!) and with two shrimp poboys for the road, we started our 10h drive back home.

 

Rouge Roubaix is a top-notch event for the adventurous. Really well organized by a group of local enthusiasts, long-standing (next year will be the 20th edition!), great location and wicked, epic roads. Definitely one of my favorite races to go to.