By Sean Salazar
Weather conditions: Overcast and cool at the start, but sunny and high 70’s by the finish. Winds were mild to moderate.
Photo Credits Jf Meullenet
Louisiana had been experiencing torrential downpour for the better part of a week. Parts of the state were seeing record high flooding. After a 9-hour drive in the rain on Saturday, our caravan of 14 riders arrived in St. Francisville in the afternoon. It was still raining off and on. Between forgetting that my race bag was stored in the open bed of the truck I was riding in and the humidity of southeastern Louisiana, I think everything I brought with me, including my socks, were wet. In the hours leading up to the race, the organizers were forced to reroute parts of the course to avoid underwater bridges and mud pits. Two of the infamous gravel sectors were replaced by narrow, pitted, and rough roads. The total length was trimmed down from 106 miles to 100 miles. Conditions looked to be swampy. Lucky for us, the rain stopped during the night and we were greeted by rays of sunlight bursting through patches of receding clouds at the start line.
Course recon evening before the race.
Our field size was roughly 35-45 riders, though it was hard to tell exactly how many there were. A 4-mile neutral rollout was followed by mounting anticipation in the peloton. Some riders were keen to push the pace on the early roads, because they were smooth. This strung out the field. An early break formed with Tyson representation in it (Jason Alvarado), but this break was not allowed to get too far up the road before being swallowed up by the chasing peloton again. A second, more motivated, break of 3 riders formed at mile 27, again with Tyson representation (Ben Upchurch), allowing our team and some of the other teams to relax into a more modest pace. Over the next miles, 8 more riders went off the front of the peloton to join the break and make it an uneven 11 riders. 5 of these riders could not hold onto the blistering pace of the break though and were dropped. The now 6-man strong break opened a gap of just under 3:00 minutes at the maximum, but hovered around 2:00 minutes for most of the time. Meanwhile, the roads alternated between smooth rolling hills and narrow chip seal littered with potholes (often disguised by puddles) and asphalt patches. At mile 50, a rider from 4th Dimension Racing made a solo effort to bridge up to the break. There was no response to this move – it seemed overly ambitious – but we were surprised to discover that this same rider not only caught the break, but managed to drop all of the riders in the break and win the race by 4 minutes!
At mile 57, I flatted in the front. The follow car got me back up and running on a spare wheel and I chased to get back onto the peloton. Luckily, the fireworks hadn’t been lit at this portion of the race yet and it took only a six or seven minute effort to get back on. I didn’t have long to recover before we turned onto the dirt road that led up to the Blockhouse Rd. climb (mile 63), which featured sand, wet gravel, and an average grade of 8%, with maximum grades upwards of 12%. This was the decisive moment in the race, as the selections for the first chase group were made. Several of us attacked this climb trying to shell as many riders as we could. A group of about 15 riders survived the climb and started to work together to catch the riders from the break one by one. There were two Tyson riders represented in this group, Michael Kirk and myself. We reeled in Ben Upchurch who contributed to the chase before dropping back to the next group as the pace continued to be elevated. The gap to the leaders started to dip below 2 minutes, but never came down enough to motivate the riders whose teams weren’t represented in the leading break to work hard. Between the lack of motivation and the riders getting a free ride in our group (4D Racing and Team Yacht Club), a small group of us became increasingly frustrated.
The pace lining came to an end around mile 80 where the treacherous roads of the alternate course began. They were narrow, winding, rolling, and covered in potholes, wet gravel, and slick patches of mud from the flood waters. I felt comfortable riding this section of roads, perhaps because of my mountain biking experience, so my idea was to get on the front here and risk my personal ambitions to shell as many riders as I could and get Michael through this section safely. This worked to some extent, the group now reduced in size. But, I was starting to grow tired of the pace. I rotated back into the group and all of a sudden, my bike felt squirrely. I looked down at yet another flat tire. Lucky for me, this section of road was flatter and more tame than the previous 10 miles we had been through. A moto with a wheel rack happened to be passing by at this very moment and was able to swap out my wheel in record time. The chase group was long gone, but I wasn’t afraid this time. I had already survived one flat – I could do it again. I settled down into a hard pace, fueled by the adrenaline from the roads we had just ridden and some frustration at not having bridged the gap to the now two remaining leaders on the road (4D Racing and Yacht Club). After several minutes, I started to see the chase group ahead. They came closer with every turn and finally I started to approach the back of the group. Something was wrong though – I didn’t see Michael and I didn’t see Ben Gramling (SBC Cycling). While I had been catching up from my second flat, Ben and Michael had been taking turns attacking the chase group, and trying to get away from the more tired riders. Ben and Michael had been equally frustrated with not having caught the two remaining riders up the road and eventually their efforts were rewarded with being able to break contact with the group and ride away together. This put me in a tactical conundrum and I had only two choices, neither of which I liked very much. Either 1) I counterattacked the group as soon as I made contact (making sure not to take any riders with me), despite having just had to turn myself inside out to catch up. Or 2) I sat in the group and recovered while Ben and Michael continued to pull away. I tried the first option, but the remaining riders were anticipating this. Many of them were surprised to see me rejoin the group, while others were quick to respond to any moves I tried to make. So, I sat up and tried my best to recover. I popped a few gels, drank the remaining water I had on board, and waited. After turning onto a stretch of windy (but thankfully smooth) highway, our group could see Ben and Michael up the road. They had opened up a considerable gap and riders were not particularly motivated to chase them down; however, they were watching me to make sure I didn’t make any attempts to bridge up to the riders.
With about 5 miles to go, we approached a turn off of the highway and onto a short, steep climb. I used this opportunity to make my move and distance the group. After making sure I had no riders following my wheel, I time trialed as best as I could to bridge the gap to Ben and Michael. I was worried that they weren’t going to catch the two leaders and I wanted to contribute to the group while helping Michael to beat Ben to the finish. I ramped up my effort, patiently waiting to see the riders ahead. With about 3 miles to go, I almost missed the turn onto the final stretch of rough roads, because I had been looking down, but I managed to make the turn and settle back into my effort. Ben and Michael had become aware that there was a rider attempting to chase them down, but they weren’t sure who it was. As I got closer, Michael realized that it was me and eased off the pace to make Ben pull him along. I made contact and immediately counterattacked to make Ben chase me. Meanwhile Michael rested on Ben’s wheel. After crossing the wooden bridge on Mahoney Road, Michael attacked, allowing me to sit on Ben’s wheel. Michael made Ben chase all the way through the final left turn and onto the 500-meter long uphill finishing straight. At this point, Ben started to come around Michael, but my legs had recovered sufficiently to put in one last effort. I came around Ben and Michael and sprinted to the line to take 3rd place. Ben beat Michael to the line for 4th. According to the finishing times, I had been a mere 17 seconds from catching 2nd place, but 1st place was 4 minutes ahead of 2nd, making getting on the top spot of the podium an extremely difficult ask. As for the other Tyson riders, Ben Upchurch and Conrad crossed the line in 15th and 16th, respectively. Jason Alvarado finished 19th, and Bob Newell finished 24th.
Rouge Roubaix knows how to dish out the pain and follow it up with occasional misfortune. It is one of those epic races that you want to be able to say you’ve completed. It should be on every competitive cyclist’s bucket list.
Distance: 100 miles
Time: 4hr 26min 51sec
Norm. Avg. Power: 219W
Elevation Gain: 3,700 feet