Taking care of unfinished business at Rouge Roubaix
I’ve had the same picture on my iPhone lock screen for the past five years. It’s not a family picture. It’s not a pet picture. It’s not a pretty sunset at the beach. It’s a dirt road carved through the clay of the Tunica Hills in Louisiana. It’s part of a climb called Big Bertha. I took the picture in March 2017 during a recon drive on the course before Rouge Roubaix XIX.
The race starts in St. Francisville, La., and that edition was 105 miles through Louisiana and Mississippi, about 20 miles of it on gravel roads. At the first gravel section another rider hit my rear derailleur and took me out of the race. I was only 28 miles in (and I wrote about it here.) I never even made it to the section where I took that picture. Since then, I’ve said I have unfinished business in St. Francisville.
And since then, every time I’ve looked at my phone that picture has been a reminder.
The race hasn’t been run since 2017, either because of local politics, river flooding, or Covid. So when the organizers announced it would return for 2022, redemption at Rouge became my goal. Redemption can take many forms; for some it may be a higher place or faster finish. For me it was just getting to the finish line. And for 2022, the organizers lengthened the race to 127 miles, putting the two most notable gravel climbs, Blockhouse and Big Bertha, at 88 and 103 miles in.
I was confident in my preparation and felt good as we rolled out. Throughout the race I could trace the lineage of the lessons I had learned in the past five years.
Develop a plan and have the discipline to follow it, a lesson from the Cheaha Challenge last year.
Don’t take unnecessary risks on the gravel descents, a lesson from the Standard Deluxe Dirt Road Century, where I bent a rim trying to catch up to a buddy ahead of me.
Show a little grace. At one point in the race we had a small group that included a triathlete who wasn’t sure how hard to pull when he was on the front. He genuinely wanted to make sure he was doing his part and not slowing the group down. But I literally worked harder trying to stay on his wheel than I did when I was on the front. But we coached him, he was appreciative and receptive, and we stayed together longer. Another lesson I can trace to a group that came together — then fell apart — at Cheaha.
And more broadly, the experience and fitness from riding for hours at a steady sustainable effort that I learned from Tom Gibbons’ coaching.
I’ve never ridden another race like Rouge. There are plenty of rides with beautiful scenery, and it has that. And there are plenty with tough climbs. But there’s something about the combination of the gravel and the stretches of terribly rough road multiplied by the distance that makes Rouge a full body test. I’ve never felt so much physical pain during a race: from my neck, to my back, to my cramping legs, to the burning soles of my feet. And that was pain that seeped through copious amounts of Tylenol.
And then there was Big Bertha and the site of the photo. As I reached the steepest part of the climb I was on loose gravel and my rear tire lost traction. In an instant I flipped onto my back. A guy coming up behind me said it looked like I’d been thrown from a bull. Of all the places to go down it was on the climb I’ve carried with me every day.
But 19 miles later, crossing the line at the end of a short but sadistic climb, all of that faded. And I wasn’t thinking about 2017, or remembering the end on that muddy climb five years ago.
Redemption is really about the present and the future; it’s more about what you regain, not what you had lost. It occurred to me that the crash in 2017 didn’t really take anything from me, but it did give me a goal and motivation. It gave me much more than it took away. Maybe, on balance, this wasn’t about redemption after all.
Video from the course: https://gopro.com/v/LvMwnl7L5Oozd
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