The Cobbles

Saturday was my first bike race of the season. Melissa (the photographer) & I woke up early and drove down to Hillsboro, IL for the 2008 edition of the Hillsboro Roubaix bicycle race. The race actually has nothing to do with Roubaix, France. The name is just a play on the famous bike race Paris-Roubaix. Paris-Roubaix is known for horrible weather, poor roads, and, most of all, many sections of cobble-stones. In the spirit of the spring classics like Paris-Roubiax, the Hillsboro race threw in a half mile section of brick roads for every 22 mile lap.

Hillsboro Roubaix course map

Many members of my Wild Card Cycling team took part in this race. We had a particularly large group in the Category 5 (beginner) race, including me. Amateur bike racing events are generally split up into several different, non-competing, races. Much like running races and triathlons have age group competitions, bike races are split up by category, which is generally determined by the ability and experience of a rider.

Team Wild Card had six riders in the Cat 5 race, out of a field of 50 participants. Our six riders are pretty good, each of us simply lacks race experience. The Cat 5 race was only one lap–22 miles. This is pretty short for a bike race, so chances were good it would hard racing from the get-go. Knowing this, Larry (one of the most experienced racers on the team) came up with a team strategy for those of us in the Cat 5 race.

Mark, Tom, Dan, Stew, Karl, & Rob at the starting line

and they’re off

As soon as the race started there was a long downhill section followed by a steep uphill. Dan (who has a tendency to go downhill faster than most) moved to the front of the group and really hammered down the hill. This strung the pack into one long thin line. It was to be my job to push the pace on the uphill section, but I was badly positioned. I was a little too far back after the downhill section, so Karl hit the front and kept the pace high up the hill. By the time we made a right turn at the top of the hill (less than two miles into the race) we had already cut the size of the field in half.

Hillsboro Roubaix course elevation profile

The pace remained high for the next few miles. At this point we hit another steep uphill section when something unfortunate happened. A car came from the opposite direction. This didn’t endanger the safety of any of the riders. We all knew the roads were open to traffic and we all stayed safely on the right side of the road. The sight of the car did cause a few riders to panic. A lot of people had to slow down, and a couple of people swerved off into the grass. Again, everyone was safe, but this had consequences for the race. Due to all the commotion a gap opened up right in the middle of the remainder of the group. I was at the very front of the second half. I pushed the rest of the way up the hill and I chased the leaders for about a mile all by myself in order to catch up. Once I caught the leaders again I was able to slow down rest a little bit.

It was now only six miles into the race and we had a lead group of 13 riders, four of which (Tom, Mark, Stew, & me) were Wild Card people. Not bad. There wasn’t much action for the next 14 miles or so. I stayed near the back most of the time. I tried on several occasions to move up through the pack, as I was willing to work harder at the front, but nobody really wanted to yield their position. So I basically rested for the majority of the race, my heart rate often in the 120’s. As we came back into town we had two large uphill sections, followed by a long, fast downhill, a half mile of brick roads, then a mad dash to the finish. It was time to move on to phase two of the pre-race plan.

Hillsboro Roubaix course elevation gradient

On the first uphill section into town everyone stayed together. By this point we were starting to pass riders who had been dropped from other races that started before ours. Our pace car got stuck behind one of these riders and we got stuck behind the pace car (which we weren’t allowed to pass). So we moseyed up the hill.

Stew & Tom drop the hammer

The road leveled, we passed the slower riders, then we hit the second hill. This is where Stew attacked. He was our strongest rider in the race and he hadn’t been working very hard up until this point, so he was good and strong. Then disaster almost struck. The pace car got stuck behind another slow rider, and Stew got stuck behind the pace car, AGAIN! Fortunately, this was near the top of the hill and Stew still had a lead over the rest of the group when he was finally able to move forward. Crisis averted.

Team Wild Card took the bull by the horns on the last uphill

The group shattered going up the hill. Stew was out front. There was a chase group of four riders, including Tom. I had moved up from the back of the group and I was just behind the chase group with Mark and one or two others. We made a sharp left-hander then headed down the hill. The high speeds down the hill spread the group out even further. I looked up the road and saw Stew still had a pretty good lead with Tom nicely positioned in the second group. At the bottom of the hill we hit the brick road at around 35 mph. I was with one other rider at this point. We turned another corner, headed uphill, and I pulled away from him.

Every part of my bike rattled as the bricks attempted to tear it apart. At some point I heard a loud popping sound and almost immediately my back wheel started wiggling all over the place. I thought to myself, “Oh shit. I just got a flat tire a half mile from the finish.” I looked down and my tire still held air. I didn’t know what was going on, so I just kept peddling. As the brick road continued my rear wheel was still moving all over. I looked down at it three or four more times and it still had air each time.

The brick road ended and I turned the last corner with just a couple hundred meters remaining. I saw Stew had just crossed the line in first. The chase group of four people were sprinting to the line and I saw Tom win that sprint for second place. Next I finished sixth, then Mark came in behind me for seventh. Four places in the top seven was as good as we could have possibly hoped. A few minutes later Karl finished in 23rd, then after him Dan finished in 32nd. These two made big sacrifices to help their teammates then rode much of the race alone. It was really quite amazing.

On top of the tremendous success of team Wild Card in the Cat 5 men’s race, the next race to finish was the Cat 4 women’s race, where Wild Card member Severine won the sprint for first place.

Dan, Karl, Rob, Severine, Stew, Tom, Mark (photo by Luke)

I didn’t see much of the action in the other races, but Larry finished fourth in the Masters 50+ race, but was possibly later disqualified for some reason. Luke, who was sick all week, DNF’d (did not finish) in the Cat 3 race. There were a few other people from Champaign-Urbana there, but I don’t really know how their races went.

Team Wild Card’s first event turned out to be pretty successful. Hopefully, this is a sign of things to come.

3 thoughts on “The Cobbles”

  1. At the next race, you know everybody is going to be talking about Wild Card.

    I love your team strategy. Too bad it didn’t play out exactly as you’d planned. Hopefully your next race won’t be so congested.

    I’ve often thought about what role you would play on a cycling team. I can see you being good as both a time trialist and a climber.

    Also, a huge congratulations to Severine, who won her race without the benefit of support from other riders on the team. I wish I were good on a bike so I could go out there and be a sport. Bike races scare me too much; I will stick to being the team photographer and hope that my photos are better when the weather improves and my hands aren’t frozen.




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