Hilly Billy Roubaix 2015 on Tandem: Operation Lump of Coal

Over the last three years, I have developed a hopeless crush on the Hilly Billy Roubaix. This 72-mile ride over unpaved state roads out of Morgantown, West Virginia, raises my heart rate and heightens my senses. Despite muddy roads and unrelenting steep gravel climbs and descents, I can’t stay away.

The Hilly Billy Roubaix has little compassion for townies like me and does its best to remind me of my townie roots every chance it gets. It doesn’t care that Felkerino and I show up on our 2004 Cannonade mountain tandem to try and appeal to its romantic side. To the Hilly Billy Roubaix, riding a tandem here is simply a concept ride concocted by naive townies with no sense of their limitations.

A week of wet weather combined with pouring rain in the starting miles made this year’s edition of the Hilly Billy Roubaix the most intimidating yet. I listened to JR give the pre-race announcements and trembled nervously in my Sidis as the rain fell steadily down.

As JR talked, I contemplated the erratic nature of this ride. Unlike other courses I’ve ridden, the Hilly Billy has a distinct spirit– one that is decidedly unsentimental and somewhat crabby, if you ask me. Its ever-morphing landscape makes my heart pound out of fear, respect, and perhaps a little unrequited love.

The Hilly Billy course is like a haunted forest. You don’t know exactly what you’re in for, so you best pay attention. Our first year riding Hilly Billy, the sun shone and the roads were smooth and dry, but each year since the course has become gradually wetter and more daunting.

Hilly Billy start

This year, the infamous Little Indian Creek at mile 8 was a yawning mile of water trying to eat bikes for breakfast. Recent rains had converted another segment not long after Little Indian Creek from a pleasant creek-side road to a raging tributary. Water rushed toward us as we churned our wheels through it.

A new climbing segment added to this year’s route contained big rocks in the middle and peanut butter mud on its sides. As we fixed one of the three chain sucks we suffered throughout the day, I watched fellow randonneur Tim lose his balance and tip spectacularly onto his back, his wheels staring straight at the sky. “Silly townies.” I could hear the Hilly Billy laughing.

All other thoughts except what the next few feet held in store emptied from my mind. Unfortunately– or perhaps fortunately– my position on the back of the tandem didn’t allow a clear view of what lay ahead.

I had to rely on Felkerino telling me, which ended up being a 70-mile vocal recital of different combinations of “Bump! Bump! Slowing. Holy cow! Hang on! Stopping! I can’t believe we’re doing this.”

Indian Creek Road. Photo credit Mike Briggs
Indian Creek Road. Photo credit Mike Briggs

I wished I had brought my magic wand to help with the day, but in its absence I was glad Felkerino had chosen the tires he had. The Kenda Happy Medium 2.1 tires were somewhat heavy, but maintained good traction through sloppier sections.

We could never let the tandem loose on the many winding downhill segments– the surface was too soft and unpredictable for that– and the persistent braking down the steeps steadily chewed away our brake pads.

The sharp ascents and slow going on muddy segments took a toll. By the midpoint aid station, we looked to be on an 8 hour pace, and that deflated our spirits. “What are we doing?” I asked myself. “We’re just a couple of townies who should know better.”

I then recalled how I’d had to muster my courage just to start this year’s Hilly Billy Roubaix, knowing that the day predicted rain and that the course would have soaked up its share of water. It’s easy to ride on a sunny day in the 70s– quite another to go out when conditions are not so inviting.

Thirty-five miles in, and we were still going strong. I mean, strong, relatively speaking. We had chain sucked three times and done a fair amount of walking (especially on Little Indian Creek Road), but the sun was now peeking out, and we had not fallen once. I began to mentally regroup.

I pursed my lips together and focused all thought on taking home the lump of coal for the tandem category. Unless we were pulled off the course, we were going to get that lump of coal. Operation Lump of Coal was now in session.

Operation Lump of Coal (and West Virginia Whiskey Bonus!)
Operation Lump of Coal (and West Virginia Whiskey Bonus!)

I slurped a Coke, wiped my mouth with a gritty gloved hand, gave Felkerino a “Let’s do this” look that may still have come across as a “Why are we doing this?” look, and we took off, reenergized and determined.

The second half of the ride began to relent somewhat, enough that I found myself exclaiming “Oh it’s so pretty!” in several sections. I could feel the Hilly Billy Roubaix take a step back at that. That’s right, Hilly Billy, I think you’re pretty! Clouds began to roll in again.

We rode a mix of paved and unpaved roads to the final formidable section on Smoky Drain Road. I don’t recall the length of Smoky Drain Road, but we used our two-footed gear for it. My socks were bunching up in between all the mud in my shoes as we ran-walked and pushed the bike, but I preferred that to the perils of riding through.

I had developed a secondary goal by this point in the ride. Not only were we executing Operation Lump of Coal, but we were not going to fall down this time, as we had in previous years. I dared not speak this goal to Felkerino, because you know how those things go.

The final grassy section approached, and we slip-slided our way through it, walking only briefly, and falling zero times! Eventually the finish came into view, and relief and elation flowed through my body. I fought back tears as I heard friends yelling our names and JR announcing us on the loudspeaker as the lone tandem finishers for the third year running.

Rainbow at the finish!
Rainbow at the finish!

For the last 7-plus hours, the Hilly Billy Roubaix had shaken everything out of me– my anxieties about riding off-road, worries from my regular life, fear of falling, and my self-consciousness as a bike rider that spends most of her time on pavement. I was left with a lump of coal, a bottle of whiskey, and a sense of catharsis.

I  was also overwhelmed by the positive comments from the people we encountered along the course, both volunteers and fellow riders. Everyone was so kind to us as we two townies from D.C. on an ill-fitting tandem stuttered our way through the ride. I used that positive energy to press me forward during times when I felt like the Hilly Billy was beyond me.

JR is a fantastic race organizer who tries to honor everyone who participates. You can ride fast or slow, as long as you make the time cut offs. JR doesn’t care. Just show up with a good attitude, respect for what you’re getting yourself into, and give it your all.

Final Finisher
Final Finisher

Felkerino and I hung out together at the end for a while, chatting with friends and a couple of people we met through the ride. JR came over and told us the final rider was on the last stretch; he asked if we’d head over the finish to cheer her in. JR thinks about things like that, and it’s one of many reasons we keep coming back for this event.

I may be a townie, but my crush on the Hilly Billy Roubaix is not subsiding. We’ll be back. Many thanks to JR and the volunteers who make this race possible.

Letter from Jerry: 3500 Kilometers into Bike Touring Alaska to D.C.

As I write this, our friend is out on the road somewhere, pedaling steadily eastward. Jerry talked with me before he departed for his big cross-country bike tour, and you can read those thoughts here.

Now that Jerry’s been traveling for a few weeks, I thought it would be great to catch up with him and see how his travels are going. Thanks, Jerry, for sharing your progress with us, both here and through your Instagram (tenmetersfromthehut).  Jerry

Where have you traveled? Any favorite spots?

It’s been quite the adventure so far. I flew to Fairbanks and then cycled north on the Dalton Highway to Deadhorse, Prudhoe Bay. It took me two days to hitchhike back to Fairbanks.

Since then I’ve been riding south and east into Canada. Right now I’m in Dawson Creek, British Columbia– the start of the Alaska Highway.

The section north of Coldfoot on the Dalton Highway is wild and epic. The tundra stretches forever. I rode the last 250 km on the gravel road through the night, arriving in Deadhorse at 5 a.m.

The sun was ahead of me all night, slightly to the left at first then dipping towards the horizon but never reaching it, and then climbing to the right of me. It was quite something to ride alone in the tundra through a night like that.

The landscapes and skies all the way have been beautiful. I liked Kluane Lake in Yukon, and the high plateau between Haines Junction and Haines, Alaska, was remote and rugged.

Haines itself is an awesome little town. I went sea kayaking for the day and saw seals, porpoises and eagles.

I’ve cycled about 3500 km so far.

What’s life like on the wildlife front? I see you’ve become an expert at hanging your panniers high.

Lots of wildlife, I wasn’t expecting so much! Caribou, moose, grizzly bears, beavers, porcupines, stone sheep, snowshoe hares, black bears, coyotes, bison, so many birds and really interesting insects. Every day is like a day at the zoo.

I’m getting used to the bears but they do make me anxious. I learnt how to hang my food up high in a tree. I carry pepper spray, but one lady explained to me that that’s just seasoning for them.

Sometimes if I know there are bears around I’ll stop and eat my dinner before making camp further down the road, so I won’t have food smells around camp.

The other unwelcome wildlife are the mosquitos. It’s hard keeping hold of your own blood in this place. Jerry

Is there anything you packed that you wish you hadn’t, or anything you wish you had taken with you?

I’ve been pretty happy with my two small pannier bags. I’ve used everything I brought and haven’t wanted for anything else.

Sometimes other cyclists see my bags and looking down their noses they ask, “Credit card touring?” I reply enthusiastically, “No no, there’s a tent and sleeping bag and cookstove in there!”

Then they doff their caps as their eyes dart quizzically between their bags and mine. The light bags allow me to ride about 150km a day.

I met one cyclist who said, “Ah, you’re the British guy who’s cycling hundreds of kilometres a day?!” Well, I don’t know about hundreds, but I’ve done a few days over 200km and the lighter bags really help. Jerry

What’s come in most handy?

A headnet for the bugs is a very useful thing. Clothing made of merino is very handy for a trip like this.

I also have no regrets over remortgaging my apartment to buy a new pair of Assos shorts.

You mention the two seasons of winter and road construction. What has road work been like and how are you navigating through it?

There are some long sections, like up to 20 and 30km in Yukon. Much of the Alaska Highway is chip seal so it really sucks the forward momentum out of your bike. You get used to it though.

The drivers have been pretty good, I’ll say that. Especially on the Dalton Highway. The truck drivers up there know what it means to be vulnerable and can relate to cyclists. Jerry

What about food and refueling? Has that been a concern at all?

This has been a big challenge. Grocery stores can be 500km apart and at first I wasn’t carrying enough food on the bike. I’ve learnt now to eat whatever I can find whenever I find it.

There’s a great cafe and bakery in Haines Junction. I arrived in the evening and had dinner there. Then I camped outside and had a fine breakfast in the morning before setting out for my day. Jerry

A couple of tour highlights?

I’ve met many inspiring people along the way. About 85km out of Fairbanks a lady at the side of the road flagged me down. I thought she might be in distress, but she had passed me in her car and was concerned because she said a storm was coming.

She invited me to pitch my tent at her cabin there and made me dinner. I said this was great and I’d never been invited to stay like that. She replied, “Really?? You can’t have been in Alaska that long”. She made me a lovely breakfast, too, and I was on my way.

In northern British Columbia I hung out for an evening with a family from Montreal. The oldest girl is 16, the boy is 15, and the little girl 9. They were heading out for a 800km canoe trip in the Northwest Territories for three weeks.

Two years ago they all cycled from Vancouver to Montreal. The little girl was seven. Papa fixed up an electric bike to help her a bit, and she joined them for part of the journey, from Vancouver to Calgary. I made a post about them on Instagram and friends asked if they were adopting.

I’ve met so many kind and incredible people. They inspire you to be better and do more.

Thank you for the excellent update, Jerry. You are missed in D.C., but we love following along via your photos and notes on your Instagram.

PBP Qualified…

Our recent finish of the D.C. Randonneurs 600K brevet means that Felkerino and I have now qualified for Paris-Brest-Paris.

Riders must complete four brevets in order to register for PBP. The general sequence of rides is as follows:  200K, 300K, 400K, and 600K brevet. Because Felkerino and I were unable to complete our club’s 200K brevets, we substituted an additional 300K instead.

Scheduling conflicts impeded our completion of a Super Randonneur series; we lack a 200K in our current suite of rides. While I hope we can find a way to still slot in a 200K, it still feels good to have reached the PBP-qualifying milestone.

Although we are a seasoned randonneuring tandem team, completion of the longer brevets is never a given. They require effort and planning, along with a certain degree of physical and mental discomfort somewhere along the way. Successfully reaching the finish line of these rides is always an accomplishment.

Around last year at this time, our ultimate goal was to show up in France for another edition of Paris-Brest-Paris. Now that PBP registration season is upon us, our goals have drifted in a different direction.

In January, I wrote a post that basically outlined the pros and cons of doing PBP again, and received some thought-provoking feedback. A couple people commented about the relatively narrow window that exists to do these sorts of things.

Felkerino on the 600K brevet

Some mentioned the ability to go back and apply experience from our previous PBP rides to make this one even better, and the rare opportunity to ride a large 1200K event with like-minded riders in a place where people don’t question what you are attempting to accomplish.

Others wrote about the importance of exploring new challenges. After weighing it all, I still imagined that we would pack our bags for France when August came.

The landscape changed for me in the months since I wrote that PBP pros and cons list, such that I am yearning to go west and be immersed in the mountains, and to experience that comforting smallness that has always enveloped me when I bike tour there. The clock I want to dominate my movement is the sunrise to sunset clock– not control windows.

The pressure and post-event fatigue that comes with riding a 1200K– even a tandem-friendly one– is not what I hunger for this summer. I desire open road and quiet contemplation, time to stop and look around, and a full night’s sleep.

Part of me would love to be there to meet new randonneurs, see familiar faces, and be part of the largest and most historic randonneuring event, but the eagerness I had about riding PBP has faded, and I must follow the path that truly calls.

Kip, Dylan, and me on the 600K brevet

Instead of PBP, Felkerino and I are currently plotting a two-week tour in the Sawtooth Mountains. We will ride a loop from Boise, Idaho to Missoula, Montana and back.

We’ve spent the last three years riding in Colorado so this year we are seeking out uncharted terrain for our tandem. For those interested, here is a basic Ride With GPS outline of our route– Part 1 and Part 2. If you have toured in the area, please pass along any route suggestions, food recommendations, or any other bits of wisdom!

When August rolls around, I know I’ll be miss being part of PBP. I’ll avidly follow fellow D.C. Randonneurs and other rando-buddies as they make their way out to Brest and back with event’s rider tracking system. Fantasy PBP!

I’m excited to cheer from the sidelines and hear people’s stories upon their return. I wish all the best to those who have qualified for PBP and will be training through the summer for this grand event. It’s going to be awesome.

Freedom on Two Wheels: Grace of Women BikeDC

First and foremost, riding bicycles has brought me closer to the vibrant biking community of D.C. It has heightened my appreciation of nature & my environmental concerns. I also believe it has made me a healthier and much happier individual.

As I began putting together today’s Women BikeDC feature, I realized that I have known Grace for a few years now, but have never heard her cycling story or thoughts on riding in the D.C. area.

Grace has spent years working in bike shops, and I also knew she was an avid commuter and year-round rider. All this made me eager to talk with her and learn more. Thank you, Grace, for being part of the Women BikeDC interview series!

Tell me a little about yourself and when you started riding.

Always have ridden! My first bike was my brother’s Batman bike that he outgrew. I am fortunate to have grown up in a cycling family and I ride with my family pretty often still.

I work at D.C.’s very own BicycleSPACE and have been there since 2013. I also represent Santana Tandems in various East Coast bicycle shows. I love bicycling and I want to get more women out on bicycles every single day!


What sorts of things do you do by bike?

Everything! I commute to work and school via bicycle, I run errands via bicycle and I also ride for the sheer joy of it.

How has riding a bicycle influenced your life?

First and foremost, riding bicycles has brought me closer to the vibrant biking community of D.C. It has heightened my appreciation of nature & my environmental concerns. I also believe it has made me a healthier and much happier individual.

What features do you think make a city bike-friendly and why?

The most important feature is driver awareness, hands down; although tied with that would be bike lanes. The combination of safe(r) drivers and bike lanes put cyclists in a safe and confident position to do everything by bicycle!

What do you like about riding in the D.C. area?

My favorite thing about riding around here is that I always (without fail) see someone I know out on their bicycle.

How could the D.C. area improve for cyclists?

This goes hand in hand with my answer for a bike-friendly city: making drivers more conscientious and increasing the amount of bike lanes – as well as protected bike lanes! – in and around the city.

Grace (1)

Why do you think more women don’t ride bikes?

I think it’s the long-standing truth that men have always cycled. I think that a lot of women in this area (Nelle of WABA’s Women & Bicycles as well as Laurie of Proteus in College Park) are making great strides to have an encouraging and welcoming environment for women in bicycling.

Probably one of the biggest barriers is that most of the bike shop people are men – thankfully at BicycleSPACE we’ve got lady mechanics and ladies on the sales floor as well. I think one of the biggest hurdles to overcome is getting more women working in bike shops and being more vocal (like you!) on blogs, in the community and in the media in general.

I think once hesitant women realize that there are women here enjoying riding every day, they’ll be more comfortable to get in to the groove of cycling.

You’ve been working in bike shops for several years now (initially at College Park Bikes, and now BicycleSPACE). What has your experience been like?

I started working at College Park Bikes in 2012 with no prior bike shop experience, fresh out of high school. I was a touch intimidated as I was the only woman working there for most of my two-ish years there.

I quickly learned that woman customers felt much more comfortable talking to me rather than my male coworkers about saddles and other women-specific items. I love helping women feel more comfortable at a bicycle shop because I think that will help more women ride consistently.

Once I moved to BicycleSPACE, I was already surrounded with more women. We have ladies both on the sales floor and wrenching. I think by having such a strong women presence, we’ve been able to help increase women ridership.

We teach free classes and lead rides that I believe help beginner riders feel more confident on the road in the city as well as fixing their own bicycles. I’ve noticed that we get a lot of women attending these events and that is awesome!


What suggestions do you have for employers who want to be bike-friendly?

One must-have is bicycle parking– bonus if it’s protected (garage, locker etc.).  Second, incentivize cycling (and other alternative transportation forms) with commuter checks. A high hope would be employee showers!

How does it feel to be a woman who rides in an area where women are less than 26% of the riding population?

I feel lucky that we have such a welcoming community (shout out to WABA’s Women & Bicycles program) to make all cyclists feel included and safe.

What are the issues you deal with as a woman cyclist?

Apart from driver/pedestrian cat-calls, it’s not something I think about very much.

Tell me about your bikes.

I love all my bicycles so much! My first “real” bike is my Burley Kenz, a zippy little road bike I use for my longer fitness rides and for feeling snappy, such an empowering bicycle.

Next, I built up my Surly Cross-Check “Asterix” at 32 lbs, he ain’t light but with full fenders & racks I can take this bad boy out on the C&O camping or just to a long day at school. I built Asterix as a fixed gear and rode that for a year before making the sensible choice to put racks/fenders and a 1×8 gearing on him.

Those are my daily rides. Then I share a Santana Rio tandem with my boyfriend– hoping for some great adventures on that one!

Could you talk about what it was like to build up a bike, and how you went about it?

I enlisted the help of various BicycleSPACErs (most notably Kate and Derek). I bought Asterix fresh from Surly as a single speed/fixed gear, so for a first bike build it was relatively easy. Kate walked me through setting up the brake cables and truing the wheels as well as making sure everything was well-greased and operable.

Once I decided to convert the Surly Cross-Check from fixed to an eight speed to make it a dream-commuter, I knew I had to put a bit more work in. Installing a front rack, a rear rack, full-coverage fenders, new handlebars, new rear derailleur, new shifter cables & levers as well as a new cassette on a new wheel – definitely racked up some work.

With the help of my skilled coworkers, I learned a lot about building bikes and I have my wonderful Asterix to thank for it.

What bike accessories do you consider must-haves and why?

If you’re a daily commuter like myself, I’d definitely say a rack and a nice pannier. Getting a rack and some Ortlieb panniers for my Cross-Check made a huge difference.

I had been riding around with a great bag on my back, but showing up to class every day all sweaty wasn’t great. I can carry way more by using a rack and panniers, and at less expense to myself.


What’s one of the best adventures you’ve ever had on a bike?

I’d have to say one Saturday when my coworkers (shout out to BicycleSPACE) and I decided we should take an impromptu bicycle-camping trip up the C&O!

This involved muddy single-tracking through the woods and staying up on a rock over the Potomac River to watch the sunrise before catching an hour or so of sleep.

A word or phrase that summarizes your bicycling experience?


Stop telling the bike commuter it’s going to rain: Reba of Women BikeDC

I find the bike riding population in D.C. to be eclectic and interesting. I talk to a lot of people, sometimes I don’t get their name or their history, we just share the moment we are in and then ride on. Biking is about being present in the moment you are in and not trying to predict the next day.

The Women BikeDC interviews return this week with Reba, another Friday Coffee Club regular (Swing’s Coffee at 17th and G NW in D.C., every Friday, stop by if you can!) and daily bike commuter. Reba rides a round trip commute of 30+ miles and also makes sure to get her century fix when Fall comes around.

Always positive and laid-back, in addition to always riding her bike, I was eager to learn more about Reba’s thoughts on bicycling in the D.C. area, and asked her to be part of this series. Thank you, Reba, for agreeing!  Continue reading Stop telling the bike commuter it’s going to rain: Reba of Women BikeDC

Finding Your Randonneur Superpower

When you begin to dabble in the randonneuring arts, you may have an inkling of what your cycling strengths are. You may develop additional skills for riding long-distance. However, it is only through doing brevets over time that your randonneur superpower will reveal itself to you. Continue reading Finding Your Randonneur Superpower

Randonneuring Beneath the Stars

The sun flares orange and pink, drops behind the mountains, and leaves us. Felkerino and I pause to don night gear, assess our 600K progress, and estimate the hours of night riding ahead. Continue reading Randonneuring Beneath the Stars

600K Brevet Packing List

I’ve been readying for the weekend’s big ride– the D.C. Randonneurs 600K. I stew in my nervousness and look frequently at regional weather forecasts. I burn off steam with short runs and rides, during which I consider and reconsider all I need for two days of pedaling. Continue reading 600K Brevet Packing List


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