This is not a joke so please stop smiling
What was I thinking when I said it didn’t hurt
-Wilco, “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart“
After an exhilarating experience at the 2013 edition of the Hilly Billy Roubaix,
Ed Felkerino and I returned to Morgantown this past weekend for another opportunity to ride our Lead Sled tandem wheels through the West Virginia mountains.
I had come to see the Hilly Billy Roubaix as a friend, but Hilly Billy is not the same kind of friend as a road ride. It is much more complicated in nature, and my meet-up with this year’s Hilly Billy was not the rendezvous I anticipated.
“I’ve changed in the year since you’ve seen me,” the ride said.
“So you have, but recent rains have made you even lovelier. The luscious greenery and wildflowers suit you,” I answered.
“Come inside and visit for a spell. You will see the other ways I am now different.”
Like Hansel and Gretel, we– along with about 200 other riders– obliged. As in 2013, ours was the only tandem (or “tandumb,” as it was noted at registration). First and last place was ours, provided we finished.
The 72-mile (or so) Hilly Billy begins with an easy downhill paved start that gradually spits you onto gravel and pitches you and your heart rate straight up for two solid miles. “Welcome to West Virginia,” the climb says. “You will earn every mile of this ride.”
Fortunately, the gravel felt good under our tires. Felkerino and I rode steadily together, nervous and excited about our date with the Hilly Billy Roubaix.
A few miles passed and I spied the sign for Little Indian Creek Road. Gulp. I silently begged that Little Indian Creek show mercy on Felkerino and me this year. (We had fallen straight into one of the giant puddles during last year’s edition.) In response, the muddy road gave way beneath us as if to say that nobody rides for free through Little Indian Creek Road, not even a nice-looking couple on a freak bike.
The pools of water had grown on this “road” since we had last visited and, instead of challenging them, we dismounted and meekly walked and pushed our tandem through most of the section.
Photographer Mike Briggs said hi to us and asked if we hadn’t gotten enough of Hilly Billy last year. No. We’re slow learners. Plus, we like the photos he takes.
After escaping Little Indian Creek, we fell into a good rhythm. Our tires seemed to fare okay on the hard-packed gravel. I was glad for that, but slightly bummed that wet roads made it difficult for us to climb out of the saddle without the back wheel skidding on us.
We’re still figuring out the ideal off-road gravel tires, and this will likely take us an entire lifetime given the comparatively limited amount we ride on unpaved roads.
I wondered if showing up on the tires we did was like going to a cocktail party in shorts and a t-shirt. Even if it was, I don’t know what tires we could have ridden on Saturday that would have allowed us to climb with abandon on damp sections.
Rain chased us around the course all morning. It did not linger, only enough to keep reiterating the message that Hilly Billy was different this time around.
Hilly sections punished us less this time than last year, thanks to more miles in our legs and our decision to set the bike up with a 34 in the back. I felt like we’d really shown the Hilly Billy Roubaix something special by bringing along that 34 and riding every up the Hilly Billy threw at us, but the Hilly Billy didn’t care.
Nonplussed, it coated several sections of the route with peanut butter mud that had not been there last year. “I see your 34 and raise you peanut butter mud!”
All the mud splattering off the rear wheel meant that I spent much of the ride with a soggy backside. “You want to do this ride? Then you have to wear a mud diaper.” The Hilly Billy mocked me.
It also threw in some extra holes. Most we managed to dodge, but we banged over others while I crossed my fingers and fervently hoped for no flats.
Despite the Hilly Billy’s overall demeanor, which vacillated between indifferent and mean-spirited, it couldn’t help but expose its sweet side. We would climb until I did not think I could take it anymore, and the road would open up over lush mountainsides resembling overstuffed green pillows.
The lavender, yellow, and white of the wildflowers saturated my eyes with their beauty and lured me forward mile after mile. It was delicious.
At some points I could look back and see how far up we had climbed, and this filled me with a momentary sense of accomplishment.
People all along the route encouraged us, telling us we were doing a good job and that we were winning the tandem division (one of one!). We even saw our randonneuring friend, Dan Blumenfeld, out marshaling one of the corners!
The event organizers arranged for drop bags at the three aid stations on the course so each stop allowed for Felkerino and I to consume our favorite bike ride treats. After last year’s Hilly Billy, where I would have paid top dollar for a can of Coke, this was a wonderful benefit.
The ride could never be all bliss, though. It wouldn’t be Hilly Billy if it was. Our bike slid out on us over a damp paved section for some reason we couldn’t quite figure out. We also chain sucked on one climb, necessitating a roadside chain break and speedy resetting of the chain in order to resume course.
Despite these minor setbacks and damp conditions, we were on pace to set a new personal best time on this course after the final rest stop, twelve miles from the end. However, randonneuring and rides like the Hilly Billy Roubaix keep flogging me with the fact that one should never set their sights on what could be because that is just your imagination talking.
The peanut butter mud was particularly intense on Smoky Drain Road, which I was convinced was called Water Works Road. Water Works mirrored my feelings about “riding” through it. Our tires sank straight into the ground like goopy quicksand and we had no choice but to slog through the section on foot.
Squish squish squish. At 64 miles out of 72, we were so close to the finish, and yet so far. A new personal best time flew away from me. Not today.
My head fell humbly forward and I asked why the Hilly Billy Roubaix was trying to break my heart like this when all I wanted to do was love it. I plodded onward after receiving no answer.
After leaving Smoky Drain Road behind, we resumed our path on pavement with a devastatingly steep up. We had walked it in 2013, but not this year. This year we were going to march ourselves up that climb without using the two-footed gear.
Felkerino and I sprang out of the saddle on the steep and refused to back down. Clomp clomp clomp. We refused to sit until cresting the top, as if to say, “We will not be deterred from hanging out with you, Hilly Billy. We love you no matter how you treat us.”
“Try harder, kids,” Hilly Billy responded and threw us onto a soft, slippery, and generally unrideable strip of muddy lawn for the final mile to the finish. Sigh. Hilly Billy could not help but get in its last little kicks. Felkerino and I dismounted, pushing the bike and jogging.
We remounted and began to pedal the final quarter-mile to the finish. People were cheering and I could hear the loudspeaker. I believe J.R. was saying that he would not want to ride a tandem on this course.
Almost there. We were determined to pedal our way in, but the grassy patch had other ideas. We made the last bend up to the finish and our rear wheel spun out.
Resigned, we dismounted and walked to the final few feet before riding our way over the finish line for the second year in a row. At 6 hours and 39 minutes, our overall time was only six minutes slower than last year (our Garmin track here). First and last place achieved.
The 2014 Hilly Billy Roubaix had humbled us. Despite overall improved physical shape, a year of experience with the course, and our best effort, we could not put up an improved time. Yes, we were different, but so was the Hilly Billy Roubaix.
While we benefited from cooler weather and overcast sky, the course’s unrelenting climbs, damp roads, and peanut butter mud demanded all our attention, mile after mile. It made 72 miles (which I’m convinced are 74 miles) fly by, and engaged and thrilled me in a way that is rare on rides.
There is an irresistible appeal to the Hilly Billy Roubaix that comes from its changing nature, perpetual challenge, and humbling moments. I don’t care how much it tries to break my heart. I can’t help loving the Hilly Billy Roubaix.