Something Old, Something New… Falling (in Love!) with Off-Road Tandeming
Felkerino’s and my years of randonneuring on tandem together combined with our growing interest in off-road riding made the Hilly Billy Roubaix, a 74-mile ride largely on the unpaved gravel and dirt roads in Monongalia County, West Virginia, an intriguing challenge.
With the exception of tires (which Felkerino researched and purchased prior to the event) we had all the necessary gear and after some discussion we dusted off and prepped our Cannondale tandem for the day.
This ride was an excellent next step for us as a tandem team, as it built on many of the aspects we have grown to love about long-distance riding and tested us in several new ways.
Many elements of the Hilly Billy Roubaix were familiar, in particular the hills and the distance. The day of the event also proved to be hot, with humid temps in the high 80s, and Felkerino and I now fare pretty well in the heat.
Like a brevet, the group started packed together and spread out as soon as the hills started. I worried that Felkerino and I would have difficulty maneuvering the tandem through so many riders (more than 200 people participated), but after the first ten miles or so the group spread out and crowding was not an issue.
People were extremely friendly, which I have to say surprised me. I expected this hard core racing scene, and while that was probably there too, overall the group was laid back and collegial. In that way it reminded me of the randonneurs.
For some the Hilly Billy Roubaix was a true “race,” but for the middle of the pack riders like us, it was treated as an event. Everyone pushed to do their best at rounding the course, but overall, the ride did not have that much of an “ERRRRR!” feel to it.
Like a randonneuring ride, there were many interesting bikes: single speeds; mountain and cross bikes; and fat bikes. It was interesting to peruse people’s rides, as well as the tires and gearing they chose for the event. We leap-frogged much of the course with one of the female single speeders, and her strength and control of her pacing was impressive to observe.
We also spent many miles amid one of the fat bike riders with an internal hub. At one point he flew past us on a tricky gravel descent. Wow, what control!
Apparently, ultra cross riders like pizza just as much as randonneurs, and pizza abounded at the finish. I recall the ride organizer saying they had ordered 100 pizzas to feed all the finishers. I’ve never seen that many pizzas after a brevet, but I’ve also never seen more than 200 riders on a randonneuring ride, either (with the exception of PBP where they did NOT serve pizza at the finish). I only wish I had taken a picture of all of those pizza boxes!
Despite being an experienced tandem team we were newcomers to the ultra cross scene. I am used to doing what I can to blend into the background whenever I try something new. I’m also accustomed to people not making a fuss when Felkerino and I show up to randonneuring events, as I would say we’re “regulars” to that group.
Note: You will not blend into the background when you show up to do an ultra cross race on a tandem. As we were setting up, I heard people making comments about the bike, and as we made our way around the parking lot to do a final test of our setup, people said things like “Go tandem!” and “A tandem; that’s awesome!”
I smiled in return, but these remarks made me want to respond, “Please hold your applause until we actually finish.” I was so concerned about being “bad” or inept at this kind of ride; I wanted to just lay low until we had proven ourselves. Laying low is not possible when you arrive on a freak bike.
This course had no cue sheet, which I kept waiting to be distributed. There is NO CUE SHEET! You follow arrows and trail markings, and people waving orange flags at intersections throughout the route. It was virtually impossible to get lost on this course, which is something that can happen in a moment of inattention on a brevet, no matter how good the cue sheet.
In a pre-race email to riders, the organizer included the following information:
“There are pot holes on the course. These are narrow back country roads and the surface at times can be very challenging with deep gravel, water or mud. YOU NEED TO BE ON YOUR GUARD ON THE DESCENTS that have gravel on them!“
Not being that familiar with the area, I failed to fully conceptualize some of this description.
Potholes? Check. I live in D.C. I know potholes.
Deep gravel? I’m from rural Iowa; I can figure that out.
As for water or mud, these were unknowns, and being
an idiot a newbie, I didn’t think that these could manifest simultaneously on the course. Duh. Maybe it’s best I didn’t know.
I heard the organizer mention mud on mile eight, and sure enough there was, only the scale of what I envisioned was way off. It seemed like a mile of mud and giant puddles. Maybe it was only half a mile, who knows. We hit this mud after a switchback downhill (are there any other kind of downhills besides switchbacks in West Virginia?), and Felkerino vainly attempted an evasive maneuver. Forget it!
Felkerino braked, tried to dodge the first big mud bog, and bloop! Down we went. One of my biggest fears of doing a ride like this was that we would fall, and eight miles in, my fear was reality.
Our untimely tumble was actually a relief. If you have to fall, doing it at two miles per hour into a gigantic mud puddle on a soft trail is totally the way to do it! The bike got coated with mud as did half of our bodies, but overall we were no worse for wear and as we righted ourselves to continue, I saw at least three other people do the same thing we had– oddly validating, okay?
The five-toed gear is also no enemy of ultra cross. Felkerino and I did not walk much, but if a road became sketchy or steep enough, we would do so without shame. At one point, we were overtaking a cyclist determined to stay clipped in no matter what. Initially, we tried to ride everything, but eventually walked in places where that was as fast as pedaling. Looking at the riders around us, this was not an uncommon move.
The steepness of the gravelly descents over the full route was a challenge. As the stoker, I found myself pushing back my weight so the bike would not rocket the descents quite as fast, and that took more mindfulness and effort than eagerly going into the drops to maximize the downhill accelerations.
This ride reminded me just how much stokers trust the captain. I totally delegated my navigation and safety, as well as steering, gearing, and braking to Felkerino. The route was technical in so many places that it was critical for my body to remain steady, directly behind the captain. That meant NO seeing ahead, where on a brevet I’m usually trying to sneak a peek at what’s coming. It’s true that I delegate those things to Felkerino on regular road rides and tours, too, but it was never more apparent than on Saturday’s Hilly Billy Roubaix.
Over the 74 or so miles of the course, there were few sections of recovery, and it was a new feeling to push myself at the level Felkerino and I did over that distance and technical terrain. We pounded the pedals during the few paved sections the course offered, as the bike seemed to fly over them. It’s amazing how light the bike is when you aren’t carrying all of your touring crap.
The Hilly Billy Roubaix was as much about the post-ride celebration as it was about the course. Free beer at the finish (from a keg, no less), podiums for various divisions, and even… prizes! The entry fee reflected the additional post-event swag, but it was great fun to participate in this kind of post-ride party.
And, as I said in my previous post, we made the podium! Felkerino and I showed what newbies we were because apparently you are supposed to raise your arms triumphantly on the podium. Instead, I stood with a can of Pepsi in one hand and the prized piece of coal in the other while Felkerino put an arm around me. What is this, Senior pictures? We’ll have to practice so we look more pro next time!
An event like this, while considered short compared to many of the other riding Felkerino and I do, is long enough in addition to being technical enough, that it still leaves the possibility for low moments. Felkerino had points during the last ten miles or so where he began cramping. I was feeling awesome (typical for me during the last part of a ride) and I could practically taste the finish. But Felkerino and I had to work through these rough moments together.
To help me, I borrowed a mantra from Ultrarunnergirl:
Relentless forward progress.
I made sure we did everything we could to keep the bike moving forward. Forward. Always forward.
I focused on being positive, and told Felkerino so, saying, “Always positive. Only negative splits!” We did not have negative splits (I don’t even know if that is a concept people think about on these types of rides), but it would be a miraculous occurrence for me, at least if my marathon running is any indicator!
People were so kind to us throughout. Fellow riders gave us so much encouragement. Volunteers told us we were their heroes, that we were winning the tandem division, or just gave a general “YAY tandem!” as we passed. I borrowed all of that energy and put it into our ride.
It was really awesome, and we received a huge round of applause from the spectators as we pedaled our way into the finish.
Compared to a brevet, this event had a lot of kit. People really had some splendid matching outfits. Felkerino and I both wore Ibex, and we did not match our outfits despite being on the same “team.” Would I ever wear kit? I don’t know. Would I ever wear the same outfit as Felkerino? Hmmmm. I felt pretty good in my full-zip blue summer-weight wool jersey.
Felkerino and I also managed a couple black-and-blue marks from our early mud tumble on the course. I earned my bruises, and am glad we kept the rubber side down on all of the many sketchy gravel descents.
Falling in Love
Over the years, I fell out of love with our Cannondale tandem. The lead sled is a sluggish beast on the road. It is also too short for me on long road rides. Over centuries-plus distances on pavement, it causes pain in my lower back and shoulders.
This weekend, though, the lead sled showed what a champ it can be. That bike loves gravel, and climbs and descends well when it leaves the asphalt behind. Whatever we asked of that bike (with the exception of riding over water), it happily did. It fit well and did a great job with all of our seated climbing. I have no soreness from our ride.
I am so glad we had a chance to test this bike again on Saturday, and I NEVER thought I would say ANY of these things about our Cannondale. I love you, lead sled!
Finally, I loved off-road riding with Felkerino. We plopped into the mud on Saturday, and I hopped back up ready to ride, totally unfazed with how dirty I was. I really did not care. In fact, I liked going out and getting a little dirty. Okay, SUPER dirty.
I loved that we were hauling that tandem up and over the hills of West Virginia together. For most of the ride, we were perfectly in unison.
At other times, I was reminded of how our styles complement each other. Felkerino loves to push on the first part of a ride, and I totally get focused and have the mental and physical strength in the later miles. It’s a combination that serves us well.
I didn’t know what the Hilly Billy Roubaix held in store for me on Saturday morning, and I discovered that taking the tandem off-road with Felkerino on a challenging course created an intensely engaging experience unlike anything I’d ever experienced. It was like a dream come true, and I’m already dreaming about Felkerino’s and my next ultra cross adventure together.