by: Johnny Mitchell
Finish Strong Elite Cyclist
Category 1 racer
Resides: Florence, SC
Terrible Roads, Flexing' Muscles, and Bloody Knuckles: Our Rouge Roubaix Experience
Let me start by saying two things. 1. Our team is not only a talented group, but also a fun group to hang out with. And 2. You will never again hear this cyclist complain about the road conditions at the Donaldson Center. When I heard the stories and read the e-mails from the race promoter, I thought it was all hype. I didn't think it would be so bad. I have seldom been so wrong.
The group making the trip was Andrew Crater, Shane Braley, Brian Arne, Parker Kyzer, Justin Meade, Hank Booth, Jake Hill, and myself (Johnny Mitchell). We also had Micah Milne doing the CAT 3 race and Debbie Milne doing the women's Pro 1/2 race. Finally, we had Jerry Page acting as our team everything. He was driver, masseuse, loader, unloader, and all around nice guy. He made the trip exponentially easier on us, so we could focus on the task at hand.
We started by driving from Greenville to Montgomery, Alabama on Friday night. We got up Saturday morning and set out for St. Francisville, Louisiana. We arrived at 2:00 to pick up our race packets. We then went on a recon ride on the last gravel section of the course, which is 20 miles from the finish. We soon realized that position on the gravel sections would be where the race was won and lost. It was eye opening! The gravel was rough and loose. We were going pretty fast over it to get a feel for how it would be the following day. A group of three riders passed us on a steep descent. One of those riders lost control and went off the road and had to dismount to keep from riding into a pond. Yep! Piece of cake! I flatted my tubular on that section and had to get Andrew to repair it with some Stan's No Tubes. We then set off for our host house. We had the guest house all to ourselves. We had a lovely dinner of pasta and fish (fresh caught by our host). Next we made sure our KHS Team Flite bikes were race ready, pinned on our numbers, and got to bed.
Before we get into our race, I want to give a shout out to the two highest finishers from TeamFS. Micah finished 10th in a strong CAT 3 field, destroying the main bunch in the field sprint, and Debbie finished 2nd in the women's Pro 1/2 race from a two-woman break away.
Wake up call was 5am. We had oatmeal and coffee for breakfast. We arrived at the start, ready to roll. The race started just after 8am. We had a four mile neutral roll out. It was the calmest neutral roll out I have ever been a part of. It was NOT an indicator of what was to come. As soon as the race went live I attacked! I had no company and was brought back to the group in short order. A few more small attacks came and went. Nothing stuck. Finally, I got in a small group about 50 meters up on the field. Then came Brian Arne! He was even dinging his bell to let us know he was coming. It didn't matter! He was going too fast for anyone to follow. It was the last time we would see him for 70 miles. For his effort, he got great exposure for the team and a $100 King of the Mountain prize for being the first man to the top of the steepest section of gravel road. As a side note, Debbie Milne got the same prize for the women's race. I guess he got lonely on his 70 mile solo effort, so as he came to the top of a big gravel hill, he sat up and started flexing for the fans on the side of the road. He is nothing, if not a performer. For him, the gravel sections were easy money. For the rest of us in the group, not so much.
TeamFS, at the urging of Andrew Crater, controlled the front for the first 25 miles, leading up to the first gravel section. We set a tempo that kept others from attacking, but allowed Brian to stay several minutes up the road. As we neared the first gravel section, several teams tried to take the front. Nothing doing! Hank Booth and Justin Meade upped the pace every time a team tried to come around. It was their efforts early on that put the rest of us in the position to do well. The final 400 meters before the first gravel section was like the finish of a race. All out sprint! Andrew Crater was the first man to touch the dirt. He led us onto the gravel road, with the rest of us right behind him. It kept most of us out of trouble. I say most, because Andrew got a flat and I was the lone Finish Strong rider to hit the deck. It happened about five miles into the gravel section. The pace was fast. The road was awful. Pot holes were everywhere. Rear wheels were sliding. We come around a right hand turn to find a four foot wide puddle. I say puddle, but don't imagine the small puddle you see on the side of the road. Imagine the Olympic swimming pool of puddles. I THOUGHT I was just going to skate by. I would have, had the guy in front of me not turned 90 degrees right into me. I landed on him and was quickly run over by two other riders. Mayhem ensued. Bodies were everywhere. I had lost about half the skin off my knuckles and had a good scrape on my knee, but was otherwise fine. I was back on the bike within 15 seconds. The group was gone and my front wheel was all over my brakes. I rode out the remainder of the dirt road and about another 3 miles with my wheel rubbing. Finally the neutral wheel guy came up with Andrew in tow. He had no front wheel for me but did motor pace us until Jerry came by in the team van. He gave me a front wheel and we continued to motor pace back to the group.
We caught the group a few miles before the next gravel section. We went back to the front and lead the way onto the next section. Andrew flatted again and his race was over. The road pitched upwards and the race was blown apart. The gravel was loose and the road was steep. Parker made the front group and rode away up the climb. Shane and I made the second group. I have never seen effort from anyone the way I did from Shane. From the sound of his breathing, I would guess his heart rate was just north of a thousand. Even still, he gritted it out like a champ. He ended up with a mechanical and a broken shoe and limped in to the finish. For every revolution up that climb, half of it your wheel was slipping. A lot of people tipped over. A lot of people dismounted and walked to the top. Over the top and down the other side was truly terrifying. I saw one guy face plant directly onto some broken asphalt. Another hit a deep pothole, causing his wheel to turn 90 degrees. The bike stopped. He didn't. At the bottom the gravel turned to deep sand. Parker made the save of the day by leaning on someone else and using them to keep himself upright when his wheel turned sharply in the sand.
The "roads" after the gravel left us wishing for more gravel. I have never seen so many pot holes in my life. Parker's group split in two with a few going up the road. Parker was in the second group on the road and ended up 11th. I was in the third group. I finished 18th. Jake Hill was next at 27th. I was sitting at the finish line looking down the final straight. You can see the riders make the final turn to come up the finish hill. Brian made the final turn and I saw him doing what I can only describe as a calisthenics routine up the final hill. He was flexing and making all the ladies swoon. A true showman. With the exception of Andrew and his double flats, everyone finished. Parker and I were in the money, as it paid 20 deep. We showered and began the long trip home.
I learned many things this weekend. I learned that if you hang out with Brian Arne for more than a few minutes, you go home talking like Brian Arne. I learned that Hank Booth can put away more food than any 10 men. That is probably what fuels his effort on the front of the field. I learned that Justin Meade is a selfless rider who will do anything to put his team in a position to win. I learned that Jake Hill sprints very fast, no matter the terrain. I learned that Shane Braley can suffer more than anyone, break his rear derailleur, break his shoe, and still finish 102 miles on the worst roads I have ever seen. I learned that it is wise to follow Andrew Crater's instructions for two reasons. 1. He is right. 2. It is his leadership that guides the team. He is putting the rest of us in a position to win. Eventually, we will! I didn't learn anything about Parker. I already knew he was super fit and could climb like crazy. He just did what he always does. He makes the winning break. I learned that having the right support staff (like Jerry) can make all the difference. I also learned that driving 10 hours to a race is much more bearable when you are with an awesome team.
A special thank you to Vince Schmidt and all our sponsors for making adventures like this possible.