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Louisiana Dirt

From issue 16 • Words/images by Jered Gruber/Gruber Images

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I ran for the $100 prime at the top of the steep, sandy climb 70 miles into Rouge Roubaix called Blockhouse Hill. We—my two break mates and I—had been away for 65 of 70 miles already, and we still had another 15 miles of suffering to go before being put out of our misery by a raging field, and another 20 miles beyond that before the finish and an ice-cold Coke.

For the short stretch up Blockhouse, I forgot about how tired I was; Mr. Franklin was waiting for me at the top of the hill. I bent low over my bars, nose close to the stem, trying to stay smooth in the impossibly loose and deep sand (for a road), trying to go fast and, in the end, just making a mess of it—lurching, groping for traction, failing miserably. I was slightly behind and not making up much ground on the other two, which would put a serious damper in my plans for that 100-dollar bill. Of course, it might have had something to do with the 500-watt track stand I was almost managing at one point in the not-so-quick sand.

So I jumped off my bike. I still don’t know why. I could have made it up without too much of a fuss in the saddle, but for some reason, my already delirious mind was making decisions without my consent, and before the coherent, conscious part of me had a chance to protest, I felt sand on my Speedplay cleats, and I was running. One thought was mine the whole day, at least since the first moments our break was out of eyesight—about ten seconds after the race officially started: there’s no way we’re going to make it all the way, and there’s no way I’m going to get a result from this nonsense, so I’m going to get that 100 dollars.

I sprinted, on foot, up a 15% dirt climb, and I passed my two friends. I kept running, crested the hill, remounted in my most ungraceful cyclocross style, reached out, and the 100-dollar prime was mine. I took a deep, laughing breath, and smiled. The three people at the top of the hill were laughing. How could you not? How many primes are won on foot in a road race?

There’s this fantasy many of us have about attacking and riding breaks. Riders like Jens Voigt, Jackie Durand, Thomas Voeckler, and Jonny Hoogerland have transformed what’s hard to defend as intelligent practice into something that’s just plain cool: 200-plus kilometers off the front of a race in what typically amounts to a fruitless, leg shattering expedition. I’m one of those that have long been enamored with the aggressors, and I always wanted to be like them.

When I first started racing, I never saw the front of a race, so breaks occupied only my dreams and my television. With time, I improved, and I could at least see the successful moves going, but there was nothing I could do to put myself in them. Then, one day, I made a break. I rode, and I rode, and I rode, and I was dropped. I always thought it would be more dramatic to be dropped like that, but it was a quiet moment. The four guys in the break kept rolling, and I didn’t—broken on the side of the road. I kept working, and I eventually got to a point where my stupidity wasn’t quite so debilitating, and I could sometimes read a race well enough to know when to go. To be fair to the successful riders of the world, I never did much. I rode solo for 40 or so kilometers one year at Nature Valley and got a call up and a pretty red jersey for my efforts. A year later, I spent 30 minutes off the middle at USPRO in Greenville—between Zabriskie and the field. Riding up Paris Mountain solo was without question the best thing I’ve ever managed in a bike race. The other boot came stomping down a little while later when I was dropped the second time up Paris Mountain, so it was a blast while it lasted.

Despite my mediocrity, or maybe because of it, I yearned to ride breaks—they’re everything I love most about racing bikes: put your head down, pedal hard, and hope for the best. No fussing, no stressing, just a whole lot of hard work and a slowly ripening deadness that grows and grows until every part of your body hurts, and you go to bed that night so tired your lungs are sore.

I had been in lots of breaks before that clear, cool spring day in 2010 and the 105-mile dirt road race that straddles fun and insanity along the Louisiana/Mississippi border: Rouge Roubaix. I had been in long moves before, or at least I thought I had, but on that painful day in March it turned out that my early restless energy that resulted in the attack that I would question for many hours that day would turn out to be 80 miles out front with a friend and a soon-to-be friend after the ordeal was over. Our gap grew to the realm of large, to the point where chasing friends on the roadside were telling us that we could go all the way.

I knew something they didn’t—there was no way. Even as they screamed those beautiful words of possibility, I knew, all three of us knew, that we were already on our knees. The once smooth, metronomic pedaling, had become a labor, more like a jackhammer gone haywire, without the power typically associated with a jackhammer. While I smiled at the thought of winning, the only thing I really wanted to do was pull over and lie down in the ditch for awhile. It seemed a lot more inviting than the prospect of another twenty or so miles of trying to find some spot in my body where power might in fact be hiding.

We were caught on the final stretch of dirt in Tunica Hills. I didn’t know it at the time, but had I missed that little left-hand turn onto the Old Tunica dirt (a real possibility considering my frail state); moments later I would have been staring at America’s largest and perhaps most infamous maximum-security prison, Angola. Angola is home to 5,000 inmates, of which three-quarters are serving life sentences. Angola makes up a full third of the population of West Feliciana Parish. Instead, I turned into a narrow trench of a dirt road, darker than any other, walled in by vertical dirt faces and the roots of the trees that reinforce the dirt—above eye-level there were the trees, the rest of the forest—the real world. Almost invisible, somewhere far above: the sky.

The route of Rouge Roubaix is like the great classics, at least in theme. It starts out pleasant, even nice, but gets harder and more brutal every step of the way, culminating in a final hour lashing. Tunica Hills is the perfect climax; it might not be the hardest stretch of dirt (that definitely belongs to Blockhouse Hill), but it requires the most of the fatigued rider. The road is in less-than-ideal condition, and its twisting, hilly nature ensure that the battered riders are put to a physical and technical test. It was here that we were finally caught. After my legs had finally melted to fat sludge, the leaders charged by. Our quiet three-man mini peloton was suddenly engulfed in the fury of a race being decided. We had been engaging in a civil, polite version of racing up to that point, only to have it smashed by really strong legs and a primal desire to crush souls, win a bike race, and take home some cash. (Rouge Roubaix has a very top-heavy payout.) Somehow, I managed to hold on through Tunica—and I mean this in the very real sense—as my handlebars slipped a solid couple of inches in the southerly direction through a tight downhill right bend.

Once you emerge out of the other end and make the right-hand turn toward St. Francisville and a welcome conclusion, the road stays in the dark shadows, diving, plunging down to low water bridges and exploding right back up the other side. It was on this punishing stretch of road that a conundrum presented itself, and I was in no condition to be pondering. I was so tired, I did not want to ride anymore—not in the slightest. Unfortunately, I couldn’t just get off of my bike and sit down, if for no other reason than no one was around. The quickest way to not riding anymore was not getting dropped, so I lowered my head, hunched my shoulders, closed my eyes (at some points) and held on all the way to the last mile. I thought I had suffered all the way up to that point, only to realize that I had been preparing the whole day for this brimming serving of eyesight vignetting pain. It’s funny how your feelings in one day of racing can make such huge changes in proportion—transforming deep, early misery into a children’s tale. Really funny.

It’s a shame a race as special and unique as Rouge Roubaix is called something so mundane. Dirt road races are a dime a dozen—X-Roubaix’s even more common. If it were down to just those two variables, Rouge Roubaix wouldn’t even be worth mentioning. Rouge Roubaix is anything but a normal dirt road race with a “Roubaix” thrown on the end, it’s not even close to Baton Rouge. The town where the race starts and finishes, St. Francisville, is not close to anything. It’s not even close for most of the riders who live in Louisiana. It’s way out there, and it’s perfect where it is.

The roads to the north of the West Feliciana Parish seat of St. Francisville are the roads of Louisiana dreams, rolling, curvy, narrow, and punishing. Poor and rich coexist in peculiar fashion, trailers flow into decaying plantation homes through the jungle of Louisiana summer, and the roads just as haphazard: some perfect, some bad, some terrible, some dirt, some sandpit. The summer climate is lovingly best described as tropical, resulting in an otherworldly shade of green and a haze in the wet air that forms tunnels of dark, drunk on summer trees. The beautiful, gloomy Spanish moss of the storied Deep South is a welcome onlooker in certain, seemingly random areas, draped over only the lucky branches by an unseen, fastidious decorator. I expect it doesn’t need saying, but sweat is a requirement to even standing outside.

And then there are the dirt roads. This area would be lovely to ride without them, but it takes on a whole new level with them. The dirt roads aren’t like the dirt I love and seek out as much as possible in other areas. The dirt roads of West Feliciana Parish, Louisiana and Wilkinson County, Mississippi are brutal, nasty, evil things. They’re rocky, sandy, hilly, and they’re decidedly unfriendly to road tires. They’re a labor of love for those that submit to them. Normally, I wouldn’t go near roads like that, but like everything in this area, for some reason, it just works.

I’m glad I spent the day in that hopeless break. I had the chance to enjoy with my eyes that which I couldn’t with my legs or body. In the field, I would have had a much easier day, but I wouldn’t have seen a hundredth what I did off the front that day. For some reason, I felt hyperaware of my surroundings; maybe I knew my racing “career” was drawing to an end, and who knew when I’d have the chance to do something as ridiculous as this again? I was happy to give everything I had to a race like that. It deserves the effort. It deserves the insanely long drives many riders made to participate there, it deserves the sacrifices the organizer, Mitch Evans, puts in to making it happen, it deserves to survive for decades more. It’s a special bike race.

From issue 16. Buy it here.