West Virginia’s Hilly Billy Roubaix presented by Cannondale is a gravel event that was almost born out of necessity for local riders.
“Around here we have way more back roads than we do paved good roads,” said race director J.R. Petsko. The 74-mile gravel grinder starts and ends in Core, West Virginia, and takes riders south through West Virginia and then north up into southern Pennsylvania before finishing back across the border.
The race started, as many do, with a couple buddies tooling around on the region’s gravel back roads. “Around 2008 and 2009 mountain bike legend Gunnar Shogren and I spent a lot of time exploring some of these roads,” said Petsko. “We had such a blast riding on the unmaintained roads in the area, as it was a hell of a lot of fun. Riding this type of road, especially back in those days, was not for everyone, but we thought it was awesome.”
Petsko and Shogren eventually decided to share their version of “fun” with others. In 2010 they founded the Hilly Billy Roubaix, which, as riders quickly found out, lives up to its name. “The 70 or so folks who showed up had no clue what they were getting into,” Petsko said. “I got yelled at a lot after, as broken people laid all over the ground at the finish.”
This year the Hilly Billy Roubaix and its 33-mile cousin the Hilly Billy Lite brought out 434 riders. Petsko said he would guess 80 riders would show up if the event was only local, so it has clearly built a name for itself as a destination event. Petsko said this year’s field had riders from 22 states, Canada and one who came over from Wales.
So what is it about the Hilly Billy Roubaix that brings folks out, including our Cyclocross Magazine team in past years? “How dumb it is and how fun it is,” said Petsko.
He continued, “Well, it may not fun during the whole race, it is called ‘Hilly’ Billy for a reason, but most leave with smiles that evening. After we break your soul on the 74-mile course we’ll feed you, offer you a good beer, and we all tell stories from the day. ”
According to Petsko, the Hilly Billy genus of “gravel spirit” is one of good times and, as we will see, not taking itself too seriously. “We also care more about fun and safety then PRs and podiums,” he said. “We do have some great fast guys like Patrick Blair, 2017 Overall Winner, who makes the trip here every year and talk us up on social media all year long cause they just have so much fun here.”
The fun and irreverence at the Hilly Billy finish is almost a necessity given how hard the course is. Petsko said that there is a reason they called it the “Hilly Billy Roubaix,” and he definitely was not joking. The 74-mile course packs almost 7,000 feet of climbing in and features no less than 12 climbs that stand out on the course profile.
When asked to describe the course, Petsko said he has tried before, sometimes with mixed results. “That is something I have been trying to do for years and still, some don’t listen!” he said. “The first year of the Hilly Billy back in 2010 had 70 riders. No one besides a select few knew what they were in store for. At the finish, riders were laying all over the ground blown.” He added, “The first four years of the race I got yelled at more times then I care to remember at the finish.”
In Petsko’s eyes, the 2018 race that took place last Saturday was gravel perfection. “Probably the best we have ever had. 78 degrees for a high, overcast and some off and on light showers.” The light showers proved just right for facilitating some extra gravel grit while not turning the route into a flood-ravaged mud slog. Which has happened in the past.
“For the past three years we have had heavy rains and even some flooding last year,” said Petsko. “While that makes for an epic event, it gives me grey hair. The unmaintained roads that the race is so well known for are always muddy, however. They may never dry up in our lifetime.”
Although the race is more about the scene and the vibe, there were race winners. The Women’s race went to Chicago’s Kae Takeshita (Panaracer / Stan’s NoTubes p/b Bicycle X-Change), who is fresh off a fourth-place finish at the Dirty Kanza 200. Takeshita finished fourth at the race in 2016 and missed it due to an injury last year, so it was a sweet day of climbing for her.
The Men’s race was won by Bryon Lewis of Virginia. Petsko said he tried to get a post-race quote from Lewis and he responded “We rode bikes.” There you go. They rode bikes.
Part of the energy of the Hilly Billy Roubaix is from how it embraces its rural setting. Instead of your typical post-race photo booth, there was one with pigs and chickens. “The pigs and chickens were thanks to my sister Stephanie and her husband Gus,” Petsko said. “Lucy their pig has a long history with our event. She’s been the official starter for many years. My sister would walk around at past years event and be constantly asked by people for photos with Lucy, if they could feed her, etc, so this year we made it easy for folks with the pig photo booth. Lucy stayed home this year but her sister and brother, Bella and Abel made the trip, along with their chickens.”
There was also the couch. A very Hilly Billy couch.
Salsa has pulled off a stroke of marketing genius with its Chaise Lounge that has made appearances at Land Run, the Michigan Coast-to-Coast Gravel Grinder and the Dirty Kanza. With even the top riders embracing the chance to pose for a mid-race photo on the red velvet Chaise couch, the Hilly Billy organizers could not help but take notice.
The Hilly Billy couch was not out on the course, but it did provide a nice addition to the photo booth. “We found the couch dumped on the side of the road along the course about two weeks back, and it gave us the idea. People tend to drop unwanted things on our back roads around here. We most certainly disapprove of that, but it sure gave us a perfect couch for our photo booth area. I loved the couch so much we have put it in storage for next year. ”
The Hilly Billy Roubaix will be back for year 10 in 2019 on June 22. Much like we saw with the volunteers in the city of Emporia at the Dirty Kanza, it will be the crew of locals that help Petsko and his team make the event even more fun next year, even if it is a really really hard ride.
“People always tell me how good of a job I do with the event, but it is not me,” Petsko said. “The Hilly Billy is a great event because of the people who support it I am talking about the 70 volunteers, sponsors, Local EMS, County and State police, my wonderful friends and family, my awesome wife who works her butt off and of course Abel and Bella. All of those folks are the reason the Hilly Billy is a special event, not me.”
For past coverage of the Hilly Billy Roubaix, see our archives.