Water. Please. Water. © Mike Briggs

Ready for some water. It’s not ’cross, it’s the Hilly Billy Roubaix. © Mike Briggs

Here, the open women’s winner of the Hilly Billy Roubaix (listed as one of the major gravel events in the US in our Gravel Grinder feature in Issue 20) shares her story with us. It sounds … tough.

by Vanessa McAffery

70 miles on pavement, dirt and gravel roads. About 8,000 feet of climbing. Well, that’s another crazy one in the books.

The weird patterning of scratches on my legs and arms (particularly the right leg and arm) is unique this time around.

By start time at 10:00am Saturday temperatures were probably already in the 80s. I say probably because I don’t know for sure. But heat would beat the fight out of a good many racers that day. I heard the number of DNFs was remarkable.

We massed up together at the race venue—Mylan Horse Park, about 15 minutes outside of Morgantown, West Virginia. After preliminary announcements we rolled out of the park in a neutral start, and after a brief stop at end of the park driveway, they blew an airhorn and turned us loose.

The first three or four miles got interesting. The rolling pavement hills gave way to gravel roads. Gravel can mean a lot. It can mean small chippy gravel, medium triangle driveway gravel, giant elephant railroad bed gravel. I think we got all three types in the first few miles. We passed houses and farms and, at one point, a huge black bull bellowed at us behind an electrified fence just a few feet from the road. When we started to climb, the fight for traction began. Riders strung out in double lines scrapped over the clearer foot-wide tire lanes between the elephant gravel. Tires skidded and rocks kicked up and pinged off pedals and crank. A piece of smaller gravel stung my face. People tried too hard to put power to the pedals and pass where they could. But you had to find the happy medium between pedaling too hard and skidding the back wheel out or losing momentum and stalling out. I only passed where I felt in danger of losing momentum or getting trapped behind someone faltering on the gravel. I did move up a few spots where a little grassy road shoulder gave solid traction under the tires, but mostly kept grinding along dodging the riders who spun out and had to unclip trying to pass, and then couldn’t get into the moving traffic flowing along.

Clouds of dust rose and hung in the air.

I started a bit conservatively. The distance, the climbing, and the heat made me wary of redlining this early on.

Still, I worked my way forward. We crested the first hill and headed down the first descent. I didn’t know this course and couldn’t see much in the swirling dust and shade but the gravel stayed loose. Play it safe, I thought.

Too many bodies obscured the view when the road curved down on the first descent. I kept a lid on the speed with so many other riders around me in various degrees of control. Brakes screamed. Mine joined in. The pitch of the hill steepened radically. My back wheel locked and the bike fishtailed as too late I saw the corner marshal and the hard 90-degree turn right below me. No chance of making the corner, I had a split second to let go of the bars, ball up and shut my eyes. My front wheel hit, the bike flipped and …I was flying! I landed halfway down a dark and wet ravine, stopped by a tangle of branches and thorny briars.

I got up and saw a flash of yellow below me in the trickling stream in the bottom of the ravine. My EpiPens and med kit. Below that, my PocketRocket pump, and farther down my cell phone, still double-wrapped in sealed plastic bags. Yard sale! I scrambled deeper down into the briars cleaning up my bits and pieces while hoping I hadn’t broken my phone.

The corner marshal called down at me.

“Are you OK?”

“Yes, just getting all my stuff. Thanks!”

I crawled out of the stream, retrieved my bike and dragged it up out of the brush thanking whatever patron saint protects idiots, drunks and bicycle racers. Meanwhile, more racers hurtled past me. Time to go. Completely unhurt except for a few bleeding scratches, I started pedaling and glanced down at my Garmin.

We had raced 4.38 miles.

68ish miles to go.

More descending on loose gravel threatened my shaken brain.

I caught back up to my teammate and friend Ruth. “Vanessa! I thought you were ahead of me!” I filled her in on my detour, which was pretty funny actually.

We kept working down a dirt road with massive puddles or rather small ponds and the choices of lines around them became more and more limited. Sometimes you had a nice packed hard (if narrow) line around the puddles, sometimes you didn’t. Sometimes you got deep mud as your only choice of line. At times riders in front of me plowed through some of the puddles. Some were shallow. Some were not. At all.

I followed too close at one point and slammed into a pothole by mistake when the rider in front of me dodged and I didn’t, and a loud “chung” noise came from my front wheel. Luckily, no broken spoke.

Then I plowed into a deep water hole that was not shallow! The bike abruptly stopped. I dismounted and nearly fell when my feet sank into 3-inch heavy muck below the water, which was knee-high. I yanked hard on the handlebars but the bike didn’t budge. I yanked again. Was that mud or quicksand at the bottom? The third time the bike came loose with a sucking sound and I sloshed out of the muddy water. A photographer captured everything. This was stupid and funny and ridiculous but… time to keep riding. I ran, remounted, and started pedaling, but now with some squelching that continued with every pedal stroke for the next 40ish miles. The back wheel had kicked up wet mud all over my back pockets.

I wondered how my cell phone was holding up.

Life got thirsty a mile or two down the road and I reached for my water bottle, put my lips over the muddy spout, swished and spat the grit with some of the bottle contents and then gulped. Not as gross as you might think. Luckily. The bottle had had the cap locked down before getting submerged in the “puddle.”

I settled more into the pace and kind of locked my brain down. Life got boiled down to a few very simple things for the next few hours. Pedal hard enough but not too hard. Drink, drink.

At the first checkpoint, a volunteer retrieved my first drop bag. For some races, you may leave drop bags in large bins at the start since in a long race you can’t carry all the calories and drink you’ll need. You mark them with your name and race number and put them into the appropriate bin for the checkpoint where you want to pick them up. The volunteers at this race were awesome. The woman who brought me my first bag also brought a gallon jug of cold water and yes, she said it was okay if I poured a little on myself instead of just drinking. I wouldn’t do it without asking, but she said, “Go for it, we’re not going to run out of water.”

“You’re first woman,” she said. “So just keep that in mind.” I just said, “Oh, we’ll see. Thank you so much!” and took off.

I assumed someone else had slipped by already.

At the second checkpoint I repeated my bottle swapping, cold-water chugging and rinsing. Again another kind volunteer took care of me and said, “You’re the first woman to come through.” Again I disregarded that. I left that checkpoint and continued on riding with a few men here and there. I made some good friends during this race. I had one guy on my wheel hitting one of the longer gravel descents of the day, and when I nearly overdid it again on a downhill curve, I unclipped my foot and hung it out instead of braking and he yelled “Awesome!” When he caught back up to me, he said “That was awesome. It’s never too early in the season for a drive-by!” I didn’t know there was a word for that.

The race punched us repeatedly with hill after hill. Steep grinders you took sitting down to keep that back wheel engaged on the loose gravel. I wanted to go harder on many of the climbs but the heat really worried me. Heatstroke doesn’t care whether you’re well-hydrated or not. When the unshaded sun hit on some climbs it devastated me. If my body had a “check engine” light, it would have blinked the whole race.

My bike began showing signs of stress. On the road sections I felt a rub in the back wheel and wondered about the beating it had taken so early in the race on those crazy dirt road sections. If the number of people I saw with flats and mechanicals meant anything, this course practically ate bikes.

At the third checkpoint, the arch of my right foot cramped painfully as I unclipped it from my pedal, and I only got it under control by forcing myself to stand on it while the next volunteer brought me my drop bag and more water. A few miles later, a muscle in my right arm started fluttering spastically and when I took my hand off the bars to flex it for a minute while coasting downhill, my hand wanted to curl itself into a claw. I tried to straighten my fingers out and stretch it using my handlebars but it resisted. Ugh. It creeped me out to see “the claw” so I just put my hand back on the handlebar hood and kept pedaling.

Most of the race, I had done a good job of ignoring what all the checkpoint volunteers and even some corner marshals kept telling me, though they told me over and over I was first woman. I didn’t think much about it because it didn’t matter. Regardless of where any other women were in relation to me, I had to keep up the pace and ride my own race. I could only ride as fast as my body would let me. I kept my brain on a tight leash to focus very, very hard on consistent pace and on drinking enough–doubly critical for me in the heat. Solid food won’t sit well with me in that heat, so all my calories had to be liquid. I feared most of the race I wasn’t drinking enough, since I didn’t completely drain my bottles between checkpoints. In retrospect, I did drink enough. Since I rode faster than I expected to, the race took less time.

Still, the last 10 miles seemed endless. With just a few miles left I thought I saw a woman behind me on one of the climbs. Finally, I think the possibility of being first had worked into my mind somehow, because I stopped trying to conserve any energy at all, stopped being careful about the heat. Race brain took over completely. Four or five miles left? When I finally saw the race venue and the flags in the distance, somehow I went even harder. Only two or three men straggled far behind me when I looked back. The last mile or so was sharply cut grass climbing huge hills overlooking the race venue. Then a steep grass descent that threatened to rattle the bars out of my hands. I just let the bike go. A turn onto the final piece of road: the driveway up to the park. One more climb. Follow the arrows. A chute marked with tape that crossed the horse arena. Water, I thought, there will be water here. Music, announcer. Through the horse arena. Finish tent. I wanted cold, cold water. I wasn’t finished, I was done.

I put the bike down and somebody handed me a Mason jar with a Hilly Billy sticker. I put everything down and started looking for cold water. Someone gave me a cup of ice water and for a while I stared at my cup and reflected deeply on water and coldness. After two full cups I graduated to advanced studies in cold liquids with an iced Coke. Finally I started looking around and didn’t see too many racers there. Where was everybody? I asked someone who seemed official how many other women had come in. “Nobody. You’re it.” He asked one of the men working on results, and got my final answer. I’d won.

The post-race party began as more and more racers rolled in. Three kegs of beer sat on ice waiting for them. A giant pan of bacon. Tons of cookies, chips, crackers, pretzels, pizza. The water was really really good.

Awards followed. Both Ruth and I stood on the podium (barrels surrounded by straw) and Stephanie Swan helped me with my “champagne” bottle since I didn’t know what to do with it, not being real experienced in the champagne-popping-on-podiums department. I got myself a real big chunk of coal bolted to a board. Normally I am not a big fan of trophies. This one … rocks.

I’m still recovering.

Vanessa on the podium. © Mike Briggs

Vanessa on the podium. © Mike Briggs