You can be more than just a spectator for the spring classics. Across the nation, local regions’ own takes on Paris-Roubaix are popping up, with or without cobbles, including in the Midwest. Want to partake in the fun? You’ve got a plan to get your body ready, figured out what you need to get your bike ready, and even picked out your pavé or gravel tires and now finally understand their obscure tire width labeling, but don’t have an event yet on your calendar? The Dairy Roubaix and its amazing entry fee might deserve your attention, at least for 2018. See our Zachary Schuster’s story on this unique event below.

WYALUSING STATE PARK, Wisconsin—The Midwest often gets a reputation for being flat and forgettable, “fly-over country” if you will, but on Saturday, April 22, riders from the Midwest are going to learn that there are parts of Wisconsin that are anything but flat. Located in the Driftless Area of southwest Wisconsin, the 2017 Dairy Roubaix will take riders out from Wyalusing State Park for a scenic ride on gravel roads along the Mississippi River and up and down the steep hills that define the terrain that escaped the wrath of the glaciers eons ago.

The 2017 Dairy Roubaix, which is a free and non-competitive event, is the 7th running of the hilly gravel event in southwestern Wisconsin. After a humble beginning with just 50 riders, the ride has risen in popularity like one of the route’s many hills, and this year’s allotment of 400 riders “sold out” in just weeks this January.

Southwestern Wisconsin’s offering to the canon of gravel rides trades the distinctive sectors of pavé that define the Paris-Roubaix for memorable Driftless Area hills. Lots of hills. The 54-mile route features 5 major climbs, with a total elevation gain of about 3,200 feet, while the 107 miler clocks it at 12 hills and over 7,000 feet of total climbing.

The Dairy Roubaix features a handful of hills.

The Dairy Roubaix features a handful of hills.

Trois Testicules Enorme

The Driftless Area of southwestern Wisconsin and northwestern Illinois has become known for its one-day challenge rides up and down the hills that define region’s landscape. Rides such as the famed Horribly Hilly Hundreds and the Dairyland Dare in Wisconsin and the Ten Thousand in Illinois bring riders from across the Midwest to pay for the opportunity to suffer on the region’s hills.

Single-speed hero Dave Blodgett and 2017 U.S. Junior Worlds team member Caleb Swartz lead the way in the battle for the “podium” at the 2016 Dairy Roubaix (Photo: Michael Lemberger)

Single-speed hero Dave Blodgett and 2017 U.S. Junior Worlds team member Caleb Swartz lead the way in the battle for the “podium” at the 2016 Dairy Roubaix (Photo: Michael Lemberger)

Integral to the success of those one-day challenge events have been Stewart Schilling and Michelle Godez, who started the Dairy Roubaix back in 2011 after having success with the Dairyland Dare and other one-day events. All super heroes have a great origin story, and the Dairy Roubaix is no different according to Schilling:

“In spring of 2010, we were sitting around a table at Brasserie V in Madison, WI with Belgian beer, mussels, and fries, and smart talk of Paris-Roubaix, Almanzo 100, and Barry Roubaix brought the name ‘Dairy Roubaix.’ How could it not? Over the next year the idea fermented. That fall we scouted for gravel and the following spring we launched the event with little to no fanfare.”

Whereas events such as the Dairyland Dare are fully supported and are priced accordingly, the duo chose to honor the DIY gravel ride vibe that has taken hold in the U.S. Since 2013 (the first two were $5), the Dairy Roubaix has been a free event, with donations helping cover the event costs. The ride is semi-unsupported, with one supply outpost at Mile 26 in the small town of Glen Haven. Riders are truly on their own for the rest of the route, with nary a gas station or convenience store found in the sparsely-populated hills and valleys of the second half of the route.

Schilling said the free, on-your-own nature of the Dairy Roubaix was always part of the plan, “At the time we had registered the domain and put up a single page site that simply said ‘Dairy Roubaix can’t afford no website. Move along.’ We loved the idea of an event that promises nothing more than a map and a mob of like-minded people. ‘Under promise and over deliver’ was the motto. After all, what can be expected of a free event?”

The original website can be found here. It features gems such as:

Water on Course : NONE other than streams next to cow pastures.

Commerce on Course: NONE.  No gas station, bar, or anything with an “Open” sign along the route.  Cash is good for kindling a fire or booting a tire but not much else. Local currency is banjo strings and ammunition.

Conceal and Carry: OK, but only under baggy clothing.  Let’s get real here, nobody’s gonna conceal anything under lycra.

A New Dairy Era Begins

The 2017 Dairy Roubaix marks the first year the event will be under the direction of the Vernon Trails cycling advocacy organization. Volunteer Board member Pete Taylor said when Schilling and Godez offered Vernon Trails the opportunity to host the Dairy Roubaix, it was a “no-brainer” for the group to take the helm. Said Taylor, “The Dairy Roubaix is a perfect fit with the Vernon Trails mission statement, which is, to paraphrase, promoting all human-powered outdoor activity. We sponsor events and encourage every discipline of riding for all ages and abilities currently and adding gravel makes perfect sense.”

Taylor said Vernon Trails’ biggest challenge with hosting the Dairy Roubaix is figuring out how many riders the event can accommodate. The event has grown each year, with 268 registered riders in 2015, 336 in 2016, and now 400 in 2017. Registration for the event opened on January 2 of this year and the original allotment of 350 was filled within weeks. Taylor said the response he received from those who missed the opportunity to register was so overwhelming, they opened up another 50 slots in March and those filled within days.

Because the Dairy Roubaix is an untimed event, it attracts the full spectrum of riders. The Roubaix’s gravel roads have become a popular destination for Wisconsin’s cyclocross racers, with the hilly route providing a good opportunity to dust off the cyclocross whips for some early-season miles. However, for every rider hammering to reach the non-existent 54 or 107-mile podium, there is a rider out to enjoy a little hilly suffering on a fat bike or a mountain bike. Taylor said that the overall goal of the Dairy Roubaix is to provide a fun event, and whatever direction the event goes in the future, he hopes to never lose sight of the event’s humble origins.

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Amanda Mack leads a group of Wisconsin cyclocross legends that includes April Beard and Meredith Peterson Tyrany Turany at the 2016 Dairy Roubaix (Photo: Michael Lemberger)

For Taylor, and likely many of the riders, the most important part of the Dairy Roubaix is the party at Wyalusing before and after the event. Cabins are available for riders to bunk in both Friday and Saturday night if they want to start the party early or keep it going late. After suffering on the hills, riders have the opportunity to hang out around the grill, drink their favorite Wisconsin microbrews (gravel riders are a snobby lot, yes they are), and cheer on the other riders completing the gravel sufferfest.

An Udderly Hilly Route

The Dairy Roubaix starts and finishes at Wyalusing State Park, which is located atop the bluffs at the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers. When the journey kicks off, riders are usually all smiles as they get their bearings on the gravel roads during a long four-mile descent. The smiles usually get a little less smiley as riders head up Ready Hollow Road for the first of many climbs that inevitably follow steep descents.

The full Dairy Roubaix route

The full Dairy Roubaix route

The hills found in the Driftless Area are memorable for being short, steep lung busters. The typical Dairy Roubaix climb is 0.7-1.2 miles long with 300-400 feet of vertical gain and slopes between 7-10%. The gravel roads of the Dairy Roubaix route provide an extra challenge, with freshly-laid gravel on some of the ascents putting traction at a premium when the inclines kick up to more than 12% at the top.

The highlight of the first half of the Dairy Roubaix route is a flat-ish four-mile stretch along the Mississippi River. The stretch is a scenic respite from the hills, with the river bluff towering above to their left and the mighty Mississippi slowly flowing to their right. The section leads to the rest stop sponsored by Vernon Trails that provides riders an opportunity to refuel and stuff their jersey pockets with supplies for the unsupported second half of the route.

Rolling along the Mississippi River (Photo: Zach Schuster)

Rolling along the Mississippi River (Photo: Zach Schuster)

The 54-mile and 107-mile routes follow the same path until they split at the bottom of Markley Hollow Road. The proposition is straight forward for riders on the fence about doing the century route – go left for one more climb back up to Wyalusing or go right and get ready for probably the single toughest climb on the entire route and 50 more miles of suffering.

Although not quite Idaho’s Mt. Borah, the climb up Borah Ridge Road that kicks off the second half of the Dairy Roubaix route packs 413 feet of ascent into 0.7 miles, with an average grade of over 10%. Throw in a switchback, and yeah, it is a tough climb.

Both the 54-mile and 107-mile routes finish with one last climb up County Highway C from the Wisconsin River floodplain back up to Wyalusing State Park. And because always #crossiscoming, the Dairy Roubaix route finishes with a short grassy section between the familiar yellow course tape.

In true Wisconsin and gravel-ride spirit, the beer coolers are nearby, and more often than not, the Tallest Man in Cyclocross, Greg Ferguson, is waiting to offer a Spotted Cow to riders as they collapse to the ground.

The Tallest Man in Cyclocross Greg Ferguson will always be there with a timely beer hand-up (Photo: Amy Schultz)

The Tallest Man in Cyclocross Greg Ferguson will always be there with a timely beer hand-up (Photo: Amy Schultz)

Hills? In the Midwest?

The landscape of the Upper Midwestern United States, for flatter or worse, is the end-product of glaciers that last covered the region over 20,000 years ago. The last period of glaciation, aptly named the Wisconsonian glaciation, flattened much of the southern portion of the Wisconsin and left a relatively flat landscape with glacial drumlin hills that could, at best, be described as “rolling.”

During the Wisconsonian glaciation and other earlier periods of ice cover, the massive glacial ice sheets inexplicably bypassed a region in the southwestern portion of Wisconsin and northwestern Illinois. This region has come to be known as the Driftless Area, due to its lack of glacial till or “drift.” The resulting unglaciated topography features well-defined valleys with steep hills that extend up to the ridges above.

The Driftless Area was fortuitously spared the glacial flattening (Photo: Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey)

The Driftless Area was fortuitously spared the glacial flattening (Photo: Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey)

The beneficiaries of this geologic quirk have been the outdoors enthusiasts of the Upper Midwest. The Driftless is renowned for its excellent trout angling and for those less inclined to stand in streams coaxing fish to eat fake bait, its biking.

The hills of the Driftless provide a frequent training destination for Wisconsin’s cyclocrossers. The City of Madison is located just east of the moraine formed by the Green Bay ice lobe, and Badger Prairie County Park, home to the 2012 and 2013 Cyclocross National Championships, is located on the moraine that forms the edge of the Driftless Area, so the region’s hills are a frequent destination Wisconsin’s ‘cross contingent.

Driftless Area hills on a single-speed will do this to a rider (Photo: Michael Lemberger)

Driftless Area hills on a single-speed will do this to a rider (Photo: Michael Lemberger)

Although Waterloo, home of the 2017 World Cup Waterloo, is located east of the Driftless Area, cyclocross fans making a week of the 2017 U.S. World Cups will have the opportunity to experience the unique topography of the region when they drive from Jingle Cross in Iowa City to Waterloo. And if some mid-week training between the events is called for, the gravel roads and the hills of the Dairy Roubaix route are just an hour detour up the Mississippi River.