By Matt King
As I slowly spun around the parking lot trying to keep warm, the hissing noise from my front tire was not a good omen before the start of the 2014 Cheesehead Roubaix.A 63-mile on- and off-road ride through the scenic terrain of Wisconsin’s northern Ozaukee County, the event, now in its fifth year, has grown along with the explosion in popularity of gravel grinding. But as the turnout last Sunday proved, there is often much greater enthusiasm for the concept of gravel riding than the actual doing of it.
The ride started out in 2010 as a handful of Washington County Bike Club riders on a group ride organized by West Bend resident Dave Hanrahan, the event’s founder, promoter, and mastermind, and the first two Cheesehead rides were by all accounts pretty low key affairs. But in 2012, sparked by a growing buzz on social media, about two dozen riders showed up, myself included, and in 2013 the event tripled in size to about 75 riders who congregated in Fireman’s Park in Newburg, Wisconsin, for the start. This year’s ride was shaping up to triple in size again, until Wisconsin’s slow-starting spring took a turn for the worse the morning of April 27. The 225-plus “confirmed” attendees on the event’s Facebook page actually produced a group about the same size as last year. Morning showers combined with the threat of more to come, temperature in the mid-40s, and a stiff 20-mph wind from the east turned this year’s Cheesehead Roubaix into a blustery ride for the hard men.
Part of the Cheesehead Roubaix’s appeal is that it has no registration, no entry fee, no scoring and no awards. It’s essentially a big group ride that incorporates about 10 miles of gravel roads scattered among otherwise wide-open rolling country roads. Although not technically a race, just like the local Wednesday Night Worlds, it usually feels like one by the end, especially when half the riders are license holders.
Although several members of Hollander RDC Racing had expressed interest in attending, on the morning of the ride I was joined only by teammate John Young, who arrived with a cross bike shod with knobbies. I rode my Ridley X-Fire cross bike with 23mm slicks, one of which picked up that piece of glass right before the start, forcing me to use the first, and fortunately last, of the two spare tubes I brought .
Somewhere in the middle ground between these two options would have probably been the perfect tire choice for both of us. The Cheesehead route is primarily a pavement ride, but while its 10 miles of gravel may not sound like much, a few of them are among the worst to be found in southeast Wisconsin, especially the ironically named Lovers Lane near Boltonville. Lovers Lane in reality is more of a washed out farm access trail than a true “road,” even if it does technically have a street sign, with a flat half-mile section that kicks up to as much as a 10-percent grade right about where the worst of the double track ruts appear. With numerous muddy, off-camber trenches and ruts to negotiate, it’s quite an experience to ride up full-gas in a pack of riders bunny-hopping from side to side. After three years of Cheesehead Roubaix attendance, the score is now Lovers Lane 2, me 1.
Not Actual Road on the Cheesehead Roubaix
My first trip up I got a flat about halfway, rode it for a bit, and then had to shoulder my bike for the last quarter-mile run-up to the top. In 2013, I hit it near the front of the pack and hammered up ahead of the chaos. This year I started near the front of the pack but got crossed up in a muddy rut about halfway up and went down, narrowly avoiding getting run over by Belgianwerx’s Bill Kohler. I ran up to a clear spot, promptly dropped my chain, remounted, and found my seat cocked at a 45-degree angle. At the top of the climb I stopped to knock the seat straight and chased back onto the pack. This was not to be my last meeting with the ground.
After Lovers Lane, the bunch eased up and rode an easy pace into the stiff easterly headwind out to the rest stop in Belgium at mile 27.5, sponsored generously by Mequon’s Belgianwerkx bike shop, where we grabbed bananas and a few snacks before the real riding began. As riders trickled in, I looked around for John, but he was missing. Earlier I had seen him stop to take off his rain jacket, which shouldn’t have put him that far behind, but when he finally showed up he told a woeful tale of the hastily packed jacket flying out of his jersey pocket and yard-saling his gear all over the road.
About two miles out of the rest stop we hit Alder Road, the ride’s second gravel sector. I had just taken a pull at the front of the paceline before we made a quick left-right off Highway LL, so I was at the front when we hit the mile-long stretch of gravel and was clear ahead to pick my own line. Team Pedal Moraine’s Jeff Melcher passed on my left side and I followed his wheel across some nasty potholes, but just as we both bunny-hopped a particularly cavernous trench on the right-hand side of the road, a rider tried to pass on my right, nearly off the edge of the road, hit the edge of the trench and swerved left into my handlebar, throwing me down pretty hard. Another rider behind crashed into me, but after a few seconds of damage assessment and with adrenaline flowing, we were both back up and chasing with no major injuries to skin or bikes. Since we had been so close to the front, I didn’t lose too much ground to the pack and was able to quickly get back on.
Next we hit a wicked stretch of rutted washboard road through Herrington Beach State Park, a wide straight section that usually produces a few stray water bottles strewn across the road. After Herrington, the road finally turned back west, bringing with it the much anticipated tailwind. But that’s just when the action started to get real. The pace picked up over a long uphill grind just west of the park, and when the pack made the first left hand turn after about a two-mile drag race, the crosswind shattered the peloton.
At this point we were about 35 miles into the ride and it was a battle of survival for anyone off the back. I had spent too many miles in no man’s land, futilely trying to chase back up to John and the others in the second group on the road and was pretty close to bonking when I finally sat up with about 14 miles to go, crammed a Honey Stinger lemon waffle in my mouth, and joined a six-rider group that worked together to the finish. It was a relief to roll back into Fireman’s Park again and I was somewhat regretting my decision to ride the nine miles up from my house as I watched all the other tired riders changing into street clothes and hopping into their cars. The effects of the weather and the pace really showed on the faces of even the hardest riders, and nobody stuck around too long for beers or back-slapping.
After a few minutes rest I headed towards home, stopped about halfway for an energy bar, and finally limped into Wayne’s Drive-In in Cedarburg for a well-earned fries and a Coke. Simple satisfaction at the end of a long, hard day.
Wayne’s Drive In