Ride 48: Hillsboro-Roubaix
Biking Illinois: 60 Great Road Trips and Trail Rides
Hillsboro, IL April 9, 2005
One of the toughest bike races in Illinois is Hillsboro-Roubaix (H-R). I drove the H-R course in December 2004 on a cold afternoon. I returned in April for the race to get an action photo for my book. Although I had been watching cycling on television for several years, I had never seen a race in person. H-R's namesake, the classic Paris-Roubaix race, is held on the same weekend across the Atlantic. H-R imitates that race well, combining wide open, wind-swept flats narrow, winding roads and some brick streets, the closest thing in Illinois to the cobblestones of northern France known as pave (pronounced pah'-vay). The only thing missing is a velodrome finale. To add to the challenge, H-R throws in some short, steep hills reminiscent of the Belgian classics such as the Tour of Flanders and Liege-Bastogne-Liege. The course is easier at a recreational cyclist's pace, challenging but not grueling.
I stayed overnight in Springfield, which is about 50 miles north of Hillsboro. After a 5 AM wake-up call, I arrived in Hillsboro around 6:30 with plenty of time to ride the course before the 11 AM race start. Although I had to get up early, riding the course on race day made navigation much easier. Every turn was well-marked so I didn't need a map. While it was a brisk 45 degrees when my ride began, the racers would face temperatures in the eighties. That's hot, especially for an early season race.
My ride got off to a terrible start. The first time I took out my camera for a picture, I dropped it and warped its metal shell. Fortunately it still functioned, but I soon had to replace it because I couldn't trust it to last with its inner workings exposed. I took this photo in front of the Hillsboro Free Methodist Church hours before it hosted the H-R race (note message board in background). I was amused by the play on the church's street address:
Once I got that misfortune out of the way, I was free to enjoy the rest of my ride. Since I had scouted the route by car already, I didn't have to stop to take many notes, just to flesh out those that I already had. The difference was that by car I would describe "a kind of steep hill," whereas on a bike it was more like, "Somebody call me an ambulance!" Riding in the early morning solitude, I could scarcely imagine these narrow roads being packed with riders in the mid-day sun. As a solo rider, I didn't have to worry about chasing opportunistic racers attacking on the climbs, powering hard out of every curve, or maintaining contact with the peloton as riders stretched out along the narrow roads.
After I finished the route, I rode an extra lap around town. A minivan with a team name on the side drove slowly past, the driver checking me out as if sizing up the competition. That was amusing considering I was on a touring bike with racks, fenders, and a pack on the back. As I approached the starting line at the church, I was passed by a friend driving to the race. Chris Strout is a talented and fanatic Category 1 racer who loves H-R more than any other race. In fact, he has worn race number one for two years because he constantly checks the race's web site to see when registration opens. He let me hang out with his team as they prepared for competition (note: Chris writes a cycling column for Chicago Athlete). The other Team MACK riders were friendly, but I felt a bit out of place among their featherweight bikes and chiseled, clean-shaven legs. One rider asked Chris what gearing to use on his rear wheel. Some guys changed tires. Bikes that looked clean to me were wiped down feverishly, eliminating every speck of dust. Riders dropped off spare wheels for the support van and gave Chris' wife their water bottles for the feed zone. They put on their team clothes, pinned on race numbers, and posed for a picture. The team looks large, but these riders would be divided among half a dozen race categories:
Chris showed off his Waterford team bike:
Next they discussed strategy--where to position themselves, where the attacks would come, how to react to them, etc. When they headed out to warm up on the course, I helped fill water bottles for the team (a minor contribution, I know). Then I rode back to my car to take pictures of the 1.5-mile parade lap through town. For a second time, I climbed Major Hill, which, although it is a "major hill," was actually named for a Mr. Major. Major Hill comes a mile from the end of the course, providing a gut check for a recreational cyclist and an ideal attack point for a racer:
Back at the car, I talked with an auxiliary police officer who was directing traffic. He asked if I had ever been this far south in Illinois, which I thought was pretty funny. Heck, I've visited every county in this state, and Hillsboro is a good 150 miles north of its southern tip. He said he had never been to Chicago. As the racers came past, I took a few pictures:
After descending at high speeds on asphalt, some riders cursed as they hit the chain-rattling bricks:
I wasn't sure what to do next since it would be an hour before the riders returned to town. The race director said I could drive to several spots on the route to take pictures, but I decided I would just be in the way. Then I got a brilliant idea: I could pass the time working on my book while the course was still fresh in my mind. That way I wasn't just sitting around all day. First I rode over to the starting line to watch the last few groups begin. The fastest group of riders (Pro/Cat. 1/Cat. 2) started shortly after 11 AM for four laps, 88 miles. According to Chris, they would average 23 mph, riding each lap in about an hour. By comparison, I averaged 14 mph for one lap, which I tried to explain: "I stopped a lot to take pictures and write notes." More accurately, I was a mule among thoroughbreds--I can get the job done, but I don't do it fast.
Classes of slower riders started next, doing progressively fewer laps. It was almost noon when the ninth and final group of racers departed. I followed, pedaling halfway up Major Hill to take more photos. I found a great spot where a driveway crossed a ditch such that I could sit on the driveway and dangle my feet off the side. I took out my notebook and began scribbling (the only way to describe my handwriting). A friendly neighbor came over to talk and watch for a while. He was the sort of older gentleman who spends all day on a small project, alternating 15 minutes of work with an hour of conversation. I later helped him lift his lawnmower onto blocks for maintenance.
I snapped pictures whenever a crowd of riders came by. I couldn't spot Chris, though. I knew his race number and easily recognized many Team MACK jerseys, but the riders flashed past too quickly. I really needed Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwin (legendary professional bike racing announcers) to tell me what the heck was going on.
While most of the time between groups of riders was quiet, there was some drama, too:
Long after the faster classes of riders had passed, a woman came pedaling slowly up the hill. Just as I thought she would come to a stop and fall over, she dismounted her bike and walked it over to me. I offered assistance since I had some tools in my bike's rack pack, but I couldn't help her--she said, "My ITB is shot." (The iliotibial band is a muscle running down the side of the leg from hip to knee.) She had been having ITB trouble, but a friend had talked her into trying H-R. Although she had done several triathlons, this was her first bike race. Unfortunately, these hills were the last thing she needed. I could see she was in pain. I leaned her bike against mine and she sat down to rest. Although I told her that the church start/finish line was just a short distance back down the hill and to the right (she could coast most of the way), she delayed going there. She was embarrassed that she was quitting the race. I tried to make her feel better by talking about some of my biking failures and how they ultimately inspired me, but I don't know if I helped much. She stayed for a long time. We talked about how long we had to wait to see the riders. Seeing the riders for maybe one minute per hour, a spectator misses so much that happens in a 22-mile lap. I said, "No wonder people like to watch criteriums!" (Criterium races have many short laps instead of a few long ones.) She laughed and agreed. I cannot imagine how people spend a whole day at the Tour de France just to watch the riders pass once in a blur of brightly colored jerseys and shiny machinery. I'd rather see it on television.
Finally, the injured rider felt able to get back on her bike. I offered to accompany her to the church, and she accepted. I was getting tired of sitting on that hill baking in the sun anyway. I said I was going to wait around to watch the finish, but I didn't bother. It was just frustrating trying to follow the race without knowing what was going on between sightings. Chris told me later that he finished 11th, which earned him a bit more cash than his entry fee had cost. He was fourth in the main field since seven riders had escaped earlier. Just finishing H-R is an accomplishment--of the approximately 75 starters in the Pro/1/2 race, fewer than half completed all four laps.
I rode back to my car, loaded up the bike, and headed down Route 127 to Greenville. I intended to do another ride there that afternoon, but I was tired from riding and sitting out in the sun.
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