There’s only one bicycle race so hard that Robert Lee dismounted his bike to walk — the Rouge Roubaix in St. Francisville.
The 103-mile race, now in its 17th year, has earned a reputation as one of toughest one-day events in the country as it traverses the rural roads and steep hills of West Feliciana Parish and Wilkinson County, Mississippi.
During Lee’s first shot at the race last year, he just couldn’t make it up some of the dirt and gravel portions where the road grades climbed 15 percent.
“It’s not a shame to walk the bike in this race,” said Lee, a 34-year-old racer from Clinton, Mississippi. “I did it four times last year, and I may end up having to do it again. But it comes with the territory of this unique race.”
Little known to noncyclists in south Louisiana, the Sunday, March 15, race attracts hundreds of riders from all over the United States — 26 states were represented last year.
“We advertise the event as a test of man and machine versus the elements,” said Will Jones, the race director. “You never really know what you’re going to get.”
Since 1999, when a group of Baton Rouge riders decided to “go out and do something kind of crazy,” and created the Rouge Roubaix, it has garnered media attention from Bicycling Magazine and The New York Times, which featured the 2009 race in a series on athletic competitions called “Pushing the Limit.”
Named in honor of the classic Paris-Roubaix bicycle race on treacherous cobblestone roads, the Rouge Roubaix is run every March when most cyclists are tuning up for a season of racing. Professionals and top amateurs compete for prize money, and for many it is the longest, hardest race all year.
Those who just want to ride the course sign up for the non-competitive gran fondo — Italian for “great endurance” — on Saturday, March 14.
Road races are usually high-speed events on smooth asphalt. While 18 miles of the Rouge Roubaix course are officially dirt and gravel, some of the pavement is pretty bone jarring. The course features “a wide range of pavement options from absolutely pristine perfect roads to some paved roads that are probably actually worse in terms of being bumpy and just bad,” Jones said.
Starting on U.S. 61 in St. Francisville, the course jaunts into Mississippi, where the first eye-opening test begins. Blockhouse Hill on Fort Adams Road, is “the longest, hardest climb in our area,” Jones said.
It’s mostly gravel, so many riders lose traction and spin out quickly.
“There aren’t many places in the country that have to deal with those kinds of variables,” said Pat Casey, a 26-year-old racer from Park City, Utah. “You never know what you’re going to get. You never know how deep the pits of water are or how deep the ruts are on Blockhouse or what the condition of the sand is going to be.”
The race’s “signature hill,” Jones said, is called Big Bertha, a super-steep 20 percent-grade that riders meet around mile 81 on Old Tunica Road.
“Most people will probably walk it,” Jones said. “That’s because it’s so late in the race and it’s a steep, relentless climb on gravel.”
Big Bertha was the most memorable moment for Lee last year.
“I physically hurt after the race for a week,” Lee said. “But I enjoyed it enough to where I wanted to do it again.”
Champions of the race need more than just strong legs and big lungs, Jones said. Flat tires are common and wrecks are known to occur, so luck and skill are just as important.
“To win Rouge Roubaix, you have to be one of the guys with a great, tremendous amount of fitness,” he said, “but you also have to have good luck and probably some good teammates to help you along the way. Rarely can someone do it all on their own.”
The final 25 miles of the race, from Big Bertha along Old Tunica Road to the parish courthouse in St. Francisville, mix in tough hills and challenging road surfaces, a recipe for an exciting sprint to the finish.
A handful of riders will be racing for the prize money and the glory, but most cyclists consider it a win just to complete the course.
“It’s an accomplishment if you do well,” Lee said, “but for a lot of folks, finishing is the big reward.”