Hilly Billy Roubaix

There were big plans in place for Hilly Billy. They didn’t work out.

I left Ohiopyle in the afternoon when I got off, loaded up my fixed Cross Check with camping stuff, and climbed up the mountain outside of town. Then I spun down the other side of the mountain and my hub blew up. I was 35 miles from home, and almost to Morgantown.

I sat down by the side of the road, played with my greasy axle for a while, then called my girlfriend for a pickup. It’s not the first time that hub has blown. It’s a Surly New Track hub with 110mm spacing that I have spaced out to 130mm. The adjustable cartridge bearings loosen up, start to wobble, and crunch the bearings. Then stuff stops spinning. But better that it happened Friday night than 10 miles into the Hilly Billy.

Word's worst hub design
Word’s worst hub design

After I got back to Ohiopyle, I stayed up until 1:00 turning my Honzo into a weird dirt road machine. Then I woke up the next morning and decided that I wanted to ride my fat bike, because fat bikes are almost as dumb as gravel grinding. So I switched stuff back over. I barely had time to eat my chocolate chip pancakes.

I pull into the parking lot in Morgantown about a half hour before the race start. It’s totally packed. This is awesome. There are probably almost 300 people here. Register, go to the ladies bathroom with Garth Prosser, then pump up my fat tires. The rear starts to hiss and go flat. Shit. JR is already doing the prerace meeting. I run around begging for Stan’s, find some, inject it, and seal the hole.

But now the valve stem is leaking. JR starts the race. Crap crap. The tires losing air, but I’ve got to go. I throw on my jersey, spin through the horse arena, and try to catch up with the pack.

A late start
Michelle Johnson photo

I catch them before the first turn, and start making my way to the front. I really want to be winning the race on a fat bike for a few seconds.

“Hey, yellow line rule,” says a girl. She waves her hand at me angrily. Whatever. I’ll take the chance, risk disqualification, revocation of my fat bike gravel grinding license, and put in myself in the way of all the hypothetical cars on this car-free road. Anything for a minute of glory. I pass her on the wrong side of the sacred line.

I can’t make it to the front before we turn onto the gravel. All that rule breaking for nothing. I’m following a guy on a cross bike. He kicks up a piece of gravel with his front wheel, it shoots back, cracks into his derailleur, and shears it off the bike. The derailleur dangles from the chain. Damn. A few other people swerve off the road on flat tires.

Cinder Bloch Lochner, who’s also riding his fat bike, catches up to me. We go back and forth for a while, then drop onto the most bombed out road in the race. There are huge mud puddles every few feet. I skirt the edges because I just got my monthly shower last Tuesday. I don’t want to get dirty again. Cinder Bloch plows through the middle of every puddle, fat tires parting the mud sea.

Then he hits one that isn’t shallow. He stops dead, buried waist deep in thick mud. I laugh and ride away.

Back on the road, Cinder Bloch and I are riding together again. The back end of my bike feels soft.

“Man, I don’t think this tire sealed up,” I say.

We pull off to the side and check it. The valve stem is still leaking. We try to tighten the nut that holds the stem against rim. It won’t move. I pump up the tire. It goes flat. People are streaming past. Then Cinder Bloch’s girlfriend, Chrissy, passes us.

“Sorry man, I’ve gotta go. You’re on your own,” he says.

“That’s fine. I’ll figure out something,” I say.

I go back to playing with the valve. I can’t loosen the nut to get the valve stem out, so I can’t put a tube in. Unless I can get some pliers, I’m going to have to walk a long way. I start begging passing riders for pliers. Unsurprisingly, nobody has them.

The last few riders in the field pass me. I sit down in the gravel. Well shit. This sucks.

An older West Virginian woman walks toward me through her yard.

“Honey, do you have all the tools you need to fix your bi-sickle?” she asks. She holds up a set of channel locks and vise grips. You saintly woman.

“I don’t, but you have exactly what I need,” I say. I take her channel locks, tighten down the valve stem, and pump up the tire. It holds. Excellent. I thank the nice old lady a bunch of times, then get back on the road.

I start to catch up to people. A few miles later, I see my friend Birch, who’s marshalling a turn.

“I have beer!” he yells as I ride past. I swing the Pigsley around, and he opens the cooler. I hang out at the turn for a long time. Well worth it.

Hilly Billy beer stop
Brian Birch photo

Back on the road. There’s some steep gravely stuff, some flat pavement, some more steep gravely stuff. The fat bike feels great. It rolls fast on the pavement, and on the climbs I just shift into my low gear and spin up. I know it’s not fast, and I probably look ridiculous on it, but the bike is just so comfortable. It’s like the sweatpants of bikes. I pass a lot of miserable looking people that are walking next to their super fast cross race bikes.

A few hours later, it starts to heat up. I climb up some exposed pavement outside of a rock quarry or gravel pit. There’s no shade or breeze. The tar on the road is melting. I feel like I’m melting. I pass a lot of miserable looking people sitting in the shade next to their super fast cross race bikes. Just keep on spinning along.

There’s a little blond girl trying to flip a giant truck tire up a grassy hill, like some tiny West Virginian Sisyphus. That’s weird. I could really go for some Cheetos.

I roll into the last aid station and grab a couple bags of Party Mix (bursting with knock-off Cheetos).

“How many miles to the finish?” I ask while crunching some Party Mix.

“Somewhere between 12 and 17,” says Gray.

“I’m glad you have such definitive information,” I say.

“You just keep on partying along,” she says.

“Right. I have the mix,” I say with a punctuative crunch.

Back on some pavement, onto gravel, pavement again. I open the second bag of Party Mix. This stuff really is the best thing ever. I spin up a couple steep more hills.

A few miles from the finish, a tandem team rips past me. Oh no. No way I’m getting beat by the tandem. I grab their wheel, we pass a lady single speeder, and she grabs my wheel. Now we’ve got a train. I’ll just sit in, wait for the right second, then sprint away and drop all of them. If I beat these guys, I bet I can bust into the top 300.

We start a climb. This is it. I shift my townie hub into overdrive and spin up the fat wheels up to six miles-per-hour. I slowly start to pull away. Off the pavement, and onto the last mile of grass. This poorly cut grass is where the Pigsley shines. I can float over the blades like a garden tractor, and slip past without leaving an unsightly tire track. I bounce down the grassy hill, trundle up the other side, and cross the line.

The tandem is nowhere in sight. Victory.

Fat bike finish
Greg Flood photo

3 thoughts on “Hilly Billy Roubaix

  1. We knew passing you was not going to last long. Seeing you fly past on that steep downhill earlier was a thing to behold. I wanted your wheels on the tandem!

    1. I was pretty worried. You guys had a ton of power on the flat sections, and kept looking back at me to take pictures, acting like you weren’t trying to go fast. Overall, highly intimidating

  2. Great story. Thank goodness for helpful locals! You looked effortless out there and I’m glad we had the chance to ride in your vicinity. What a fun ride!

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