Rough Road race overview
Rough Road 100 in Morris, IL is a well organized and increasingly popular Spring “gravel” event. This year was no exception, and over 400 riders showed up. But the big surprise this year was the friendly weather. Temperatures reached over 60 degrees by the end of the race, and winds were very mild.
“Wait. WHAT?” You might be asking if you are from Illinois. Yes, 6 to 9 mph winds from the South, in the Spring! I can’t remember riding outside with so little wind this time of the year.
For the first time, as far as I know, there was no “yellow line” rule so riders took up the entire road. With so many riders in the event, using up the whole road made the race safer and more manageable.
Theia and I got to the event late. We had to get our plates, change, warm up, and position at the start line in 30 minutes. Next year we are getting there 90 minutes early. This last minute stress was unnecessary and avoidable.
In the end, being late to the start did not effect me, but my power meter died. I could have replaced the battery if I had more time. But at the same time, who needs a power meter? I just wanted to stay with the lead group, and my power meter was not going to help me do that.
My goal for the race was to stay with the lead group until mile 52. That’s when it gets crazy, and crashes happen. I had no interest in crashing, so I just wanted to hang until then. If you want to learn what happened, read on.
Many of the strong riders pre-rode the course over the previous week. I was mostly interested in the rough gravel section around mile 20. I heard the gravel was compacted this year, which was a change from 2016. That is normally where the main selection happens in the race. I was prepared to ride 350 watts for 10 to 15 minutes starting around mile 17 to stay with the front group. I estimated that’s what would take me to stay with the lead group.
In preparation, I also studied my Rough Road 100 Race Video from 2017 and looked at the Race Profile on Ride with GPS. I mapped out the hard, cross wind sections and two short climbs. The numbers on the left are the mile markets and the words on the right told me what to expect.
For example, [YELLOW] Short X means short cross wind section that is moderately hard. And, [RED] 8.1x means 8.1 miles of hard cross winds. Feel free to cut this out and tape to your top tube if you are participating in this event.
Roadies to the rescue
Roadies and crit racers made up most of the fast riders this year. Lining up on the front line I saw that almost everyone had slicks and some road bikes. I did not think much of it until I realized what that meant… That the front group would hammer on the pavement and go easy on the gravel.
And there I was, the only fool with gravel tires (Panaracer Gravel King 32s). The race is 60% pavement and 40% gravel. In addition, the gravel sections are predominately compacted gravel or limestone. There are fewer than 5 miles of loose gravel.
In future years I’m going to use my gravel bike but with 28 or 32 tires. Gravel tires are simply unnecessary and too slow for this race.
Gravel or road race?
With all the roadies in the mix, the pace was fast and full of massive surges, just like a road race. True gravel racing is different. In my experience, the pace of a gravel race is more steady with a few areas that cause separation.
It’s usually mud, sand, single track, hills, or something else that slows riders down that causes the separation. As such, the group will surge after some obstacle causing separation. And once the separation occurs, the front and chase groups get pretty small, and the pace remains steady and fast.
It’s hard to safely accelerate to over 30 mph on “real” gravel out of a turn. Towards the end of a gravel race, either the pace, hills, wind, or some obstacle causes the final separation. Gravel race finishes are not a peloton sprint to the line.
This year’s pace
With the usual 15 – 20 mph winds from the south, the 8 mile section of road starting at mile 16.8 is where the final selection occurs at Rough Road. This year that section was pretty easy. As a result, the peloton surged several times, and some guys out of position got dropped, but overall the pace was manageable. My power meter died right at the start of the race, but I suspect I averaged 300 to 320 watts for these 8 miles. I was ready to go much harder than that.
Accelerations out of the turns were full gas, almost a sprint for me. I caught myself out of position a few times and easily hit 1000 watts to catch the leaders. As I mentioned before, all the pavement sections, after the first 6 miles when the entire peloton was together, was “surgy” and fast. I could see the roadies licking their chops when the surface got slick… Here comes the pain, I thought.
This year, the front group of about 30 riders stayed together until the last 11 mile stretch. In prior years, check out the Race Report from 2017, the front group was only 5 or so riders with a larger chase group that never really worked much to chase the leaders.
The Two Little Hills or “Bumps”
I was working pretty hard to stay with the lead group. They had slicks, and I had gravel tires. But that is no excuse for getting dropped on a small hill. Wait for it…
At mile 40 and 43, there are two small “bumps” on the road. They are really very small hills that take about one minute or less to ride up. The first one is about 13% grade and gravel, and the second one is pavement. I knew I had to be towards the front to get to the top with the group.
I started the first climb towards the front as planned, and others sprinted to the top. Some riders lost traction and I was stuck behind them. I finished the climb with the group, but towards the back. Instead of moving back up, I kept my position, which was just DUMB.
The second “climb” at mile 43 was on pavement, and the roadies floored it again. I was spit out the back. We formed a small chase group of about 5 guys. I could have kept the pace and gotten back on, but I pulled the chute.
In retrospect, I think I was so mad for being out of position and getting dropped on such a small climb, that I said f** it. In honesty, that climb could not have been more than 100 feet. It’s was bump, and I allowed myself to get dropped.
I got dropped on a “bump” at mile 43 and pulled the chute. BOOOOO!
The Home Stretch
After losing the group I was in on that bump, I joined a small group of 4 with a pro-cyclist, Laurel Rathbun. She was duking it out with the men for the first 40 miles. She had impressive strength and ability. Laurel was crushing it when the pace got blistering through the wind and gravel. I think she got dropped on the first bump at mile 40.
I connected with her and two other guys. We rode tempo for the last 11 mile stretch in a nice rotating pace line. No one sprinted to the line. Well, there was no point in me sprinting to the line. When you get dropped on a bump, it’s embarrassing to sprint for 20th place…
The Right Tires
Tire selection for Rough Road is key. In 2017 I used a heavy slick tire. After evaluating that race, I switched to a Panaracer GravelKing SK 32 this year.
The Panaracer tires are awesome for gravel, and their 32 is very light at 320 grams. It’s possibly the lightest 32 on the market. I’ve raced their 38s at Dirty Kanza with great success. Nevertheless, with 60% of the course being pavement, the best tire to run is something slick that is 28 to 32 and light.
Some racers were running the the tubeless GravelKing Slicks. They are 32s and weight 290 grams. I will try these next year for sure.
- USE 28 to 32 SLICKS if you want to go fast and hang with the front group.
- Stay towards the front at all times, and prepare to sprint out of most turns.
- Roadies are here to stay for this event, so be ready to play their games.
- The main selection normally happens at mile 16.8. That is an 8 mile stretch due West that normally has exposed cross winds that are 15 to 20 mph. Again, make sure to position yourself at the front before this turn into the cross winds. It’s gets fast right there.
- The final selection normally happens on the bumps. Position yourself at the front for the two bumps at mile 40 and 43. Plan to sprint up them full gas.
- This year the group did surge into the head winds for some reason, especially when it turned from cross to headwind. I guess they were trying to catch people out of position.
- There were very hard surges going from cross to tail wind, for obvious reasons. I had to sprint to stay with the group.
- Watch out for sections of large pot holes. They are the rapid fire type (many in a row) and destroy your bike.
- With so many roadies at the event this year, the 11 mile final home stretch of the limestone path got dangerous. There were several crashes. Racers were fighting for position and losing control of their bikes. Expect to either fight it out with a peloton on a tight limestone trail for 11 miles or get dropped.
- Get to the event early. We arrived late this year. Parking fills up and the line to get your plate gets long. I recommend arriving 90 minutes before the start of the race.
Rough Road 100 is a great event that I will continue to race when the weather permits. Even with more racers, roadies and crashes this year, I’ll keep going.
Watch out for cross winds, and use slicks to go fast. Use the left side of the peloton to move up and the right side for shelter in the cross winds. Watch out for the man-eating pot holes and don’t get dropped on the bumps starting at mile 40!