The first time I visited the state of Louisiana was back in 2009. My older brother, Chris, and I had decided to canoe the distance between New Orleans and our hometown in Southwest Wisconsin. We left September 2nd and arrived at our destination—as fate would have it—on Chris’s birthday, November 7th. It was the sort of trip that propelled me into the next phase of life full of enthusiasm for the many places and people that this country contains. It was the sort of trip that changed everything, forever, in my life.
In particular, it formed my elementary understandings of the people that inhabit and form the various cultures found south of the bug-line. We caught a first-hand glimpse of a full spectrum of both decaying, forgotten river towns and vibrant urban centers that lie along the banks of the main artery of the continent. We stopped in Mark Twain’s hometown of Hannibal, Missouri and visited the cave made famous in his novels. We spent 66 days camping out on the muddy banks of the river while traveling in a boat propelled by nothing more than our paddles and the ever-changing current. We almost died. Ever since, the silt of this iconic waterway has remained stuck to my metaphorical boot heels, leeching its’ way into my blood, bones, and marrow.
So, when I found myself in 2016 becoming more and more interested in competitive bicycle racing, my heart leapt at the mention of a race like Rouge Roubaix. Saint Francisville also happens to lie along the banks of the Mississippi River and, though I didn’t get an opportunity to visit while I floated past in 2009, I knew that this race was one that I absolutely could not let pass me by.
My background in cycling also serves as a sort of romantic story. When I first started wrenching at a local shop in Wisconsin, I was afforded the opportunity of employment, by my own account, mostly out of pity and mercy. Tim Ingram, the owner of Momentum Bikes in Platteville, had heard that I was planning a trip down the Pacific Coast by bicycle and thought that I should probably know how to perform basic mechanical endeavor such as changing a flat and adjusting a derailleur. So, he took me in. He showed me the basics and paid me, which I still think of as supremely charitable. I bought a used 1987 Trek 1000. Exposed cables, down-tube shifters, race-minded aesthetics—it was (and is) a beautiful bicycle. What it was not, probably, was a practical choice for a tour of this magnitude.
Despite my own ineptitude, somehow, against all odds, I successfully pedaled the 1,300+ miles of hilly, coastal highways between Seattle and San Francisco. This trip was another that profoundly enhanced my understanding of the country that I still call home. What other famous authors have described as, “feeling the landscape,” was possible on a long-distance bicycle trip. I was hooked.
As it turned out, the only place that would hire me in my new life in California, as I sat and typed desperate applications on a computer that my parents had shipped to my apartment (I slept on the living room floor with a best friend from kindergarten who taught high-school chemistry) in the East Bay, was a bicycle shop. I would end up staying there for a full year before my next big adventure in New York City, which concluded with a successful application to M.F.A. programs and, ultimately, my current undertaking here in Alabama.
“But what the hell does this have to do with racing the Rouge Roubaix?” you’re probably thinking. I’ll tell you.
Fast forward to this year. I’m in my second year of graduate school. I’ve found myself in a familiar setting—working part-time as a mechanic at the local bicycle shop. What started as a means for me to pick up a little extra money for expenses has turned into a means for me to basically break even on my bicycle-related expenditures. I no doubt spend as much money on bicycle paraphernalia as I make from working on them, which suits me perfectly.
I started riding more and more often as time allowed—200 miles a week, on average. The added pressure to perform academically while spending time away from my apartment, computer, and books seemed to amplify rather than detriment my overall experience, so I continued chasing the proverbial rabbit, waiting to see what happened next.
What happened next is: I registered for Rouge Roubaix, my first road race, which was a difficult decision for me because I’m on such a tight budget. Racing is, after all, a resource-gobbling, super privileged, discriminating pursuit. Not only do I have to budget for travel expenses, food, training, and equipment, but also I’ve got to spend less time—my most precious commodity—on my other pursuits, specifically academic pursuits, which form the basis of my being here in Alabama. In other words, racing is a difficult thing for a number of reasons. Seems obvious, but it really takes a huge commitment on the part of the participants and the lives of those that they love.
But there I was, having just clicked “send” on the registration link, and it had become a reality—I’d be racing 100+ miles along the Mississippi River on March 13, 2016.
The nights leading up to the race, itself, were anxiety-inducing. I didn’t sleep very well. I packed and re-packed way more stuff than I’d need to spend a night away from home. I filled up the gas tank and cringed slightly as the numbers in my bank account slowly waned.
Then it was Saturday—the day before the race.
I punched out early from the shop I currently wrench at—VeloCity Pro Cycle in Tuscaloosa—then started my car and headed down the highway. I received numerous updates throughout the day on my phone as the race organizers were faced with logistical nightmares from the flooding as a result of the torrential rains that week. The river was bulging, taking over roadways, and changing the course. That same river I floated down so long ago was being difficult, temperamental.
I didn’t stop for anything other than a sandwich and fuel, which I found in quaint, little Liberty, Mississippi. The woman behind the counter making my sandwich was sweet in what seemed to me to be an authentic way. She took her time placing each vegetable on the sliced bread, humming along to the slower pace than that which I was accustomed to.
When I pulled into Saint Francisville about an hour later, I was greeted by hanging moss and live oak trees outside the Inn that served as home base for the organizers and participants. The mood was electric and I felt a little awkward given that I’m not really accustomed to this type of environment. Everyone there seemed faster and better looking than I felt. The bicycles were polished and also very expensive. “What a chump,” I thought.
Luckily, two of my friends arrived in a small SUV packed to the gills with gear—they were going to stay for the race and then head to Texas for a sort of mountain biking vacation during spring break, which had just officially started for University of Alabama students. I swear: having familiar faces around when preparing for a race does wonders for the nerves. I took them straight to the flooded banks of the river and we set up tents for the night. We went to get a bite to eat and were pleasantly surprised at the service, quality, and prices of a hopping local restaurant called “The Francis.” It was busy, which was a good sign, and out back we saw giant pots of crawfish being boiled. There was no doubt about our geography—we were in bayou-country.
I order three pounds of crawfish on special and they arrive surprisingly fast. The process and technique of eating a specimen such as a crawfish isn’t entirely lost on me, but I cannot help but feel a tang of guilt as I see the little black orbs of eyes on the bright red, delicious creatures lying in a pile on my plate. I order half-dozen raw oysters and taste the sea.
The next morning, I wake up at 6:30 and find my friend Adam sitting quietly outside the tent on his laptop. We talk briefly, I take down the tent, and shortly thereafter we are all packed up and heading back to the Inn.
Next thing I know, I’m waiting with a large group of riders at the starting line.
The Cat 5 group pedals at around 20 mph during the neutral start, which is lead out by vehicles and followed by a motorcycle, which feels like a big stage to my inexperienced self. “This must be what it feels like to be a pro,” I think.
At mile 5, a rider makes a break for it and sprints ahead out of sight. After a few turns, I wonder if the group will catch him at all. The pace doesn’t seem to have really changed, although time-trialing 95 miles solo is almost unheard of. I’m not sure exactly what to think, so I default to the choices being made by the riders around me.
Todd Trudeau, a strong rider with a background in triathlons, is up front doing most of the work and talking non-stop. I mixed it up a little to stretch my legs out but I don’t want to tire out too early. The group picks up the pace, but just slightly. When I get a chance to take my eyes off the wheel in front of my own, I breath deeply the lush landscape that has made the vistas of the region famous—big, old, knobby trees with moss hanging down along bumpy back roads dappled with mottles of sunlight. It is truly a beautiful venue.
When we catch the man who broke away at mile 20, he pulls off to the side of the highway with an obvious mechanical. “Must be a broken heart,” I hear one of the riders say. I feel bad for him—I’ve been in that position before, no doubt. Letting my race anxiety get the better of me has paralyzed my performance in the few cross and gravel races that I’ve thus far participated in, so I’m extra careful on a ride of this length to conserve energy while also hoping to maintain a good average speed in the peloton.
By mile 40, however, the whole group seems to have taken to the long-game strategy. I’m waiting for the breaks, but they don’t come. We stay as a group with the same handful of riders doing most of the work on the front of the pack until we get to the gravel section around mile 60. Then, the hill.
I’d heard stories of Blockhouse Hill prior to even making the trip to the race. “It’s big,” they’d say. “Decides the race,” said others. I knew that I was a capable climber, but it had me a little freaked out just thinking about a significant uphill grade on a rough surface. We arrive at the base of the climb and I’m sitting towards the front of the pack. I drop my chain into the small ring in front and try to relax. Then gravity takes over.
The group spreads out and the climbers float up the steep gradient while passing some seldom walkers who have given up on pedaling up this behemoth. Suddenly, it’s just myself and one other rider and we’re working close enough to hear each other gulping oxygen. I focus on breathing rather than the fire in my legs and we make it to the top of the climb. The rider catches up to me on the flat at the top and asks,
“Are you going to go for it?”
“Yeah,” I say.
“Okay—are you making a stop at the feed zone?” he asks.
“I’m getting a hand-up,” I reply.
“Well, hurry up and we’ll break for it together.”
When I arrive at the feed zone at the top of the climb, I immediately start scanning for my friend Collin. I spot him along the edge of the road and signal for him after tossing my two large water bottles into the ditch. The hand-off goes perfectly—two fresh, cold bottles of Scratch-infused water and a handful of gels. I look back and a third rider has linked up.
The three of us agree that we need to work together in order to stave off the chase group, which looms in our imaginations as a perfectly organized machine built with the specific purpose of ruining our dreams and breaking our collective hearts. We each take brief turns on the front, pushing against the humid, eighty-degree air. Every time I switch off of the front, I look back and see nothing. No riders. Though, I’m sure they’re coming.
Miles go by in a blur. We’re working hard and passing riders from higher categories that look disappointed to see a fast group of Cat 5’s leaving them in their wake. It makes us go even harder, I think.
By mile 80, we reach sections of coarse gravel and wet valleys in the chip-sealed roads. “Don’t fuck this up,” I think, as the third rider makes huge pulls on the flats and the second, the climber, hops off the front as soon as he arrives. My borrowed Garmin speedometer doesn’t dip below 25mph.
By mile 85, we’ve reached some rollers and passed huge swaths of riders. The lead vehicle is starting to have difficulty navigating and honking to clear the road and we end up dangerously passing them as they stop, letting out instinctive yelps as we go by. Then, suddenly, on one of the hills, the powerful third-man drops off the back. “Keep up,” I plead, as I’m now left with the climber from before who smartly has been refusing to expel too much energy on the front.
Now there are just us two.
“I could win this,” I think.
Mile 90 and we are back on the highway towards Saint Francisville. We pass by the iconic bridge from early in the race. The landscape begins to shift towards residential communities rather than rural scenery. Signs start popping up letting us know the distance to the finish in kilometers.
When I look over at my counterpart, his mouth looks dry. I’m sure I look the same—we’re both exhausted. He asks, “Do you have any water?” and I look down at his lone bottle with no more than a gulp of red liquid splashing around at the bottom. I know that I have no more water than that, either, and I tell him so.
Mile 95, 96, and things start to get desperate. I make little pulls to test out his energy reserves and he stays with me. We both try to spend as little time on the front as possible while also doing our best not to get caught. Then, we were back in Saint Francisville.
We make the final turn and see the arch of the finish line. I ask, “Do you have a sprint left in you?” and my companion, a 17-year-old named Charles as I found out earlier—the hometown hero—says, “I hope so.”
Charles begins to make a sprint up the incline in the last 500 meters of the race. I let him go a little and sit on his wheel, making sure to stay in the saddle. I can feel my legs begin to cramp and my thoughts are entirely focused on the finish.
When I stand and counter-attack about 100 meters out, I can hear the exasperated sighs from my racing partner.
My legs begin to cramp with every stroke as I empty out all that is left in me.
I cross the finish line and can’t believe it—it seems so surreal. I’ve won my first ever bicycle race.
“I won,” I keep telling myself, not really believing what has just occurred.
“I won. I won. I won.”
My heart immediately goes out to Charles, who lost in such dramatic fashion. I tell him, “You’ve got a bright future ahead of you,” as we continue to pedal to keep from cramping and falling over after the finish.
I think back to the river where we camped out the night before. I think back to the canoe trip. And the bike trip.
I am completely filled with euphoria.
I cannot wait to race again.
Michael Lambert is author of Circumnavigation (Redbird Chapbooks, 2014) loosely based on self-propelled travel in North America. The recipient of a 2015 residency at the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference, his written work and photography have appeared in numerous journals, both online and in print. He lives in Tuscaloosa while pursuing an M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of Alabama.