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Groad Trip is Pete Stetina’s column on graveling and traveling.
I’d heard about this massive 4,000-person gravel race up in Michigan, and knew I needed to experience it first hand.
In a world where most gravel races have prolific Instagram pages and flashy marketing, the Barry Roubaix is an anomaly. They don’t seem to get the same coverage as their peers in the cycling media despite having more participants than almost any other cycling race in the country. The 2019 edition saw 4,500 folks descend on the small town of Hastings. This year as events continue to rebound, the event ‘only’ drew 3,300 — still one of the biggest events nationwide.
It was funny to me that folks seemed surprised whenever someone like myself said they were from anywhere outside of Michigan or a neighboring state. They were pleased and honored I’d made the trek to their local weekend event.
While the race is very hard and very fast, it’s cloaked in a grassroots vibe and that really sets the tone. There are four distances; 18, 36, 62, and 100 miles. While Michigan has a very robust gravel racing scene for us aficionados, if a casual Michigander is going to do just one race all year, it’s the Barry-Roubaix. The 36-mile is actually the most popular, not the long distances for the hardcore riders. It’s a massive two-wheeled celebration highlighted by smooth gravel roads for any skill level and a literal semi-truckload (70 kegs worth!) of award-winning Founders beer, making this the perfect entry level gravel race.
The 100-mile is a new addition with a smaller field and follows the old-school gravel format of self navigation. The 62-mile is actually the main show and it is by no means a walk in the park. It is well contested, there’s prize money, and it’s where the pros come to throw down.
The week leading up to Barry Roubaix had been a mess for me. I’d come down with a head cold severe enough that I’d gotten a Covid test just to be safe. Since masks and lockdowns became a part of life it’s hard to remember that other normal illnesses still exist, and yes they still royally suck. I luckily got over it the day I traveled out and despite some very uncomfortable clogged ears on the airplane I readied myself for battle. The 62-mile course was an easier post-illness pill to swallow vs the current standard of gravel racing these days.
Being that most gravel races are in the 100- to 200-mile range, the 62-mile race is a relative sprint. The lead group starts hard from the gun and never lets up. The course record was a short 2:44 but this year our entire front group eventually smashed that by 10 minutes. It’s contested on smooth rolling dirt with the exception of one tricky jeep trail. One never climbs more than a minute but you’re rarely on flat roads as well. The average speed is road race comparable, and pack dynamics and team tactics are alive and well here.
We started hard, fast, and never let up. It was a continual slugfest with John Borstelmann (Abus) being the main aggressor all day. Exiting the jeep road known as Sager Trail only eight of us remained. We collaborated well together but another group just seconds behind eventually made contact and the group swelled to maybe 15 by the halfway mark. From there the course eased off; relentless hills downgraded to continuous undulations. Cagey tactics took over with attacks and counterattacks.
Eventually Hugo Scala of Abus slipped off, and with John and a third Abus teammate in the front, a chase wasn’t organized. Shortly after, local favorite Alexey Vermeulen got away and would eventually bridge up. The result? They actually tied!
The finishing chute was marred by a crash from an earlier finishing short course rider. The organizer asked Alexey and Hugo to ease off. Hugo technically crossed first but after some discussion the tie was granted and on the podium neither rider seemed miffed. In fact when the circumstance was announced at the podium ceremony, the crowd went wild. If that’s not an example of the (often mocked) “spirit of gravel,” then I don’t know what is. I wonder what the UCI would think of such a situation?
I threw all of my waning energy into some final attacks to avoid a sprint, but to no avail. I finished 11th in said sprint. Nothing to write home about. What can I say? Michigander Grav is pretty intense for this diesel.
The festival commenced in earnest and lasted hours. I was absolutely blown away by how many folks made a point to introduce themselves and say how pleased they were that I’d chosen to attend. I truly felt the love out there. Founder’s Beer lines extended through the parking lots and there wasn’t a frown in sight.
I plan to return, although I gotta say I’ve got my eye on the 100 miler. From what I could see there was some real adventure in the lonelier parts of the route and it’s calling my name. I highly suggest you put this in your 2022 plans as well.