We’ve been reporting about the European Spring Classics and we’ve been giving you notice about cycling events going on in and around Chicagoland. This past weekend, one race blurred the lines of these two worlds, separated by a large pond.
On Saturday, more than 3,000 cyclists gathered in Barry County, Michigan, to participate in the Barry-Roubaix, the largest gravel road race in the U.S. Cyclists of all kinds and levels tested themselves against rolling gravel roads, pavement, rocks, sand, mud, snow, ice and over 2,000 feet of climbing through the back roads of Barry County.
One of the cyclists who was there was Gearhead Andre Odendaal. If you follow our cyclocross posts and race reports, you’ll recognize Andre as one of the strongest riders on our team. If you’ve made it to a cyclocross race, then you’ve likely seen Andre in full-on beast mode. While Andre is certainly a strong rider, he is also very generous with his knowledge, leading our cyclocross team clinics with drills and suggestions for training in the off-season.
We caught up with Andre to learn a little more about this race and about gravel riding. About Saturday’s Barry-Roubaix, Andre started out by telling us, “It was fun. Amazing, really. It was a really fun atmosphere, similar to cyclocross. In fact, all of the Illinois cyclocross riders were there. I spent a good deal of time at the beginning saying ‘hello’ to people I recognize or know.”
Even if you’re not hip to the Chicago Cyclocross scene, this race wouldn’t be a bad place to start your racing career, according to Andre. “This is an ideal way to get into racing. Mountain bike racing is intimidating and technical. Road racing is intense and fast. Cyclocross is its own thing. This is a really good way to get into racing. It’s not as intimidating, not as intense. It’s well organized and friendly. It’s not as threatening as a race.”
“Really, this is more an event. If you want to become more competitive, you can be.”
For those who have more of a competitive spirit, Andre tells us, “The cool thing about this race, is that it’s not sanctioned. You don’t have all the divisions you have at other races. You end up racing with whomever is there. Last year, there were a bunch of pros. This year, you’ll see Robbie Ventura in the pictures. It’s a high caliber of racing.”
For those who are new or who are not interested in racing, Andre adds, “In a road race, you’re riding with people you don’t know, dealing with crashes. Here, you could do a group that’s your speed. There are great discrepancies in speed. In the 62mph race, the fastest were going 20 miles per hour, while the slowest were going 11 miles per hour. The discrepancies in time were huge – a two-hour difference in finishing times. You’ll definitely find a group to fall in with that has the same speed as you.”
Andre tells us a gravel road race like the Barry-Roubaix makes an ideal beginner’s race. One of the reasons is that it’s like a road race, but at slower speeds. “It’s just like riding on a really well maintained gravel road. It’s just slower. And there are potholes. But there’s nothing difficult. It’s like a slow road race.”
The conditions might make it more challenging, but according to Andre, “not too intimidating.” He said the muddy conditions on the hard pack dirt roads only make it “muddy enough to slow everything down.”
This was Andre’s second year at the Barry-Roubaix. He said the organizers changed the course a bit for this year, to make it more accessible for emergency vehicles. Since conditions are subject to spring temperatures and weather, the actual courses – there are 24-, 36- and 62-mile options – are determined just prior to the race start. Rain the night before this year’s race and relatively warm weather meant that the course had to be rerouted. Some sections were closed off because the dirt roads were “virtually impossible.”
“In the pictures, you’ll see snow on side of route. It was a little muddy, but not muddy as in cyclocross muddy. Just that the road is softer. The courser material of the road becomes sticky – wet and sticky.”
When asked how he felt about Saturday’s conditions, Andre responded, “I quite like the muddy stuff. It’s slightly more technical, cornering in the mud. I prefer the technical stuff. A new rider wouldn’t like it, but I do alright there.”
As the race advertised, there was some climbing. “There were short, sharp little hills, similar to Barrington, the short little rollers that just kill you.” Really, he assures us there was nothing technical about the course.
When we asked if gravel riding required different equipment, Andre assured us that you can pretty much ride what you’ve got. All types of bikes are allowed on the Barry-Roubaix course, including cyclocross, mountain, road, fat bikes, single speed, fixed and tandem bikes. And you do, indeed, see them all out there. “You even see road bikes, but I wouldn’t recommend that.” He also saw a couple riding a tandem. “Halfway through the ride, he stopped and proposed to her.”
Andre opted to race on his cyclocross bike, or as he said, “on a cross bike, with appropriate tires.” He explained, “It’s a fast course. A mountain bike is heavy. A ‘cross bike is faster and lighter.” As far as the tires, he explained that nothing out of the ordinary was required, “You don’t even need mud tires; even with the muddy conditions, we were on file treads.”
While the course is not closed to traffic and riders are reminded that the rules of the road do apply, Andre said the nice thing about being on the gravel roads for 80 percent of the ride is that you’re not restricted the way you are with most races. “You can ride on either side of the road. It’s not as strict.”
As for Andre’s race, he ended up with a very solid top 20 finish. He started the race up front, with the fast group. A crash separated him from the group leader. “There was a big crash in front of me. I used my cyclocross skills when I went off-road and then back on-road. But, after that, I had a really hard trying to catch up. I spent a mile trying to chase down the lead group. Then I just hung back and met up with [my friends, including fellow Gearhead Will Frame].”
Another aspect that makes the Barry-Roubaix perfect for those new to racing is how early it is in the year. “It’s the beginning of the season. For a lot people, this was their first outdoor ride of the season. It’s all about getting outside and having fun.” Andre said this was his third outdoor ride of the year, but otherwise has been training indoors.”
As far as preparing for the race, Andre addressed the transition from indoor to outdoor riding. “Most of preparation for this time of year is more in equipment. I like really good gloves – thick gloves with liners. Also good socks with shoe covers.” He added, “I recommend using a Camelback, instead of bottles. People lose bottles out of their cages all the time. Plus, you don’t end with all the gunk that you do on the bottles.”
After a solid finish at the Barry-Roubaix, Andre now has his sights on the Lincoln Park Criterium and then the Hillsboro-Roubaix Road Race, another Spring Classic-like event. In addition to road racing, Andre will doing more mountain biking racing this year, including the Lumberjack 100 with another Gearhead, Mike Slade. Andre describes the Lumberjack 100 as “similar to Leadville [which Andre has completed], but closer to home.”
If, Andre also looks forward to adding some track racing into his schedule this summer. When we asked if that was too much for his already busy racing scheduled, Andre brushed it off. “Track is really short, it’s not that heavy of a load on you. And it’s really good for sprinting.”
All told, Andre will ride four to five days a week this summer. But, he’s good about giving himself two days of absolute rest. We asked if burn-out was a concern, to which Andre responded, “I like riding my bike.”
- Come into Higher Gear – to be fit for your cyclocross bike, “the Swiss Army knife of bikes,” – perfect for gravel rides, commutes and cyclocross races! See what you’ve been missing.
- Still intimidated by racing? Meet Higher Gear customers Kiki Demopoulos, who found the Fountain of Youth on her bike, and Nancy Heymann, who encourages you to “jump into racing!”
- If you’re interested in trying your hand at racing or riding in a gravel event, Andre tells us, “There are more and more springing up. There are a good ten in our area throughout the year.” Check out this site for more gravel events.
- Learn more about the Barry-Roubaix.
- See more events and races that are going on this summer.
The first photo on this page shows Andre and Will at the start of Saturday’s Barry-Roubaix. All other photos of Andre are from past cyclocross seasons. To see more photos of Andre, Robbie Ventura and others racing the Barry-Roubaix, please check out this Flickr site.