Stephen Keeping of the Stevens P/B The Cyclery men’s team raced in the Hell Of The North race on Sunday April 8 and sent along this race report.
After helping the Easter Bunny hide chocolate eggs for my house mates (they barely slept a wink they were so excited) under perfect bike racing conditions, I readied myself for a Roubaix style The Hell of the North on Easter Sunday morning. A super cool event, which apparently has been running for quite a few years now, takes riders through the Uxbridge country over dirt roads, through cow paths, rough-as-hell rail trail and muddy lung busting pits of mud hell. I’m also told this year was a “good year” for the trails due to the lack of rain they’ve been having.
Things kicked off right away after our chill neutral start. Up a succession of gravel hills we ripped. After about 7 minutes of inhaling dust from freakishly strong mountain bikers and roadies alike, we crested over the top and ascended onto paved roads at breakneck speed. Drooling, I looked back to see only remnants of the starting 150 riders with only 30 or so. I should also take this opportunity to mention I was not aware of the severity of these hellish mud pits and dismounts.
The attacking began immediately onto this road. I remained calm of course because there were 122 of the 125km remaining left to race. Well, this was an error because shortly after everyone fought for the front we took a right hand turn – off the road and into a forest. I never thought I’d be in my big ring, riding through a forest on my road bike but this wouldn’t be the last time it would happen that morning. And it was awesome. But at the time, I was cursing every ‘cross rider in the race. They took every opportunity possible to put the hurt on those who chose a road set-up. Exiting the forest we had some work cut out for us and chased back on once we hit pavement. This pattern would continue for the next 90km. At one point as we descended through a rocky dried out river bed, I believe I did see my life flash before my eyes. Now, I’m not a religious man, but, I believe the Bike Gods kept the golf-ball sized rocks out from underneath my wheels that day and allowed me to dismount and scale the cement highway barricades and cow fences safe and sound.
Half way around the epic one lapper I took advantage of the hills and asphalt to sprint away and join a powerful Antone Varabei and two others. After being joined by a teammate we were looking good and had a decent gap on what was left of the field. Lady Luck was not on our side that day however. Typical Roubaix style, our break was held up at a highway crossing and our advantage dwindled as the bunch made up lost ground. After restarting, our diminished lead was never regained and the break was doomed.
The rail trail trench was the nail in the coffin and left me chasing in vain for the remaining 30km. This thing was hard. I entered it this time first wheel and mustered up what I could to stay with the highly decorated remaining riders. I suffered like a dog for a solid 10 minutes in a cross wind through loose crushed rock along a rail trail of death. I’m proud to say I did all I could and never gave up but it wasn’t enough. Through (I’m told very scenic) wetlands and over rivers the pace never let up. We encountered several gates which required a dismount and put even more stress onto holding position and nine riders exited the trench with a slim lead over myself and a few other chasers.
Grinding it out all the way to the finish was mainly asphalt to my relief and I took advantage of it, finishing things off with a sprint for 10th. I was able to take in the beautiful countryside atop of the many hills on the way to the finish and hope I can come back to ride in the area sometime without the fear of “big ringing” it through any sand pits or tractor trails!
Post race we were treated to awesome snacks, coffee and possibly the best chilli I’ve had in a long time. I can say I will definitely be back to impose my revenge on The Hell of the North. What an awesome race. Big thanks to the organizers and my team support in the feed zones! I hear Stevens makes a pretty nice cross’ bike…
Thanks for reading!
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