In the mid-2000s, J.R Petsko and Gunnar Shogren spent a fair amount of time cruising around the many gravel roads near their West Virginia homes. As seems to be the case, they did it enough and eventually decided to invite some friends.
That gathering of gravel friends proved to be the inaugural Hilly Billy Roubaix in 2010. Now, a decade later, the race returns for Year 10, despite what Petsko might have thought the first time he held the race.
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“No way,” he said when asked if he thought he would still be doing the race. “I am pretty sure most riders wanted to kill me after that year, as no one had a clue of what they were getting into.” Last year when we spoke with him, he recalled, “I got yelled at a lot after, as broken people laid all over the ground at the finish.”
Based in Core, West Virginia, which sits northwest of Morgantown near the state’s border with Pennsylvania, the Hilly Billy Roubaix is not the longest out there—74 miles this year—but with 7,000 feet of climbing on Appalachian gravel roads, it can be a handful for those not adequately prepared, including those who had choice words for Petsko after those first few editions.
“That is something I have been trying to do for years and still, some don’t listen!” Petsko said about his attempts to describe just how hard the event can be.
Since Hilly Billy Year 1, Petsko has learned a thing or two about putting on a gravel race along the way. Saturday’s race will be the 197th bike race Petsko and his team have put on. As he says, “Crazy.”
Something New, Something Borrowed for 2019
If you have a good thing going, why change it, right? It’s doubtful people would blame gravel promoters of popular events if they let things roll once they dialed in the right formula for their events.
However, as we have seen in gravel with the Dirty Kanza 200 using a new course this year, Land Run 100 adding a run and ride option and Barry-Roubaix adding a 100-mile race, even the most popular races out there are always trying to keep things fresh, interesting and moving forward.
The same is true for the Hilly Billy Roubaix. Cannondale has been a long-time sponsor of the event, and as you may have read, the company has the new Topstone Carbon it will be showing of in its natural habitat for the first time at the race. “I feel pretty honored that Cannondale will be unveiling a new gravel bike here. Wish they would have called it the Hilly Billy though!” Petsko joked.
Last year, there two pigs present to help welcome races and hand out podium prizes. This year? “Baby goats!” Petsko said excitedly.
With the 2020 election closer than many of us wish it was, West Virginia stands to be in focus thanks to its reputation as “Coal Country.” Despite the states’s rep, this year’s Hilly Billy Roubaix will be a more environmentally friendly one.
“No more racers packets at registration,” Petsko said. “Why is that? Ten years of plastic bags and product flyers is a lot of materials that end up in the trash. We want to try and make some changes in those areas to make the least amount of impact we can.”
Not everything has to be new, it can also be borrowed and then brought back. Inspired by the Salsa Chase the Chaise lounge that made a gravel splash in 2018, Petsko and his team found a couch on the side of the road and made a lounge, Hilly Billy style. The couch returns in 2019, this year with more goats.
“It has been in storage all year. Hope the baby goats don’t eat it. That thing is a gem,” he said.
Also returning this year is a little something for everyone. Since its inception, the Hilly Billy Roubaix has stuck to its 70ish-mile distance and provided plenty of suffering, memories and camaraderie at that distance. It has also joined other races in inspiring the next generation of gravel enthusiasts by adding a shorter distance in recent years. In this case, it is the 33-mile Hilly Billy Lite that returns again this year.
When we asked Petsko why the race has been so successful over the years, he had a pretty good idea of what keeps bringing people back. “How dumb it is and how fun it is,” he quickly replied.
We already heard about the couch and the pigs and the goats for the dumb, and for the fun, it is worth remembering from whence the race came. During our first episode of the Groadio podcast, Bill Schieken brought up the old Ultra Cross series that the Hilly Billy Roubaix was a part of.
The four-race series started in 2011 and featured races that were kind of a precursor to the gnarlier forms of gravel racing we know today. “That series was way before it’s time,” Petsko reflected. “Had we tried to pull that off nowadays, when gravel is such a big deal, it would have been a different story, I think.”
While the Ultra Cross series is gone, its spirit lives on today at the modern Hilly Billy Roubaix. We already talked about the 74 miles with over 7,000 feet of climbing packed into no less than 12 big climbs, but then there are the roads themselves.
The race description says it best. “Road conditions may include missing bridges, car-sized potholes, gravel, mud, black top, cow paths, and maybe a piece of road kill or two. That’s what we call good riding! Leave your expensive Flux-Capacitors and fancy wheels at home and maybe bring the cross bike. It might be the best tool for the job, but bring whatever you think is best for you.”
One thing that helps in creating a gnarly adventure at the Hilly Billy Roubaix is weather that has often been mercurial, to say the least. Petsko recalled heavy rains and muddy roads the first four years, and last year’s course had standing water on roads, even if race day was near perfect. At least, near-perfect in Petsko’s eyes, with some light showers adding extra grit to the course.
Petsko described the local conditions thus far in 2019. “West Virginia has officially become a rain forest over the last few years. Rain every day this week they say. Personally, that makes it way better. Dry is boring.”
Despite the discipline changing from what was once an “Ultra Cross” to the fastest-growing discipline of cycling in the U.S., Petsko said he is still excited to put on the Hilly Billy Roubaix every year.
“I think it has given folks a great option to get off the busy main roads with distracted drivers. I think we all have stories nowadays of close calls,” he said. “Being on a back road, seeing the countryside and not stressing about that car coming up behind you sure makes a ride more enjoyable. At least for me. Plus as you know, it such a great discipline where road riders, cross racers, and mountain bikers can all ride together.”
Another reason the Hilly Billy Roubaix has been so successful is the effective partnerships Petsko and its team have built with sponsors, athletes and dedicated volunteers. This year, Cannondale not only chose to return as title sponsor, but it also picked the event to unveil its much-anticipated Topstone Carbon, errr, Hilly Billy Carbon.
Looking past the title sponsor, you can see a long list of local companies sponsoring aid stations and national brands chipping in to help as well.
I asked Petsko for some advice learned from the race’s success. “It is about relationships,” he said. “Pick up the phone and call someone. Don’t text or email them.”
“Do you have any idea how many emails a company like Kenda gets asking for sponsorship every year? A ton! Let them hear your passion and tell them your story. Also, don’t be afraid to be told no. It happens a lot in this game, but sometimes you find some great folks to work with.”
“It is about relationships, Pick up the phone and call someone. Don’t text or email them.”
Those relationships extend to the impressive group of volunteers Petsko is able to enlist to help put the race on each year. Last year that number totaled over 70, and this year is likely to be no different. It is not just Petsko’s Hilly Billy party—it belongs to a whole group of folks dedicated to sharing the West Virginia and Pennsylvania gravel with others.
“I’m just happy to have come this far with great help from my friends, family and my wonderful wife who allows me to do this,” Petsko said. “I ask a lot of them all leading up to the event, and really, this event doesn’t happen without them.”