The dreaded Battenkill, the biggest amateur race of the season, America’s “Queen of the Classics,” was last weekend, and it managed to live up to its hype. We (Dorothy and another friend and teammate) left here early for the nearly three hour ride to upstate New York, and this helped dissipate the nerves somewhat, as we could sort of joke about things and pretend that we didn’t really have to do this race. Once we got close to the race staging area, we started to get more nervous, with huge “Battenkill” banners waving in the stiff breeze warning us about conditions on the course.
The registration process was very quick and painless, and Dieter, the race promoter, did a great job making sure everything ran smoothly. I can’t imagine putting on a race where 2200 racers plus almost as many supporters (spouses, friends, non-racing teammates) in tow. Our little crew did have one problem, though, as our teammate (who needs a snappy blog name, I guess), had, in her nervousness, left her race kit at home. She had her shoes, her helmet, and her socks, but shorts and jersey were missing. Luckily, I had packed two kits despite Dorothy teasing me for being so ridiculously overprepared, and I was ready to let her use them. A nice racer from another team had a pair of women’s shorts that she was willing to lend, so our teammate wore those plus my somewhat too-large jersey.
The women started their race in surprisingly good mood, and I sat around for an hour until it was time for my race to start. By this time, the clouds had disappeared, but the wind had become even stronger, and I knew this would make things difficult out on the course. I lined up with almost a hundred other racers in bright but cool sunshine and, after what seemed a ridiculously long time, the official started us.
I had started near the front but got squeezed back a bit once bikes started rolling. After a quarter of a mile, I edged my way back to the front and then started taking some pulls. I wanted to be at the front for the first narrow section (a covered bridge) and the first dirt section (shortly after the bridge). This part of the plan worked, and for the first 8 miles or so I was never more than 15 back. Then the pack squeezed over to the right pushing me off the road into the gravel at the side, and a surge came through on the left. This put me back more than I wanted to be, but when we hit the next dirt section, I noticed that the pack had split in half. I was in the back of the first half, but the positioning was still not too bad. I started to move up in a leisurely fashion on this dirt section, feeling pretty good about things in general.
Soon we came to the notorious Juniper Swamp Road, a steep dirt section that threatened to be one of the big selection points in the race. I started climbing very well, not taxing myself at all but staying with the bulk of the pack. About halfway up I started to worry that the guy in front of me was going to die–literally. He was weaving back and forth across the road, wheezing. I started to pass him, but he weaved in front of me. Then I spent about five seconds too long watching what he was going to do. By the time I got serious about my own race again, the pack had surged over the top of the hill. No problem, I thought, I’ll just catch the back of the pack on the descent.
As I came over the top of the hill, I was hit by a fierce wind. This threw off my calculations, but I knew I had to chase to catch back on. On a long descent like this, that shouldn’t be too hard, but the wind had other ideas. Then, as I swept around a long curve, I saw bikes and bodies on the road in front of me from a crash that had just happened. I slowed and weaved through the carnage before putting the hammer down again. I looked behind me to see if any of the guys who had dropped before me could help me chase, but they had apparently opted out of the race. With that ominous sight in my mind, I set my mind to a long chase and swooped into a paved corner.
Soon I was caught by three other guys and we settled into the chase. The pack was maddeningly close–just out of reach about 100 or 200 meters ahead of us. We kept trying to pull them back, but one guy had trouble rotating through smoothly and keeping the pace high. Our progress was minimal, and when we were in some wide-open stretches, the high winds helped the larger and more powerful pack pull away slightly.
After a while we came to a very long and steep climb–it was about 10 or 12% and went on for more than a mile. I tried to pace myself and concentrated on climbing smoothly and efficiently. Perhaps too efficiently: I ended up dropping my chase companions so thoroughly that I couldn’t see them. I tried to regain some ground on the pack on the screaming fast (nearly 50 mph) descent, but that gain was wiped out by the winds that again greeted me on the flats. Once more, my former chase companions caught me and we set out to chase again.
The rest of the race was a long series of pulls, some of them frustratingly ineffectual, and the pack ahead of us pulled out of sight. We kept at it, though, working as hard as the winds and hills would allow. By the time we hit the last steep dirt climbs, I was shot from pulling more than my share and from spending so much time chasing alone. The group of chaser, which had grown to about a dozen by that point, dropped me shortly before the final descent into the finish. I put my head down and worked pedaled, because there wasn’t anything else to do. I crossed the finish line in a little more than three hours, and about halfway back in the standings. It was not a brilliant finish, but it was much better than the last time I did this race two years ago when I didn’t even get to the 30 mile mark.
The next day was week five of the Bethel Spring Series, and I was sure that I was not going to be able to race. I was tired and sore, and I was struggling to keep myself hydrated. Nevertheless, I lined up and started pedaling when the whistle blew.
There were a lot of Battenkill riders at this race, so I thought the pace would be slow. It was not, however, and the race began with a series of short-lived attacks. After two or three laps, I was beginning to feel pretty good, so I moved up to the front of the pack. A couple of guys were hanging off the front by about five meters or so, and I was thinking about jumping across when the bell rang for a prime lap–a pound of coffee this time. I pulled a little harder and got on the wheels of the guys in front. As we came to the final corner at the bottom of the hill (the mirror building, for those of you familiar with the course) the two guys in front were starting to play the cat and mouse games–neither wanted to jump first and let the other guy draft. So I decided I would jump hard and get that coffee. I took the sprint easily and kept the pace fairly high around the first corner and down the hill. When I looked back, five guys were chasing me, and we had more than 50 meters on the field.
We went into breakaway mode immediately, taking short turns at the front and extending our lead slightly. Soon a few more guys bridged across, and we had about a dozen guys pulling. This was good because we had enough horsepower to stay away, but we were also threatening so the pack might work harder to pull us back. We kept riding hard, though, pushing some big gears even into the headwind, and we seemed to be holding a steady lead.
After a couple more laps, we had been joined by a few others, bringing our total to 16. One of the guys who bridged late was Guido, the local breakaway monster. He likes to fly off the front and eat up the miles while everyone else withers behind him. He gave our break some solid pulls and our lead started to feel secure.
Except for one problem: Every time we passed the start line, some people on the sidelines called out our time gap. They kept yelling things like “10 seconds,” which seemed impossible, because a 10 second gap would mean we should be able to see our pursuit. Then, after some hard efforts, they yelled “15 seconds.” Only a five second gain after that effort? It was almost discouraging, and our paceline faltered a bit and seemed to be on the verge of falling apart.
We pulled it back together, though, and the next time we passed the start line, the official came out into the road and shouted, “Pull through on the left!” I didn’t know what he was talking about. Left of what? I figured a car had pulled onto the course and was in the way, and he was just warning us. When we came around the first corner, though, we could clearly see the pack right there, not more than 100 meter away. We had nearly lapped the field.
With that beautiful sight, we sat up and took the next couple of laps at an easier pace. There was no way the pack could make up 1:50 in the space of three laps, so we were home free. At the bell lap, the sprinter games began, and I situated myself near the front. When the surge went by, I got myself squeezed to the curb, but I fought hard for my position and launched a tired, weak sprint from the wrong place. Despite this, I managed to hang on for 9th place. It was a very gratifying end to the race, and it felt good.