Words by Alex Grabau for Ride Studio Cafe on Tour of the Battenkill, April 13, 2013
It might be as hard to breathe during extended periods of laughter as it is to breath during a bike race. We tried our best to test this statement on our drive to Bennington, Friday afternoon, underneath a very cloudy, ominous mid-April sky. Jay, Oscar and yours-truly drove to Bennington through what seemed to be December weather. We passed an active snow plow and several trucks salting route 9 in VT. In between making-fun of eachother we shared worried glances at passing dirt roads, completely covered in snow and wondered exactly what it would be like to race road bikes in the snow, in April.
Jay and Oscar warned me as best they could. Battenkill is unforgiving. To use a popular phrase, “don’t burn matches” early. The course is long, punishing and for me, completely new. This may have been a good personality match, not knowing what was coming because it didn’t present opportunity for psyching-myself out. I was secretly very hopeful. I tried to not let it show too much because I’m somewhat superstitious about pre-race behavior. Jay and Oscar displayed no such odd behavior although Oscar did prove to have some odd bicycle preparation process that involved “micro-fiber.” We don’t need to elaborate but it required a single-purpose trip to Wal Mart.
After about three hours of travel we arrived at Hotel 1, which will remain nameless to rob them of any potential exposure that they might gain from being featured on our blog. Hotel 1 was a terrible place that valued employee disempowerment and underhanded charging techniques. We didn’t stay at Hotel 1. We used the author’s supreme reservation-making skills to reserve three rooms at the Paradise Inn up the street. Three rooms seems excessive. Three-room reservations happen when the concierge and the caller have a misunderstanding over room number versus bed number. Despite the way our kits look from a distance, Team Sky we are not so we opted for only two rooms. Oscar drew for the single because “he has kids” while Jay and I doubled up in the king size.
Sleeping was great although I was nervous and I thought about the marathon a lot. At that moment the bike race seemed potentially harder.The next morning we chose one of three cafe options in Bennington and the result was positive. This race report wouldn’t conform to RSC lifestyle without a report on food or coffee. We had fresh muffins and the coffee was quite good as well. I mistakenly ate a little too much, continueing to stuff myself on the way to the race where we parked in a large grass lot. Oscar was getting amped up and wanted to park in his own custom spot. We talked him down.
We nearly missed getting our numbers. Battenkill sends about 50 emails to racers after they register. It is a superbly organized race. I’m sure somewhere in 50 gigs of emails from them there was instruction on how to reach the registration tent but I chose instead of reading them to ask everyone I passed on the tent’s whereabouts and made it with almost zero-minutes before cutoff. It reminded me of some car races I’d done, untold preparation only to be marred by the final moments. Jay and Oscar were definitely in the red zone arriving after the A-wave registration notebook had walked away with an official after they stated “time’s up.” Luckily we were in the B wave. Next year we need to spend less time discussing tin roof architecture over coffee.
The race started in a fairly unremarkable way. No crashes and controlled by a pace car. I was trying to feel my legs out and look around for people who were smiling. For some reason I think that people in a good mood feel positive about having a good performance. Some guy rode off the front for 5 minutes and was gravitationally sucked back into pack-orbit, never to be seen again. There was a second cat 3 group 10 minutes up the road. We were started in waves. Each Cat 3 pack had about 150 riders. Somehow I ended up in 3rd wheel going onto the dirt for the first time. I was happy about that because I didn’t want to get caught up in a crash for whatever reason. Jay and Oscar were nearby. We kept to the front 1/3rd from what I could tell. The first dirt climb onto Robertson road was short but very steep. So steep that people found it necessary to drop their chains in protest. This wasted a lot of energy and happened more later. Some bikes in the race were in terrible disrepair. Having never seen the course I can’t recall what-happened-where exactly and aside from seeing about a hundred beautiful antique barns only several points on the course became ingrained into my memory.
Without becoming too specific on road names and elevation changes we transitioned many times from tarmac to hard packed dirt and even sometimes muddy sections. The first few transitions were the most tenuous because I had no idea who could handle their bikes on mixed surfaces. Luckily most people had no problem. The dirt roads were laden with smooth radiused divots and most people didn’t take care to look far ahead causing a phenomenon of riders hitting a single bump in succession because the first guy either failed to look or failed to point it out.
Notable points of difficulty were Mountain road and Meetinghouse Road, both very steep dirt climbs that took a rider out of their rhythm, slowing them to a pace that made pushing pedals feel more like lifting weights. On to the team of three- our first road race of the year and we didn’t do too much discussion on tactics. Jay wasn’t feeling well, a week of bad rest, new equipment and a course which he claims didn’t suit him. He said later that he never got comfortable on the bike, pressing to the front early to test his legs he decided that it would be in his best interest if he withdrew early. Oscar had a similar feeling although not to the point of withdrawing he finished in 3 hours 11 minutes. During the race Oscar and I talked a bit. It was apparent that he also wasn’t comfortable. At mile 29 he said that he “finally felt warmed up.” I remember that because I asked him if I should jettison my nearly finished water bottle. He laughed and said “no” because he judged my remaining water against the remaining distance. With about 20k to go I ran out of water and my left leg began to cramp. It would have been sooner if I didn’t save those extra sips. Thanks Oscar.
The last leg after Meetinghouse road was by far the most interesting and could probably be a case study for riding etiquette. What I’m suggesting is that I’m not sure what I did was right or not. During the race part of our wave, the B wave caught and passed the A wave that started 10 minutes before us. The marshalls neutralized the A wave as we passed, then later there was a break from the A wave that re-caught us at mile 50 or so. Adding to this confusion there were riders from the elite fields who had been dropped falling by the wayside. Riders were everywhere and it was difficult to tell where one was positioned in the final miles. With 2k to go (I used the signs) I got into a very aggressive paceline of about 10 guys. They were from the A field which either meant I was 10 minutes ahead of them or that they were beating me because they started before me. I’m not sure. We were going nearly max and I was nursing my cramping left leg by pedaling harder with my right. I wanted to ride with purpose and take meaningful pulls but with only 2k to go I didn’t really give any regard to those who might not be able to hang on. “Slow down! Pull off!”- someone yelled at me. I yelled back, “there’s 2k to go!” There’s no time to wait, plus there was no one behind us, only in front. As it turned out there was actually only 500m to go and these guys were (in my opinion) being lazy, or cunning.. or confused. [I was clearly confused also Ed.] With about 100m to go 4 guys pulled into a sprint and I had nothing left. Somehow I out pedaled a final rider although I’m not even sure he was in my wave. 2:55 and 37th place. I was a minute off the leader. I was really happy with my finish despite the placement.
By the numbers we were 3 guys that used 5 microfiber towels for 3 bikes in 4 reserved hotel rooms. We drove 6 hours to ride for half of that. We probably laughed 700 times though which By the numbers we got quality and quantity. I think that the next stop for us is Blue Hills.