Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Tour of the Battenkill - 2014

The Battenkill  (a ""kill" means a creek) is a 59.4 mile tributary of the Hudson River. Known for its fishing, it runs from Vermont into New York state. It's probably the covered bridge which crosses the Battenkill that is most identifiable in this 10 year old annual Spring road race that has quickly become a "classic" for North American amateur bike racers. The race is known as The Tour of the Battenkill. But whereas most of the 2200 participants rode the Tour of the Battenkill Road Race, I seemed somehow to have been teleported to some parallel universe that featured the Tour of the BattenHELL. This is my story of that parallel experience.

Shortly after 9:30 AM on a cold Spring morning, along with roughly 70 other Men's 50+ racers (of the 103 who had registered) I lined up behind the start line. Judging by the flags hanging limp on their poles there was no wind as of yet but with forecasted westerly winds of 17-24 mph gusting to 44 mph, I expected that to change. I found a spot near the front not far back from the green kits of 3 Team Keltic riders I recognized from my Coupes Des Ameriques debut last year. William Thompson, of Team Keltic, had done quite well at last year's Coupe Des Ameriques and was registered for this race along with at least 4 team mates; I expected the team to figure prominently in the race. My race strategy hinged on staying close to the wheels of Team Keltic. And so, armed with my race strategy, at promptly 9:38 AM, my epic "Battenhell" began.

My travelling companions, Joe and Phill, preparing for the race.

Officially, the neutral zone was 1 km but unofficially the first 10 km was for the most part neutral. The road along here was wide and paved with paved shoulders half as wide as the road itself. It should have been easy for me to stay near the front but I found myself drifting gradually towards the back of the peleton along this section. There's a degree of aggressiveness required to defend one's position near the front that was missing from my arsenal. And so it was that as we passed under the covered bridge at about the 10 km mark, I found myself towards the back of the peleton. Upon emerging from the far side of the covered bridge, it was game on.

I had trained hard over the Winter and felt confident going into this race. I was stronger than last year where I had a pretty decent finish placing 15th in my race with a time that would have won the Men's 50+ race that year. Thus, I had expectations of doing well in this year's Men's 50+ race. But as we raced over the soft dirt surface I found myself having to dig harder than expected just to stay with the pack. This wasn't supposed to be happening.

I also wasn't anywhere near the front which is where I should have been at this point in the race. Juniper Swamp Road, with the steepest and toughest climb to get over, was approaching quickly. I needed to be near the front for the start of that climb. But as previously mentioned, I was lacking in aggression on this day. I didn't feel quite ready to "mix it up" in the pack and rode somewhat tentatively. So, here I was close to the back and it was getting hillier. I clicked my left lever to drop into the small chain-ring. Nothing! I flicked both levers back and forth several times but still nothing. Crap! Doing Juniper Swamp Road in the big-ring was out of the question. I unclipped and kicked at the front derrailleur with the heel of my shoe. Clipping back in, I turned the pedals and the chain to shift over to the small chain-ring. "Phew, dodged a bullet there," I thought. I buckled down to catch back onto the back of the peleton.

The start of Juniper Swamp Road was fairly gentle but I could see up ahead where the road kicked up. The front riders were just about there already with the rest of the pack strung out in a long line. I was at the back. Damn! The peleton bunched up as we hit the climb. The yellow line rule was not going to be obeyed along this stretch of road. The full width of the road was required. The road surface here was terrible. It wasn't just the ruts in the road. Like quicksand, the dirt seemed to want to suck your wheels into the sludge. The thing to do was to keep pedaling because the slower you went the worse it got. About halfway up the climb, the entire road ahead became blocked with stuck riders spanning the full width of the road. It was mayhem, there was nowhere to go! Just as I was about to unclip a space opened up to my right. I kept pedaling, barely making it through the deep ruts onto the comparatively harder surface beyond. Up ahead, the rest of the pack was pulling away. I dug deep, past riders who were pushing their bikes, and finished the climb a short ways off the back but close enough to be able to get back on.

"Phew," I thought, "dodged another bullet there. I clicked the lever to shift into the big-ring. Nothing! "Wtf!!!" I reached under the down-tube to try and pull on the cable but my lobster claw gloves were useless to the task. Shifting into the smallest cog, I pedaled furiously to try and close the gap. But no amount of spinning could make up for losing the big-ring. I could do nothing as the peleton pulled away on the long descent.

Coasting down the descent, I tugging off my lobster claw gloves and was able to get enough of a grip on the cable under my down-tube to shift the chain back onto the big-ring. The peleton was still in sight so there was still hope. I went into time-trial mode in a vain attempt to try and catch them single handed. In actual fact, my effort was closer to VO2 Max than TT effort not sustainable for too long. However, as I barrelled along about as fast as I could pedal, I was passed by a Cat 3 rider from the race after mine (The Cat 3 race had race numbers in the 400's).

Since this was the first Cat 3 rider I'd seen I assumed he must be off the front in a solo break-away. Whatever the case, he was very strong and I jumped on his wheel. Being in the draft of this stronger rider didn't provide me much recovery. To make matters worse, I couldn't stay behind him indefinitely and at some point had to pull through to show him I was willing to work. For 2 or 3 km, I was able to hang on but it was getting tougher. But then we picked up another Cat 3 rider followed shortly by a rider from my own race. We now had a working group of 4 but instead of making it easier the pace picked up and I found it even tougher to hang on. Eventually, the pace riders proved to be too much; I was barely hanging on. With every pore of my being screamed at me to stop pushing, I gave in and pulled out of the rotation. I was gassed with absolutely nothing left with 3/4 of the race still to go. I pulled over to work on my front derailleur.

The support vehicle for the Men's 50+ race was already ahead of me but fortunately a neutral support vehicle pulled up just as I pulled off. This was fortunate. The mechanic was able to get my front derailleur working again by spraying it with water from both the top and bottom. It seemed that grit had gotten into the channel in the frame where the cable came through and spraying it with water cleared out enough of the grit that it started working again. I was back in business albeit with much less enthusiasm and confidence than what I started the race with.

The thing about the Tour of the Battenkill race is that even when you're off the back by yourself, you're never really alone. On the Saturday alone, 27 separate races were being run on the same course. It didn't take long before I had picked up a bunch of stragglers and had a working group of four. But such was my luck that it also didn't take me long to squander my opportunity. At the next turn onto pavement, a patch of gravel took away my traction and I ended up "in the rhubarb" as the saying goes. My companions cruised on down the road as I put my chain back on from the shelter of a decaying corn field.

While riding solo for the next 10 km or so, at least two groups passed me. The first group to pass was the Cat 3 race which had started 8 minutes after my race. The next group to pass was the huge group Men's 4B 40+ race which started 24 after my mine. I could have (and perhaps should have) hooked onto the back of this huge pack which would have made my race a lot easier but it didn't seem right. So I kept to the right and let them pass by. This was such a huge group it took a couple of kilometers for them just to get by. I soldiered on solo, somewhat dejected at having been already passed by at least 2 peletons with only a third of the race done so far. To add to my misery, the wind was starting to pick up.

Over the next 10-15 km, I passed a number of stragglers who didn't seem much interested or perhaps were not able to work with me. At about the halfway mark I spotted a rider in the distance who took awhile to reel in. But just I reached the Cat 3 rider, we hit a particularly bad section which seemed to slow me down much more than him and I had to reel him in all over again. But after reaching pavement together we began automatically trading pulls. This allowed me to stretch my aching lower back a bit and provided some much welcome relief to my overworked thighs. We rode in silence together for several kilometers until at some point he asked me how far we had to go. I was shocked not by his question but by how young he looked. Such was my mood that I hadn't even bothered to glance in his direction as we traded pulls but as I looked at him now he appeared to be not much older than about 16 and sounded as young as he looked. I replied that I didn't exactly know how far we had yet to go but that we hadn't yet reached the second feed zone which was at mile 42 (of 65).

A short while later, another Cat 3 rider went by with another rider from my own race stuck to his wheel. My young companion and I fell in behind them. Like the earlier Cat 3 rider, this rider was also very strong and just as I was beginning to think he didn't want any help, he sat up and pulled slightly to the left. Instead of pulling through, the other 50+ rider also sat up. The youngster ahead of me cut across my front wheel in an attempt to get around the two slower riders ahead of him. I went down! Hard!

To his credit, the young kid came back to make sure I was ok. In fact, I had to tell him several times that I was ok. He was very hesitant to leave. I felt almost bad for him as he looked devastated that he had caused me to go down even though I don't think it was his fault. But, reluctantly, he went on his way leaving me to straighten my handlebars and brake lever and make my way at my own pace. A few hundred meters down the road, I stopped to bend my rear derailleur into a semi-respectable position. Halfway up the next climb I discovered I wasn't properly clipped in and it took me until the next paved section before I could stamp my cleat on hard pavement to shake loose the grit in my cleat before I could once again clip in.

For the next 10 km or so, I pressed on alone. For a long while I could hear a couple of riders behind me. One of them in particular was quite a chatterbox. But by now I had not much interest in working with anyone. I was in my own zone, pushing the pedals against the wind and was semi-comfortable with that. But shortly before the second feed zone, the two finally caught up to me so I worked with them and as it turned out that was nice because once again it provided much needed relief for my lower back. I was ok riding on the hoods but as soon as I dropped into the drops my back started hurting. The problem was that the wind had picked up so much so that riding in the drops was essential when riding solo. Thus, my new riding companions allowed me to ride on the hoods and relieve my lower back.

At about the 73 km mark, we hit Herrington Hill Road which was part of the new section of the course. The climb started out steep then levelled off a bit not quite as steep but long. I lost my riding companions here. I wasn't even pushing it on the climb but the chatty one was unable to keep up and the other guy was just plain struggling. I got back into my zone and pressed on. The view from the top of Herrington Hill Road was astounding so I took the time to stop and take a photograph.

The view from the top of Herrington Hill Road. My photograph doesn't do the view justice.

From here to the finish, the course was either going up or down much of it on gravel which proved to be more a blessing than a hindrance as it afforded me some opportunities to stretch out my aching lower back. I also seemed to pick up a second wind along this stretch because the kilometers seemed to start going by much quicker. The Men's 4B 40+ peleton passed me somwhere around kilometer 79. Other than that I was but a single rider amongst a long line of stragglers. But unlike many of the others I passed, I actually started to enjoy the ride somewhat. Ok. so maybe "enjoy" is a tad over-stating it but it was certainly less painful than previously.

Just one in a long line of stragglers.

From Meeting House Road to the finish, I pressed on mostly alone. For a short time I worked with a small small group of 4 but that group disintegrated on the final climb up Stage Road. On the descent from Stage Road, I again picked up a couple of guys, including one from my own Men's 50+ race, but it was still me pretty much me doing most of the pulling. The guy from my own race didn't take a single pull. Finally, there was 5 km painted on the pavement. Then 4 km to go. I kept pedaling. Three km to go then two and then finally we were into the last kilometer. We turned onto the finishing stretch and my two riding companions sprinted for the line, including the guy who hadn't taken a single pull. I didn't expect anything less. I was happy just to cross the line, 50th of 64 starters, 47:44 behind the winner.

Tour of the Battenkill 2014, done and dusted.