To be successful at Battenkill requires three things. Superior fitness race experience and lady luck on your side. I realize that this is an over simplification and it may sound like I am stating the obvious but there is nothing like seeing this for ones own selfness to give you that true understanding.
Photo Credit: Jennifer Harvey
I came into the 2013 version of the Tour of Battenkill in excellent condition (relative to me) I also had more race experience and some expert instruction from some of the best local racers that I have come to know.
Bike racing on the road boils down to a few simple facts. You have the main field or peleton, a break away of one or more riders and those that are “dropped” and left behind as the race goes up the road. There are so many key areas of the Battenkill course where the attacks can happen. Much of which happens within the first 15 miles of the race. It is these key areas that will make or break your chances for success. Once you are dropped it is extremely difficult to make contact with the main field again. Especially at Battenkill where the course is so difficult.
Prior to this years race I was able to participate in a preview ride hosted by Ric at VeloWatts and Andy Ruiz both USAC cycling coaches. In Andy’s case he is an very successful local racer and Battenkill veteran. Both Ric and Andy are highly qualified coaches and I was thankful to have their expert instruction. The preview ride consisted of a classroom session where an overview of the course was presented along with a discussion about race tactics. As we reviewed the course we learned about the areas that presented the best opportunity to attack and the places to be cautious. The one big take away for me is knowing when you needed to try to get to the front of the main field. Now mind you in last years race I was struggling just to hang onto the back of the peleton. In fact I became detached so quickly that I had to suffer alone for a good part of the race. The thought of me getting to the front was just not something that I couldn’t comprehend.
The VeloWatts experience really did a lot to broaden my understanding of race tactics. I also had raced the weekend before at the Trooper Brinkerhoff race in Coxsackie, NY. Going into the Battenkill I had the goal of making some small improvements over last years results with the specific goal of staying in the main field at least until the Juniper Swamp climb. From there I was hoping to form a small group of riders that I could work with to get to the finish line with. Above all else I was hoping that I didn’t have to suffer alone.
Racing this year was different. I felt very calm cool and collected. I had developed a relationship with a few of the riders in my field and felt like I belonged. This was a stark contrast from my experience last year. As the race started I positioned myself towards the front of the peleton and just tried to stay relaxed. Almost immediately within the first kilometer of the race somebody launched a solo attack. Thankfully the peleton did not react (everybody knew it wouldn’t stick) and the pace remained reasonable. The solo attacker was left to his own devices to burn matches as he wished.
The first key area is the Eagleville covered bridge. The common advice for the bridge is that you want to get to the front and be within the first 10 to 15 riders. The bridge is narrow, has a wooden floor which can become slick if it is wet. After the bridge there is a sharp right hand turn. If you are in the back you are in danger of getting caught in a crash. Being in the front allows you to roll through the turn with far less effort. If you are in the back you have to brake through the turn and then you have to work extra hard to try to maintain contact with the field. This wastes energy which is something that you want to avoid as much as possible.
The land mark that I used to start moving up was the Battenkill canoe/kayak rental place on route 313. The road has a slight uphill in this section so there is a small chance that you can get dropped here if you don’t accelerate. In fact this is what did me in last year. As I started to move up the speed of the peleton picked up substantially. We made the left turn on Eagleville Rd and I was positioned pretty well. I was towards the front within the first 15 riders or so. Eagleville road is pretty narrow and a little bumpy. A full water bottle from another rider came out of it’s cage and skidded across the road in front of me. Phew….first disaster avoided.
The next key segment is Roberson Rd also the first dirt section of the course. While not very technical the road narrows and the peleton tends to get stretched out here. Again good idea to try to stay towards the front. I came through this stretch with the bunch and without any issues. The first major test of the entire race is coming next.
Perry Hill Rd is the first steep climb. It’s on pavement but it’s a tough one. At the base of the climb I moved up and gave it an effort of a lifetime just to stay in touch with the field. The aforementioned suicide attacker from the first kilometer of the race had been swept up at Perry Hill. The guys at the front of the race hit full gas as they went up and over and started the descent. I crested the climb and pedaled as hard as I could just to stay close. This effort hurt so much that I thought my heart was going to explode out of my chest. Mission accomplished my first major goal had been met
At the bottom of the descent of Perry Hill is the extremely sharp left hand turn onto Juniper Swamp road. Another major dirt section and another major climb. That left hand turn is also a great place to attack. And attack they did. At this point I was still trying to recover from the Perry Hill climb so my heart rate was elevated and I was sucking wind. I had to break pretty hard to make the turn and avoid the heavy gravel. After the turn the road turns to dirt and begins to climb. This is where the wheels started to come off for me. Everybody was attacking and I was working hard to try to hang on. Much to my dismay the beastly climb of Juniper Swamp was about to begin in earnest and I was getting shelled out the back. Made the right turn and stated the steep climb.
The carnage on Juniper Swamp Road
Photo Credit: Jennifer Harvey
They say a picture is worth a thousand words. I love this picture because it tells so much of what was happening at that very moment right there on Juniper Swamp road. Utter chaos ensued as the race begins to be blown apart. What you are looking at is the damage being done to whats left of the main field. Of course the picture looks like a flat road but trust me it’s not. This is one steep section! The rider in the orange and white in the back ground behind the cars was hunched over his bike about to throw up at the base of the climb when I passed him. As you can see he is having to zig zag back and forth just to keep his momentum. The rider on the left side of the picture gave up and started walking. The rider standing in the black and orange is at the very steepest incline. Looking at me in the red all the way to the right of the picture I look calm and relaxed. The rider in front of me in the red vest is a local rider that I know and have mad respect for. This guy is a very strong rider so seeing him in front of me was a boost for my confidence. Sadly after the climb peaked that was the last I would see of him. Juniper Swamp also has a fairly long dirt road descent. You have to be fearless and willing to let your brakes go. While I did my best to bomb the descent things began to slip away. I would now have to look for riders to form a group with to get to the finish line.
In the aftermath of Juniper Swamp I began looking around to see who I could work with. I guy came up behind me who had survived a crash on the last descent. I asked him if he would work with me. He said yes but I couldn’t hold his wheel. I was solo through Rich road and found my way on to the next paved section of route 64. This is a great place to eat and drink which I did. I looked behind me and a group of two riders came up. They asked if I wanted to jump on and I was happy to oblige. I quickly recognized one of the riders as our solo attacker from the first kilometer of the race. He was a big guy and a strong powerful rider. A great person to draft behind. Our group of three was solid.
Photo Credit: Jennifer Harvey
At this point of the race I knew that I didn’t have any other goal within reach other than to simply finish the race and not finish it alone. I asked my two new companions if they where interested in working to get to the end and they readily agreed. We worked together rotating turns at the front with perfect harmony. As we approached Joe Bean I asked one of the guys if he was a good climber. He replied, “not really” so off I went. I had no desire to drop my companions but I wanted to give Joe Bean a solid effort so I pushed the pace a bit and quickly found myself off the front. I decided to ease off the gas a bit and wait to regroup. I was feeling good but I wasn’t going to do anything foolish.
As we approached the base of the very challenging dirt climb on Mountain Road we were now at mile 40 and my group was still working together and still intact. We came across a guy from NJ who looked like he was on his death bed. We invited him to jump on and he did his best to hold our wheels. After a little yo-yoing off the back we now had a fourth. This guy was so appreciative that we helped him he would do anything to work with us. We now where approaching the base of Meeting House Road.
On Meeting House I was now playing the role of coach. I was telling these guys just to relax and try not to blow ourselves up. If we could get over this climb only Stage Road remained. Up the paved side and down the steep descent. In front of me was that short steep pitch that can break the heart of any rider. It is not uncommon to see people walking this stretch. Not me, not this time I wasn’t going to let that happen for anything. As we came over the pitch the group of four riders remained intact. As we made the turn on Meeting House to begin the paved descent I saw a familiar face in Kevin Crossman, a local endurance athlete and coach, we exchanged pleasantries and he gave me a few words of encouragement that really lifted my spirits. It’s amazing how seeing a familiar face and hearing a few words of encouragement can really motivate you. I was ready for Stage Road and I was ready to be done with this race.
Stage Road is the last final dirt road climb and it’s a real bitch. The combination of the climbs length the sketchy surface and tired legs makes it a suitable final test of ones will. I was still feeling good but not great. I knew at this point I was going to finish so I may as well go for a Strava PR. I turned up the pressure on my companions. I still wasn’t thinking that I could drop them. I honestly remained committed to working together all the way to the end. As I looked back to see if I had done any damage I realized that we were down to three riders again. The casualty wasn’t the zombie like figure we found on Mountain Road instead it was one of my original surviving companions. We were about to descend to South Union St and the final few kilometers. I wasn’t going to slow down now.
On the run in to the finish we picked up more riders. They came up from behind us and said they were in another field. Technically they aren’t supposed to work with us but most people that fall off the back do it anyway. We had a group of five now and we where hammering to the finish. I had so much more strength then I had last year but I could feel my legs starting to give out. After a few rotations through the pace line a small gap formed between me and the four other riders. I was alone.
The final turn was in front of me and so was the final 500 meters. My sprint finish was about to begin. The only problem is that I was sprinting against myself. My two remaining companions had finished just 14 seconds ahead of me. My official time was 3 hrs 55 mins and 14 seconds. Sub 4 hours! Last year I finished at 4 hours 8 mins. A full 3 minutes after the prior group on the road in front of me.
Small improvements is what I was after and that is exactly what I got. Although I have lots of room for improvement I was very satisfied with my performance this year. It was so much more enjoyable to have a group to work with as opposed to suffering alone. Next year maybe I’ll shoot for a podium!