This is my 12th consecutive season racing a bike. I’ve struggled to balance racing with high school, Princeton, and then Boo. I’ve crashed, been dropped, gotten sick, overtrained, burned out, disenchanted…but I’m still racing. Why? Races like the Tour of the Battenkill.
This is one epic son of a bitch. It is a true Spring Classic: 200km, gnarly gravel sections, steep leg-breaking climbs, and 160 of some of the best racers in the world. It can tear apart the dreams of even those riders with the best legs in the race, through flats and crashes and bad luck on the gravel.
It’s this kind of epic, brutal, glorious, beautiful event that keeps me and many others with whom I’ve raced for years coming back time and again, training through those horrible winter conditions in the mountains, salivating for the one day in April when they are truly put to the test.
I’ve been racing for a few weeks now, from San Dimas and Redlands in California to Boulder Roubaix and a local criterium in Colorado’s Front Range. I’ve done many long rides throughout the winter, lots of hours of skate skiing and trail running, and the legs have been getting better and better…and my motivation has peaked for April 15th. I raced with the Pure Energy Cycling/ProAirHFA team out of Lambertville, New Jersey, owned by a good friend and customer AND dealer of mine, Arounkone Sananikone. While a small elite team, we were well supported and ready to rock…and as anyone who’s raced Battenkill knows, it’s not about numbers, it’s about legs and luck.
I call this post BattleKill for a reason–this race truly is a battle, with other racers and with the elements and with your own soul. It will make you crawl into a deep dark place within yourself, The Pain Cave, and cry quietly as you suffer….and continue to suffer. It will test the fiber of your being. The second half, the “Kill” portion, is because it’s about Kill Or Be Killed. You take this race by the balls, or it takes you by yours. You cannot race defensively, you’ll be out of position and caught out when the winning move goes. You cannot sit in, there really is no way. You must ride at the front, like the European Classics, and avoid crashes and injuries and dropped riders like the plague. You must Battle and you must Kill.
This race is 200km. At our speed, that means five hours and no change. That means you must be calm and collected at all times, but ready to pounce when the move goes or strike when the opportunity arrises. It’s a difficult game of conservation and aggression that is played at the highest level, amongst winners of the biggest events in the world, without discussion or hesitation–things can be decided within any five of the 18,000 seconds in the race, and it’s your job to anticipate those five seconds and be ready without wasting energy, both physical and mental.
This race takes apart your bike, piece by piece. There are riders dropping like flies with flats and mechanicals, dropped chains and broken shifters and snapped cables and split saddles. They are getting off their bikes in the middle of a nondescript gravel road in the middle of upstate New York strewn with baby head cobblestones and cow manure. The races goes on, leaving them to chase valiantly in dust of the madly swerving team vehicles. The course does not discriminate, all racers are subject to the same outrageous conditions that test man and machine, that rip open tire sidewalls like chewing gum wrappers. To win this race can define a career.
So I toed the start line with confidence: I’ve done it four times before and I’ve got fantastic legs and a Boo that’s up to the task with special Enve SMART wheels and fat Challenge Paris Roubaix 27c tubulars. I’ve put things to the test in Boulder Roubaix and the Battenkill Pro-Am warm-up race the day before. I’ve broken things and found what really works when it’s crunch time. I know the course, I’ve seen how the race plays out in everything from high-80s and sun to low-40s and pouring rain. I’ve raced with every single rider in the peloton, many of them for a number of years. I know who’s been riding well, who gets extra motivated for this event, and who has a nose for the winning move. I’ve been on the East Coast in Philly for a number of wonderful, relaxed days before the Big Show.
In short, I’ve dotted as many i’s and crossed as many t’s as possible.
With the confidence comes a realistic set of expectations. I know the guys are world class, but I can pedal my bike pretty well too…but I also know that legs are just half the battle. Luck, which is somewhat connected to the legs, is the other half. Good legs help you ride in the front more easily, avoiding crashes and hold-ups with greater certainty….but it’s just a game of increasing your odds. There’s still a chance things can go haywire.
And haywire they did.
The race began with a ripping first lap. There was about 15km of “easy” riding in the entire first 100km lap. Yes, that’s right, two laps of a 100km course. Well, I was sitting pretty 80km into the lap. I’d avoided more crashes and flats than I could count. I actually thought it would be fun to count these for this post, but I actually lost count after 23. The first lap presents numerous opportunities to lose the race, either through nervous energy wasted or through actual serious crashes or chasing back on after flats and mechanicals. And I’d avoided all of these perfectly. I was racing with a smile, well fed and hydrated and warmed up and ready to rock the second lap, when the race really counts.
Until I had to get off my bike and run.
A very very fast section of rolling gravel road, with some extremely deep sandy sections, comes along 75km into the lap. I was too far back, confident that my legs would save me if anything happened and I needed to bridge a split in the field, and also overly satisfied with the energy I was saving just rolling along in the excellent draft of the 60 or so guys in front of me.
I paid for it when an incredibly deep sandy hill caused a compression within the field. Some guys crossed wheels and crashed at slow speed…right in the middle of the road. We all rode into the sides and some into the ditch, but it was even deeper there and unridable. I was following Karl Menzies, who was shouting some impressive expletives in his thick Tasmanian accent, and we both got off our bikes and ran for a solid 20 feet in our carbon non-treaded road shoes, along with about 40 other guys.
The small split in the field this caused was significant, because the last 20km of this race are brutally hard. Steep hills, some of the most treacherous gravel sections in the entire course, and a very motivated front group that was in the process of ripping the field apart and setting up what would be the winning breakaway of 10 or so of the best riders in the field.
I chased and chased and chased through the caravan cars, along with Menzies who I knew would 1) be an incredibly strong engine, and 2) receive some great help (read: motorpacing at 45mph) from the United HealthCare team car. And so it went. We were moving up and actually CAUGHT the front group at the base of the notoriously hard Stage Road gravel climb. I hung just off the back, with legs that had been seriously zapped during the course of our chase, hoping to stay within myself and within the caravan to have a nice motor-assisted ride back into the field on the final 5km of tarmac leading into the end of the lap.
The problem was the race tactics at that point: Optum Health (formerly Kelly Benefits) was ripping the peloton a new one. And when Karl dug deep and jumped on the last gravel kicker before some ripping tarmac descending, I just thought it best to save a match and stay steady and ride in the cars. Well, the match I saved there was easily set ablaze, along with my entire matchbook, on the ensuring FIFTY KILOMETER CHASE the resulted.
I ended up riding with a group of 12, including many of my good friends on the Juwi Solar team, but our chase’s motivation waxed and waned numerous times as the team vehicles passed, the ambulance passed, the broom wagons passed, and finally we were on open road, outside the “envelope” of the race’s rolling enclosure. At that point, it’s usually wise to pack it in and live to fight another day. But I KNEW all the group had to do was sit up for five minutes and we could catch them, it was just a matter of staying on the gas and staying motivated.
So I shouted my share of expletives and did twice my share of pulling, but at a certain point we had all resigned ourselves to just rolling around the course and finishing somehow. Now, this is the part of the race where I was literally thinking about what to write in this post, because this is the part where all the demons start talking to you. You think, “I don’t need this, the race is over, my teammates have all been taken out by flats and mechanicals and crashes and bad legs.” and “We’re never ever going to catch the group, and this wasted energy is for naught.” and “I can’t believe my bad luck and the stupid assholes who can’t ride in deep gravel and caused this mess for me.” But then, the angels say, “You can’t quit as long as there are other guys in your group racing.” and “You are the only person you can blame for your poor positioning and bad luck.” and “If you keep fighting, at best you’ll be back in the race, and at worst you’ll have good training and no regrets.”
I listened to the angels. I decided this was the point in my race when I had to Battle and not be Killed.
Then, out of nowhere, we saw a greatly diminished peloton with its glorious race caravan in tow!
We couldn’t believe our eyes, like Columbus striking America, it was an incredible feeling to be back in the race! After a total of 80km of chasing, I got back into the mix, related my epic story to some buddies in the field who had epic stories of their own, and resumed my role as a bike racer.
I then took stock of myself. I had great legs and had ridden a great first 80km. But then I’d been an idiot and had some bad luck mixed in and had a very hard, draining second 80km. Now there were 40km left in the race, and we were racing for 12th place after 11 of the best guys in the race had gone many minutes up the road. Things were very slow and I was able to eat and drink a lot, but I knew the race for 12th would be HOT and would likely start when things hit the fan on the first lap: with 25km to go.
And so they did. And so I got off my bike and had to carry it in the SAME PLACE as on the first lap! This time it wasn’t out of stupidity or laziness, it was simply a result of zapped legs from chasing and from the tole taken by 175km of hard bike racing.
This time, however, I was prepared and quickly got off and ran with my bike and re-mounted cyclocross-style and was just 20m off the back of the group…no problem to chase back on during the sketchiest gravel descent of the entire course, 23km from the finish. I was passed by three cars: Comm 1, Mavic, and a VIP car. On the descent, I easily passed the VIP and Mavic cars, rolling at about 40mph to their 35mph on the baby-head festooned, snakelike gravel road.
Things went pear-shaped when I was rolling up to Comm 1. I was on the far left of the road, in the proper position to pass, on a left-hand turn. I was doing my job, but unfortunately Comm 1 wasn’t. They started drifting left, and then really far left, and I was fully committed. There’s no braking on this section. I was at the limit of turning, hanging it all out on some of the gnarliest of gnarly gravel. And the driver continued moving left.
My tiny passing lane eventually disappeared, only after I’d come in front of Comm 1’s rear bumper. I leaned the handlebars even further left, extending my upper-body right, in an effort to move my bike enough to squeeze through…but it wasn’t enough. My right brake lever clipped Comm 1’s driver’s side mirror and I pitched a yard sale. Flipped over the bars onto my back at 40mph, rolling and landing with my knee into a bunch of cobblestones, and then continuing to roll into a bunch of thorn bushes, eventually landing upright and standing on my feet, thoroughly shaken.
At that point, game over, thanks for playing, and don’t let the door smack you in your ass on the way out. All I could do was sit there in the ditch, like so many racers from so many Spring Classics, with my head in the hands, a broken man trying to comprehend that all the suffering was only to post a DNF. Medics and drivers and the team all came scrambling to help me, but nothing could assuage the disappointment and frustration. The physical pain was of no consequence, the mental pain could only be cured by time and hard alcohol.
BattleKill took its pound of flesh from many a bike racer today, and each and every one has war stories no matter their placing or lack thereof. My story, while unique, is not uncommon. The Battle is glorious and while most are Killed, having the opportunity to Kill is what keeps us coming back to races like these. Find me a racer whose heart rate doesn’t elevate, whose adrenaline doesn’t flow, when thinking of or discussing the Tour of Battenkill and I’ll find you one who’s truly over it.
Well I’m obviously not over it, and I’m already plotting my return in 2013.