Battenkill 2014 Race Report - Oliver
April 8, 2014
At the Start Line
Several months of a harsh winter and steady night rain prior to the Saturday race made the dirt sections of the course soft and squishy. The dirt roads were muddy, rutted and torn up with tires from the previous groups that went out earlier than our 10:02 start. 101 racers in our group. As I rolled to the back of the start line I spotted the yellow team helmets about half way up the pack of standing riders; Paul, Brett and Joe. I had to do ‘number 1’ again, within 2 minutes of the start and so I walked by the announcer to get to the porta potty for a quick ‘session’. As I walked out, he busted my chops over the microphone and I got a chuckle out of it. It eased some pre-race jitters. Shortly after the race got started, I heard Greg’s voice. Five of us. That’s a good start to a hard race and I felt a sense of comfort, albeit a short lived one. A fleeting moment of solace because regardless of who showed up on our team, we’d all suffer the 3+ hours of racing individually. The one mile neutral start felt like five miles as the pace didn’t pick up until about mile 5.5 into the race, at the short but fast, surging approach into the covered bridge. The pack surges on this short, gritty road section as riders try to be among the first to enter the unlit bridge and exit the other side safely. I moved up towards the front of the pack over the course of the first 5.5 miles leading to the bridge and was able to safely cross it in roughly 5th place. Get across the bridge safely at the front; check! The first of many check-marks I’d try to complete during the race.
Mile 12: Juniper Swamp Road
The muddy conditions made for a very difficult and slippery climb. I kept myself within the top 15 in order to ‘see’ the lines better but the soft, wet mud made the climbing so difficult that several crashes occurred, one of them taking me down to the mud. But I got up quickly and managed to mount my bike and continue to pedal uphill as I multi-tasked to clip into my pedals. Mud in the cleats made getting back into the pedals very difficult. By now there was a group of about 30 off the front near the top of the hill and a small group frantically chasing. I caught the chase group just before the crest, latched on, coasted a bit to catch my breath. The descent was nearly as frenzied as the climb because the ground conditions were so bad that it was difficult to control the bike, the mud and tire tracks wanted to take control. While it’s thrilling to be fish-tailing at 25mph, I’d rather not do it during a road race! But after some near crashes on the dirt descents throughout the race, I stayed upright. We had an initial chase group of about 25 riders. I had no idea that Paul also bridged-up to the initial chase group as well until he caught me near the bottom of an early descent. I felt a moment of relief to have a teammate in the group with me. But again, that moment was fleeting. I wondered how Brett, Joe and Greg fared up Juniper Swamp road. I was hopeful they’d latch on at some point, perhaps on the fast flat sections with a strong group.
The Chase Group
Paul and I were in the chase group. A couple others and myself tried to get us all to ride a pace line and keep a fast steady pace to catch the breakaway group. But throughout the 46 miles of chasing, we were rarely successful at keeping the pace line going strong. Some did not know what to do, how to ride in a pace line properly. They’d either surge too hard, despite repeated but respectful instructions not to do so or not participate at all, just riding at the back with a group of similar, or perhaps disinterested riders. Only a few of us pulled consistently, including myself and Paul. There were moments in the pack when I felt grateful for our weekend team rides where we could hone our pace-lining skills under the guidance of Alan and Lance. Knowing how to perform the fundamentals of pack riding is such a joy, but frustrating when others either do not know how or are unwilling to participate. Frustratingly, we got to within 50 meters of the lead group just before the first feed zone, roughly mile 25. The group continued to ride erratically until mile 58, the start of the last big climb, Stage road. By then we were whittled down to about 15 riders. We never caught the break. We did manage to catch riders who were dropped by the lead group. Or those who tried to bridge alone, only to be exhausted by strong head and side winds. On some sections the side winds were so strong you had to lean bike and body sideways into the wind in order to stay upright. Even the big, heavier guys! As we absorbed dropped riders into our group, I encouraged them to latch on so that we could have more riders to work with. Perhaps they’d know how to paceline? I don’t know if they were able to hang on.
Mile 26: Joe Bean Road
I was nervous about this 1.2 mile climb. It’s a paved climb that stair-steps, seems to never end. I wondered if my winter training was good enough to allow me to maintain my position near the front of my chase group. But about a third of the way up, I found my climbing fitness was good. I breathed a sigh of relief when I crested the climb without losing position. I was still there, still a player in the chase. Paul was too.
Between Miles 30 to 40
There were some non-descript climbs here. I did not recall these climbs from my pre-ride on the Sunday before the race. I thought to myself that my teammates were cursing me for not including these climbs in my description of the major hills of the race. I had sent out an email describing the difficult climbs of the course. Sorry team! If it makes you feel better, I likely suffered as much as you on these grinders as I too wasn’t expecting them and the chase pace still remained high. We climbed these hard! But I was still there, still a part of the group, which was down to about 20 racers by now. Paul continued to work hard. He too was ‘still there’.
Mile 45: Herrington Hill Road
This new dirt climb for 2014 was probably the steepest. Made up of two steep, long sections and separated by a more gradual segment, what made this climb tough was its place on the course, at mile 45 and after two hours of hard racing. It was a cruel climb, over a mile long and I was still there. So was Paul. Again, I wondered how Brett, Joe and Greg were doing.
Mile 51: Meeting House Road
This is the second to last major climb. They are actually a set of big, seemingly countless rollers. You often see Battenkill marketing materials featuring this set of climbs. My legs burned even more now, but after the first 2 hills in this series I knew I could handle the rest. My focus and high-engagement in the race helped me to overcome any pain I was feeling by now. I felt my mind and will were taking over. For the entire race, I wasn’t just sitting in, feeling pain and thinking it was all I could do just to ‘be here’. A departure from how I typically raced! Working hard, taking pulls, bridging gaps and trying to get us to work together more helped get me to this point, mentally. The body just followed along now. I gapped the group a bit in order to cover a rider who I thought was trying to break away. Again, remaining engaged with the race and doing the ‘hard thing’. We got to the top of the last roller together then waited for the group to catch us, knowing there were some windy flats coming up and that we’d need the group for some protection.
Mile 58: Stage Road (Final Climb)
By mile 57, on the windy flats along the river leading up to the final climb, I knew what I’d attempt to do next. I was sure of it by now because I still felt strong. I was tired, in pain, but still strong and energy level still high. I was still at the front, taking my pulls. I looked for Paul, but I couldn’t spot his yellow helmet in the pack behind me. I wanted my teammate to know my intention of getting away on the final climb. Perhaps he could join me. But at least he should know. I attacked at the bottom of the long dirt climb. Stood up for effect. Lots of stair stepped grinders leading up to a paved section 12 minutes later that had us descend down onto the rolling roads leading into town and the finish line. I was able to catch 3 dropped riders on the climb up. Near the top, as I passed one of them, I told him that we could work together on the flats and I thought I saw him nod in agreement. But at the bottom of the descent, he wasn’t there. My hopes dashed. But that too was fleeting. I put my head down, hands on the drops and eyes straight ahead and pedaled just hard enough to maintain a fast, measured pace. I envisioned Lance yelling at me to get into the drops and pedal hard! It helped. Thanks Lance! I really didn’t care at this point if any from my chase group would catch me. I had a mind to finish the race as hard as I could. If I could do that, I’d be satisfied with my race, my effort, whether or not I was caught. I felt this way until I came up on a dropped rider. With just 3 miles to go, he latched on, I pulled. I pulled off to the left, so did he, remaining behind me. I flicked my elbow right. He remained behind me. I got annoyed, and then amused. Yet another challenge! We came upon another dropped rider, the last I’d catch before crossing the finish line. He latched on. I looked back to see if any from the chase group were approaching, I saw no one. So I slowed the pace. No one came around. By now, we only had about a mile to go. At a small bump of a climb on the road near the Cambridge town limit, I attacked them both, from the front. I had no choice. The chase was on. One racer faded quickly, the other, the ‘annoying one’ made gains on my gap until the final turn into town, with just 250 meters to go. I stood up after making the turn and sprinted, more for visual effect at this point, then sat down to dissipate some burn from my legs. But I knew I had one more sprint in me if I needed it. I didn’t need it, I crossed the line seated, pedaling fast and hard. A couple seconds before my chaser did.
Cliche’ for you: “It’s the process that matters, not the result.” Ahhh, but so true in my experience!
My 13th place finish is nothing to write home about, but it’s my effort and engagement in the race that gave me an intense feeling of satisfaction, of achievement, even to this moment, as I write. It’ll probably last forever, I hope it does. You see, for the first time in my inconsistent, mediocre and often times unsuccessful racing career I decided early on in this very difficult race to work hard on the climbs, to take my pulls, to bridge some gaps and be vocal with my fellow racers about working together at a common goal. Work hard I did. Whether or not I’d have enough energy to stay on during the latter part of the race didn’t matter to me. What mattered most was that I push myself to my perceived limits, even beyond them, to stay in tune with what was going on around me throughout the entire race, to pull even when my legs ached, to bridge gaps even when my legs, neck and back were in agony. Earlier in the race, after over an hour of what I thought was craziness, being totally engaged with the race and throwing caution to the wind on my part, something happened to me that had never before in my bike racing efforts. I began to feel confident, calm and even stronger than in the previous hour where I had pulled countless times and bridged countless gaps. I started to ‘lead myself’ rather than the pack leading me. For the first time I was in control of my emotions, my actions and reactions during a race. My body felt stronger despite the repeated, countless hard efforts. Strangely, I felt pain and tiredness as the race wore on, but yet I became stronger. I felt that I got stronger with each hard effort. How can this be? I continued to race this way for the next two hours, until the end of the race. By the time I had reached Stage Road, I had no doubts about going on a break, a 6 mile solo break from my chase group. My previous efforts throughout the race gave me all the confidence I needed to attempt it.
The Lesson Learned
I have heard Lance on a few occasions talk about pushing yourself in a race, to join a break, initiate a break, bridge a gap. To push your body. Take chances. Now I truly know what he means because I experienced it. Now assuming you’ve been doing some training, when you take these initiatives, something good happens. The body begins to respond to the mind and the will. You’ll actually become more mentally engaged in your race, feel more energized and stronger. You’ll no doubt feel the pain in your body, but it’ll take a back seat to racing smart, hard and aggressive. At the very least, your racing mentality and your body gets stronger from the effort, helping you throughout the current race and into your next race and beyond. Try it, get caught, get dropped, fail at it countless times… it’s ok because you don’t really fail in the long run. You just get stronger, smarter. The one time you don’t ‘fail’ could mean a great result for you or a teammate, hence, your team. This is my perspective anyway, one I gained from my rather grueling yet valuable learning experience from last Saturday’s Battenkill. I hope I can continue to race this way… at least I will try. One more thought. Imagine if we could all race like this as individuals, but in the context of a team strategy?! We could be formidable I think.
Let’s try it. :)