Filed under: road race
I had really high hopes for Battenkill. I even told a few people that I dared to win it, at the risk of jinxing it. I don’t believe in jinxing things, but I do believe in being careful what you get your hopes up for, lest you be ungrateful for what you actually get.
I didn’t want to put pressure on myself. I did want to do well. I was worried that I hadn’t raced enough this spring – not enough race miles in the legs to really withstand a hilly 100k of racing. The week leading up to it was a bit of a frenzy, and toward the end of it – after hastily gluing on a new tubular after flatting on a shakedown ride, after having to take apart my training wheel’s hub internals when I realized they were not in raceable condition (all the wrenching you hate to do a day and a half before a big race) – well, crap, I just wanted to race the race. I miss racing. No two races a week within riding distance up here in the wilds of Western Massachusetts – no, without a car, I race when I can get to ’em, which is infrequently.
So the race starts, as me and my teammates suck down a gu at the line, check our pockets, and hand off extra gear to the friends generous enough to be our ‘support team’ – they’ll make their way to the feedzone at mile 40. And when we roll off, more than anything, I’m just happy to be racing again. Making my way through a pack. Watching attacks roll off the front, and jockeying for position as we run into the first climb.
I’m climbing well. It’s hard – everybody is going close to their limit, it seems. But I’m staying in front of the group. We crest the second climb, on dirt, and I go to the front and hammer for a few seconds down the hill. But unlike last year, the group stays together – no severe fragmentation early. I go back and hide from the wind. It’s blowing capriciously.
Some attacks keep going off; a rider or two gets a minute here, visible but small up the road. They come back in due time. The hills do most of the work. We hit the monster just before the halfway point and the group is back together. And as the pack rolls along catching their breath after the climb, my teammate Greg jumps away. He gets a gap. Consistent with other attacks in the race, there’s a bit of a chase at first, and he’s reeled in, but I see him riding away again almost immediately. This time, there’s no chase. A few minutes later some people try to bridge up to him, but I look around and see that the people who had been leading the pack up the climbs with me are unconcerned. Interesting.
In the next ten miles, Greg rides himself out of sight. We hit a series of dirt climbs and the bridge group comes back to us, one by one. Trying to avoid a situation where people are well-rested enough to form a brisk chase, I hammer up the climbs and, on some of the fast, hardpacked dirt roads, push the pace. It looks like I’m trying to split the group on the hard terrain, but really I’m just trying to make it so that the flats are a respite rather than a place to hammer.
Greg stays away.
The final climb looms – this one is long enough to cause a split. Six or eight riders ride away from me, but I keep the gap acceptable until I can manage an in-effort recovery and spin up to them. We crest the hill together, hammer a little bit, and look behind us: a good gap. We settle into a haphazard rotation but before long there’s yelling to get better organization. I shake my head to a teammate in the mix – we’re not working. Another teammate bridges up and our sulking at the back becomes too noticeable, so two of us take a few pulls. But with Greg still off the front my pedal strokes are lackadaisic.
Not like I had a whole lot to give, anyway. I was rapidly wearying. Our plan of rotating attacks had fallen by the wayside – as Al, who made a heroic effort to bridge up, put it: My IQ was in the single digits at this point. I’m grateful to see the 500m-to-go sign; Al goes to the front right before a 90degree turn and I fight for his wheel momentarily with a guy I’d seen active throughout the race.
I lose the right; the tailwind turns into a crosswind and I’m on the wrong side of my teammate. The sprint goes up the left side and I’m on the right. I try to accelerate but give up and finish last in this chase group.
Greg is wheezing by the side of the road. “Yeah,” he said, face still hung over his stem. “I won it.”
Regardless of what the peanut gallery on any given bike forum will say, it doesn’t take a sandbagging muscle-bound monster to stay away solo in an amateur race. It might take such a person to stay away from a committed chase. It might take a team working the field from behind to inhibit the formation of a committed chase. But breaking away and staying away requires some smarts, some legs, and the willingness to go all in on a slim chance.
Every now and then it pays off.
The Tour of the Battenkill is a hard race on a great course. It’s prestigious, early in the season, and finishing it is a little bit of a badge of honor. Unfortunately, its success might be its undoing: organizers raised the price from $35 to $75 this year. It’s attraction to us amateurs – as evidenced by the four 125-rider Category 4 Men fields – is, perhaps, what lets the organizers get away with this outrageous price. How many of us are saying “I’ll pay this for one last Battenkill, and then move on”? And how many will say that next year?
But I digress. I’m racing Battenkill – I coughed up a one-day race fee that I will never pay again. I raced it last year, and some similar races with “unpave” sections. Furthermore, a hobby of mine is pointing my front wheel toward poorly paved or unpaved roads, trails, or fields, may they tilt upward or drop precipitously downward. With this experience I offer some advice for racing road bikes on dirt roads:
1. Let the bike do the steering. Bikes are smart. The front end is, by and large, stabilizing and self-correcting. When the going gets rough, keep your weight back, your torso relaxed, and let the bike find its own line. It will. If you try to muscle it under control, you risk being too tense and overcompensating, which will help you go down.
2. Keep your center of gravity low. Put your weight on the pedals, not on the saddle. If your ass is in the saddle and your bike takes a good bump, the saddle will punch you in the ass. If your weight is on the pedals, your legs will absorb the blow.
3. You can’t choose your line in a pack. If there’s somebody on your right, somebody on your left, and a pothole bearing down on your front wheel, you have to choose the pothole. Unweighting the front wheel, or bunnyhopping it altogether, will get you through just fine. See #2 and #1.
4. Practice the above skills. And while I’m dispensing advice for prior implementation: train for several months.
5. Eat and drink throughly. This one should go without explication.
The race is on Saturday. Good luck – but not more than me.
I don’t think that Bear Mountain will forgive me. When I first saw the profile of the race course through Harriman State Park (not actually all that close to Bear Mountain), I thought, “It looks pleasant, but wouldn’t it be nicer if it actually had a hill or two?” When I raced it, that long, slow drag up the Tiorati climb – never particularly steep, but long enough to hurt – was kind enough to point out the error of my ways. If it wasn’t clear the first time, it was more than obvious the fourth time, and I finished the race cramping badly, albeit with a decent result. It was good enough to give me some confidence for the fall incarnation of the race, and I figured that the uphill finish this time around would suit me.
The race’s formal name is the Nancy Morgenstern Memorial Race, named for a local racer who died on 9/11, but I had been referring to it as Revenge of Bear Mountain. Foreshadowing? I guess that race wasn’t done surprising me. Unlike the spring’s social pace for the first half (or more) of the race, this weekend’s race was hard from the gun and we climbed Tiorati Book Road really fast. It felt really fast, anyway. Maybe I’m not in top form. I don’t care. It was fast and hard. Struggling to close gaps only ten miles into a 56 mile race? That’s not good.
The second time up it we caught the Masters’ field, which should be an indication that we were moving pretty quickly. Unfortunately, the overtake was a complete mess, and I wound up getting stuck behind Masters and follow vehicles as the fronts of the fields mixed and ten or so 4 riders went up the road with who-knows-how-many Masters riders. Trying to find another match to light to jump up the rest of the hill, I was nearly run off the road by a support vehicle (not to mention the two SUVs behind it, crawling up the hill), and had to settle for settling into a rotation with four or five other riders who were highly motivated by the extent to which they were pissed off at the mess that knocked them away from the front of the race.
We were almost back on when, flying through a roundabout, we all had to grab brakes and adjust our arcs to avoid a towncar that marshalls hadn’t bothered to stop. There are only so many times you can be demoralized, and if they all come in the span of a few miles of very hard riding, well, their effect is exponential. When we got to the feed zone, I was frustrated, and I threw in the towel shortly thereafter (but not before grimacing, or growling, or something, for the photographer…). If I had a more thoroughly competitive spirit, I’d even have been thoroughly pissed off.
Imagine how I feel when I see the results and realize that one of my companions in the chase managed 10th place. And me thinking that half the field was still up the road. I shouldn’t have dropped out. Live and learn.
It’s an interesting welcome to the tail end of the season.
Last Sunday was the Union Vale Road Race, which featured a big finishing climb. I was on domestique duty for my buddy Al, so I’ll let his race report tell the story. As you’ll see, the team was successful. Three of us were in the top 10 and we put Al on the podium.
I’ll try to keep this short and sweet. This was my best result so far and I can attribute it to a few things. 1. I have been training with William and Mattio in the hills near Union Vale in the past two weeks. 2. I was able to pre ride the course a week ago. And 3, I have been eating substantially better in the past 3 weeks. With all these factors coming together, I was coming into this race feeling very strong and confident in my abilities.
The race kicked off at 9:07 on a beautiful Sunday morning. Mattio, David, Brian, Todd, Dan and myself were immediately in the top 20 and stayed there almost the entire time. As with the 35+ field, Kissena was the major player in the Cat 4/5 field throughout the entire race. Not too much happened on the flats of the first stage, including the first climb, but once the second climb came, I took 2nd wheel and then half way up the climb I moved into the lead and pushed the pace a bit, stringing out the field and making short work of the climb. Hitting the top, I continued to set the pace until I heard Mattio yell to me to get back into the draft. Mattio was correct since we had decided prior to the race that I was to shoot for a strong final finish and he would work for me to soften up the field.
Once the third and final climb of the 14 mile circuit came into view I was feeling thoroughly warmed up and feeling that the pace was not being pushed enough. I was also concerned about the approaching descent and wanted to be at the front of the peloton when we took the 50+ mph downhill that would kick off the second lap. I positioned myself 4 wheels back and waited until I was halfway up the climb and then moved to the front and turned up the pace. Arriving at the top, I could hear no one else and looked back. Inadvertently I had opened up a good gap. “Why not make them work?” I thought, and started hammering it on the flat approaching the downhill. I took the down hill solo, commencing the 2nd lap with a rather large gap. After a bit of hard effort I accumulated approx a 20 second gap but decided a solo break was not the way to go. I soft pedaled and waited for the peloton to pick me up.
As I was pulled in, Mattio looked at me, smiled and did what all good teammates do: he counterattacked hard, drawing out a single racer and quickly going up the road. At this point I decided to block for mattio and have the other teams do a bit of work. Mattio and his breakaway companion were eventually reeled in. Brian D broke next at the base of the second climb and brought another rider with him. He disappeared up the road rather quickly. After the climb, Mattio and another rider jumped with the intention of bridging up to Brian. They successfully got away as well.
On the 3rd climb of the second lap, I started thinking about bridging up as well, while also again avoiding a possibly dangerous pack descent. As with the end of the first lap, I jumped on the 3rd climb, opened up a gap, took the descent solo and eventually bridged up to Mattio and his break companion. We worked for a bit attempting to catch the lead breakaway, but then I decided to pull off and move back into the peloton, which at this point was about 15 seconds back.
Fast forwarding to the final 4 miles of the race, everything had been pulled back together and I was feeling confident about the final climb. I had been listening to the breath of my fellow racers on the second climb of the last lap and could tell a lot of them were hurting. I, on the other hand was feeling relatively good.
Finally, the peloton hit the final 1.2 mile killer climb, a climb which had been in the back of everyone’s head all race. At the base, I was 10 wheels back. A good pace was set and immediately riders around me began falling back. Within in a minute or two there were only two riders right in front of me and I could hear the sound of riders behind me shifting and searching for that right climbing gear.
Here is where things got a bit harder. The pace was hard yet managable and I moved up along the side of the NYVelocity rider on second wheel; blocking his possible attack while also watching the front rider who was setting the pace. We climbed like this for minutes and minutes but it actually felt a lot shorter. Here is where I made my critical mistake that cost me the race. Looking up the road, I saw what I thought was the finish; a bunch of racers and spectators sitting on either side of he road. It was about 250 meters away. I waited a few more seconds. “Did the other two not see the finish? Were they too blinded by the pain to look uphill and see the finish?”.
I jumped…….or more accurately, increased my cadence in my 23 tooth and began to confidently spin away from them. They didn’t respond and I put my head down, grabbed the hoods and spun and spun and spun. I could no longer hear them and I began to actually think I was going to win this. The finish was less than 100 meters away and I had it….
I was wrong. It wasn’t the finish, it was just a bunch of spectators. The finish was at least another 500 meters ahead. Realizing this I pushed on, bordering on a total blow up. I could hear the two gaining and eventually one came around and then the other at the 200 meter mark. I was able to hold off another racer charging hard for my 3rd place.
All in all this was a spectacular race on the part of Kissena. We were without a doubt the most aggressive team while also producing big results, placing three racers in the top ten. Todd took 5th and Mattio took 10th.
The weather has been ridiculous lately, with rain all month long, and so even though the sun is shyly, tenatively shining from behind thinning clouds I’m still keeping my fingers crossed that track racing will not be rained out, like it’s been for the past two weeks. Track racing is an hour of hard training, guaranteed. A good warm-up ride out to the track, a few races with regular hard efforts, sprints, and, if I’m lucky, a long race made up of constant suffering.
If you’re lucky, or if you live in New York City, you can have all of your training take place in racing. It’s a little bit more expensive, but a lot more fun. To that effect I’ve had a good week of training via racing: Saturday was a Prospect Park race in which I planned to spend the first half going off the front and the last half watching from the start/finish, saving my energy for Housatonic Hills on Sunday. That race tested the legs in the hills and found them sufficient for the task of staying with the front but not for whittling it down further – it came down to a sprint of about two dozen. A fast, technical end – a downhill false flat flying toward the start finish, a ninety degree corner, and a 300-meter sweeping uphill sprint. I took the corner third wheel but missed the wheel of the attack going up the inside, jumped into the wind with 200 meters to go, and watched, sprinting and cramping, as two more racers came around me, knocking me down to fourth. A fine finish nonetheless.
Thursday, I plan to ride up to Rockleigh, New Jersey, to give the crit there another whack. Last time I had a whopper of a sprint but poor position and only managed eighth. I’ve got an odd habit of either having the sprint or the positioning but never the two at the same time and I’m trying to rectify that – I wouldn’t mind a win. On Sunday comes one of the races that I’ve been enjoying more and more throughout the season – the Cadence Cup Series at Prospect Park. My club has been showing out in full force for these, bouyed by some good results early on and the very compelling promise of increasingly adept teamwork. In the second race we put our teammate Yack into the Green Jersey for sprinter’s points, and in the third and fourth we’ve kept him there. While I’m generally on the lookout for results I know it’s time to lay it down to keep Yack wearing that jersey, and I’ll be a part of our large, guns-to-a-knife-fight leadout train for him.
Now that, my select and loyal readers, is exciting.
Leading up to Housatonic Hills I was excited but nervous. Could I do well? I should improve on my results from my last major road race, and if I don’t it’s an opportunity wasted. Fourth is good and I’m pleased but I saw second place tantalizingly close (first place was taken with a commanding sprint from a BVF rider).
But with the prospect of laying it down directly for a teammate the nervousness of letting myself down dissipates, and it’s not replaced by nervousness about letting somebody else down. Why exactly I can’t say – maybe because it’s all still pretty new to me.
Sunday – I can’t wait. And speaking of excitement for things to come, good things are in the works.
photo above by Marcia Van Wagner.
We had numbers in this race, and I knew who to mark in the event that a leadout train failed. I stayed sheltered, and felt strong. I’ve been sprinting well. I can do this. I was in position. Brooklyn Velo Force had a strong train going up; our train was running strong at the front. Westwood Velo moved up and things got chaotic, dense, elbows bumping and everybody struggling to hold position and suddenly it wasn’t fast enough. Our train fell apart. The front got jammed up and was very tight.
Suddenly BVF’s two sprinters were on the front with 500 meters to go, and I had some daylight to the right. So I jumped, went across the road, hard, and tried to hold it. Opened a gap. Peeked under my armpit. Watched it start to close. Saw a guy come up on my right hip. The line was right there. Then more guys.
I was swallowed twenty meters from the line.
Maybe I salvaged a top ten. I came close to winning. Sigh. There’s always next time.
I think it was a good move. Our train had started to disintegrate in the ragged, aggressive front. BVF’s sprinter wasn’t going to jump from that far out. I felt strong; the pace had slowed. It was worth a shot. The opportunity was there and I took it. What should I do next time?
I think I should be a little more patient; another hundred feet down the road, if that kept up, and I could have jumped clear to hold it. Maybe. If somebody else hadn’t taken initiative by then. Maybe they started sprinting, saw me dangling out there, and laughed.
I’m glad I tried it. Sitting in and waiting for a possible sprint victory is tough – it’s tough with ringers like Lombardi and Aracena in the field, it’s tough on the psyche, the notion that I spent twentyfive bucks to risk my bike and my neck cruising around Prospect Park for over an hour so I can race for a minute and a half.
I’d rather upgrade on points than on top ten finishes, and to do that I’m going to have to take risks. So I should try it. Attack. More often. Go ahead. I think about a guy who races out at the velodrome, Tadeusz Marszalek. He’s a great racer to watch because he attacks constantly. I’d rather race like him, not try to sit pretty and then hope that by some accident of registration I’m the best sprinter in the field. Because I’m not.
The right attack might get me that podium. Not this time, though.
Two teammates went down in the madness of the final moments before the sprint uncorked in earnest. Shoulder injuries. Kerry and Todd, best wishes for your rapid recovery.
When I got off the bike at the end of the Bear Mountain Classic, one thought ricocheted into my head and rattled around in the emptiness up there hollowed by post-race fatigue.
This race was harder than Battenkill.
I’m not sure it stands up to scrutiny but I sure did believe it at the time. I spent the last several miles cramping hard, struggling to close gaps. It was only a 56 mile race. I drank and ate plenty. What did this to me? Before the race I had assessed the course as an overgrown Prospect Park. No steep climbs, just one long shallow one. No devastating rollers. Some very fast sections, a few roundabouts and one 180-degree hairpin at the end of a very fast and very predictable descent. After the race I realized the problem was that there were a lot of strong riders and the course wasn’t dramatic enough to shed them. The major climb was endless and the pace was steady and that was enough to pack a serious punch – especially done four times. I looked back at the top of the Tiorati several times and saw people struggling to stay on and the people at the front, driving the pace, knew full well that if they launched themselves into an tail-disintegrating attack they’d be hurting, maybe too much.
Maybe the race was too conservative even past the fairly casual first two laps. On the third lap I went to the front and launched some “Anybody want to have some fun?” attacks after the Tiorati, was roped in, patrolled the front, danced off again, came back, went off… going a little faster and harder than the Steady Eddies, but felt strong. Maybe I felt too strong, and pointlessly burned a few matches. Maybe everybody was saving it. William and I exchanged numerous eye-roll looks when we saw people hanging out at the front, coasting. One guy, second wheel, stood up to stretch at high speed, sending his bike backward and almost into my front wheel. Another entered a full tuck on a short leisurely downward-roller. With this kind of front it’s no wonder that there were still thirty people in the race.
When we turned on to Lake Welch Drive for the last few miles, William went to the front and rode hard and everything got disheveled. I buried myself, just following the wheel in front of me, hurting to go around when some poor bait let a gap open. I wasn’t going to get gapped. I tried to recover but I was all over the place and my muscles were all rocks and knots.
…oh, and there’s the 200m sign. Gentle downhill. Time to start moving. Put my face in the wind – ow, wow. I sprinted, passed some people, was coming up fast on four people sprinting ahead of me, wove a bit trying to figure out where to slot in and pass them, threw my bike at the line and nipped one. I think. The results said 8th but this morning they said 9th. A few upgrade points, a top ten placing in a major road race.
I should be proud, except I can’t for the life of me figure out why this race hurt so damn much.