By Cindy McNett
The Tour of the Hilltowns in northwestern Massachusetts lives up to its tough reputation. The 57 and 97 mile course winds through the Berkshires, goes through 8 towns, and features grueling climbs. The temperature on race day hovered around 100 degrees.
The women’s pro 1,2,3 division raced 57 miles and included the best of the best. My expectations were to see how they ride, have fun, and finish the race. It was a leisurely pace to start with, which picked up steadily. I focused on staying out of the wind and out of trouble, but neglected to drink enough early on. This would haunt me later.
After about 35 miles of scenic riding, with a 40 mph descent, we reached the bottom of the East Hawley Hill Road climb. As we made a sharp right hand turn, there was a disturbance in the rhythm ahead and someone swerved. The rider to my right tapped her wheel and in an instant was on the ground, catapulted over her own handlebars. As a commotion ensued behind, two riders peeled off from the left and sprinted uphill. Ahead loomed the biggest, steepest hill I had ever seen. It looked like the stairway to Hell, complete with heat waves shimmering off the black, soft tar. There was not a breath of air, except the labored breathing of the riders. The field strung out into small groups as this hill went on and on. I made an effort to catch people, but too quickly found myself in the “red zone” and overheating. My decision to stick with two others no matter what was pivotal – we finally crested the mountaintop and worked very hard together for many miles to catch the leading group before the feed zone. A bottle of ice water poured on my back enabled me to cool enough to continue working, as I had begun to see black spots and felt fuzzy. We continued at a brisk pace into an arid headwind, heading back towards the start. One or two would sprint ahead, and no one reacted. We just reeled them in and continued an organized paceline.
About 5 miles from the finish sharp cramps seized up my legs, so I was done. It was awful to see everyone just go, but there was little to do about it. My goal changed from doing well in the standings to just making it back to the car and avoiding the emergency room. Along the way were many remnants of the men’s fields who were barely moving, some even walking up the long final grade.
I wasn’t first, but I wasn’t last, and relearned the lesson again about dehydration and electrolyte depletion. But it was a good experience, that I hope to repeat again next year with better preparation. Congrats to all the 500 or so riders who raced this very challenging course on such a hot day.