I think that the theme word to best describe this year’s Tour of the Battenkill is crazy, crazy, crazy. The successful negotiation of this year’s altered course required the utilization of all one’s bike riding and racing skills – strength, endurance, hill climbing, wind as your friend, multiple accelerations, close quarter riding, knowing the course, negotiating one’s way through a big pack, being at the front at decisive moments, patience, handling the bike through long stretches of 3” to 4” deep sand, avoiding rocks, closing gaps, pace lining, sprinting – did I leave anything out? Oh yeah – luck. If you didn’t have all those things going for you, a payday finish would be elusive. With the elimination of Joe Bean Hill there was concern that huge packs of 70 riders would attack the final climb up Stage Hill with 5 miles to go. Ha! As it turns out, no need to worry about that.
But before we get to the race I’d like to inform that the team made a return dinner trip to the Peppermill eating establishment in Bennington. Remember last year how a dark cloud formed over Fred’s head as he waited and waited for his serving of spaghetti? Well this year the staff was eager and able to please, and soon we were served our staple of fine food. It did our hearts good to see the spaghetti slapping across Fred’s checks as he slurped the nutritious strands post haste readying their use to fuel the muscles that would propel him across the challenging Cambridge, NY countryside. Elbow to elbow with Fred sat Jeff, but instead of stray spaghetti splatter on his chin were rivulets of hamburger grease. Ahhh, red meat and the to be conquering athlete. May I also add that the rivulets were also running down his forearms. And lastly I must report that later that evening there was code red methane gas alert in room 160 at the Bennington Best Western!
So we were ready to race as were 3000 other guys under perfect racing conditions – clear skies and 65-70 degrees. Oh, boy. The best day of cycling all year. After 100 miles of riding in the rain and wind and 38 degrees, this was going to be cake. Not quite as we were soon to find out. Just like last year it was kind of a shock to ride in a huge pack of 136 starters. Think about it. On a good Saturday Morning Ride there are what 80 riders? You know how long that line looks.. Add on another 60 guys and it does impress as you survey the field. And like last year the initial 5 mile road opened up with a kilometer to go to the cover bridge. And yep, Jeff, Mike and I were in the front group going through the bridge and then barreling along the 1st dirt section, up the first hill and onto the sandy Juniper Swamp Hill. All negotiated successfully with about 90 guys remaining.
From mile 13 through 28 things were pretty hunky dory. No big issues. Then we turned onto the Carney & Cassidy dirt road the concern level dialed way up. With the dry conditions the dirt road surfaces turned out to be very sandy and pebble strewn. People’s back wheels were spinning out, people were losing their line on the loose and deep sand, and this caused gaps to form in the strung out hard charging riders. Most of the gaps were closed but it was a preview of things to come as groups of inattentive people got chunked off. In quick & dusty succession we were on Safford Hill Road (hilly & loose), Cheese Factory Road (flat, dusty, loose, endless), Wrights Road (uh-oh, this is starting to add up) and then the back breaker Meetinghouse Road. This section definitely elicited an OMG!!! from all riders as the downhills, although slight, lead you into yards and yards of loose sand that twisted at the wheel and directed many into unintended directions. John Grenier’s sage pre-race advise to use a big gear and keep pedaling through the sand proved a life saver. That technique allowed one to keep momentum and overpower the forces of the sand. Those who tried to drift though the sand found themselves bound by its evil dictates and lost forward motion and the ability to properly steer their machines. When these poor souls finally recovered and looked up to see what’s going on, all they could was the shattered remnant of the once large pack. It was tricky and the best of riders got gobbled up by the road conditions.
I was almost one of the unfortunates as at one point I found myself some 200 meters behind the last of the lead guys. I was confronting one of those decisive moments in a race where you had to make it happen or all was lost. Fortunately, Meetinghouse Road closed with a half mile section where the middle of the road had a 4” hard surface. I pounced onto that and pounded full force into the pedals. I knew I had to get to the lead guys before the end of the road or it was curtains. Good fortune continued to shine on me, as up ahead in his own panic chase mode was Jeff. He cleared the road first and was but a few pedal strokes from latching back on. But 30 yards back was me yelling – Jeff! Jeff!! JEFF!!!! He heard me and now had an ethical dilemma to weigh – easily catch on to the lead group? Or wait for that d-bag Pfeifle (who should have been up here in the first place) and maybe not make it? Good on ya, Jeff, as he slowed to wait for me. He even offered some Jeff-ly encouragement – “Hurry the f**k up, Pfeifle!” . I did and he did and soon we were safely back with the 12 remaining leaders. Aside from winning, knowing you are in the winning break is THE most satisfying feeling in bike racing. Now we had to focus on winning and we two OA/Cyclemanics certainly had the horsepower to do that.
Off we sped with but about 30 meters of Meetinghouse dirt road remaining when disaster struck. Jeff flatted! A rock buried under the sand punctured his tire. It was as sad a deal as sad could be because Jeff was riding brilliantly. On we continued with the sneaky John Funk off of the front by about 30 seconds. We formed a good organized chase and worked to reel him in. Somewhere during this time we lost Dave Kellogg and Bill Thompson. Carl Reglar, Funk’s teammate, was not contributing to the chase, and the Canadian Sylvan Adams sat in for the last 14 miles. The rest of us shouldered on and by the top of stage Hill Funk was within catching distance. That’s when Reglar and Jim Nash made the moves of the day. Nash slowly accelerated and bridged over to Funk. Reglar, on Nash’s wheel, let him go and gapped the rest of us. We weren’t concerned as we figured we’d catch them on the run-in to town. No dice, as it turned out. Funk & Nash rode brilliantly to the end (with Nash grabbing the win) and our four man chase (and 2 wheel suckers) could not close the 8 second gap. Reglar earned a pass for not contributing to the chase as he was just doing his job. But the sit-on Canadian saw all respect for him dissolve as his fresh legs bagged the sprint for 3rd. This year I held off a couple of guys and nabbed 5th and almost came by Joe Rano at the line.
I’d like to conclude by congratulating all the OA/Cyclemania riders who turned the pedals in anger. It is nice to see the many top 10 results and just good efforts garnered by the gang:
– Travis Kroots (Base 36), 2nd in his 4s group (so excited and justifiably so)
– Kevin Woodhouse, 3rd in his 4s group (great ride!)
– Kevin Hayes, 6th in his 4s group (nice, Kev)
– Fred Thomas, 4th in the 40s (always stellar)
– Jon Ayers, 5th in his 5s group (nice way to start your racing career)
– Ron Bourgoin – 15th, Eric Weinrich – 28th after having to chase from an early flat
– Jeff Fisher – 17th after channeling his inner anger into a full blown TT though the shattered field
– Mike Claus – 21st after getting caught out on Carney and Cassidy
– Neil Fitch – 55th (don’t know how his race went)
– John Grenier – 33rd
– Chris Darling – feel victim to a flat during a strong ride in the 3s
To get the true impact of what the long essentially flat dirt section was like, picture the TV shots of a dry Paris Roubaix with the field strung out in one long line, dust fly through the air, riders struggle to hold wheels and hold lines. That’s what it was like. I had stayed up at the front on every dirt section and covered every attack that I thought was dangerous. We still had such a large field that I thought I had just wasted a lot of energy for no reason because nothing was going to break up the race. That was nearly a fatal mistake.
Hank, Mike and I were all in a line about 20 people back from the front. We were hammering and I was thinking how well Mike was riding on this section of the course. It was hard to see because of the dust and we were passing so many riders from the group that started before us it was hard to tell exactly what was going on in the front. We had been on the dirt for a good five minutes and I finally noticed the pace car was quite a ways up and I could see the cracks opening up all along the pace line in front of me. Every alarm bell I have inside me went off at the same time. It was time for a maximum effort because the race was slipping away. I took off and put it in full TT redline mode. Once quick look back and there was no Hank and no Mike. Oh well, the race was in front of me not behind.
I have to say that my season of cross riding paid off in spades. I was flying over the dirt and passing people like they were standing still. I could see I was gaining on the group ahead so there was no slowing down at all. I had just gotten to the pavement and was about to give it one last effort to get back into the race when I swear I heard my name being called. I must be imagining that, who would be yelling at me. Then I heard it again. I looked back and there was Hank trying to get back on. Now I was really torn. Be a good teammate and let Hank latch on or finish getting back on and recover. I decided I’d give Hank 30 seconds to get on my wheel and if he couldn’t do, then he’d have to make his own way. I slowed down to about the same speed the group was going and when Hank latched on drove it home.
Like Hank said, this was it. The race had been decided and we were both going to be going for the win. My legs were great and I could tell that most of the guys in this group were tired. I was sure I could out sprint all these guys especially with Hank to help. Just when I thought we were good and had it made, disaster struck; a flat front tire. I made it through all the really bad sections and flatted where the dirt wasn’t bad at all. FML.
I waited at the side of the road for about three or four minutes and the wheel guy finally showed up. Then I got the slowest wheel change ever. I know these guys are just volunteers so there was no point giving them an earful. I opened the back of the car myself, grabbed a wheel and put it on. Off I went in a futile attempt to make up three minutes.
The rest was just 10 miles of depression, frustration, and anger knowing that months of work went down the toilette. Especially since I knew I had a podium spot.
Lastly I just want to publicly apologize to Mike for the tongue lashing I gave him after the race. It was pointless and I let my frustration get the better of me. No teammate deserves that.