Approx. 55mi, 2:32hrs
We had stellar weather all week. A God-send actually, after one of the longest, snowiest winters on record. But could it have been too much of a good thing? For Battenkill this year, I think it was.
This was my third BK race in three years (the BK is only four years old). It has quickly become a northeast region classic. Nearly every field max'd out with waiting lists, and on race day, there were over 1300 competitors pre-registered. My field was limited to 125 riders, but it looked more like 80-100 were at the starting line.
The night before, the forecast was calling for high of 74F. But it was almost this warm already driving over in the morning. It was going to get much hotter. I packed three water bottles, and I knew I was going to have trouble. Heat is my Achilles heel. Additionally, it hadn't rained in over a week. The previous two years, the gravel parts of the course were well packed, even moist in spots. But I do plenty of road cycling on unpaved roads to know that a week of sun can turn most gravel roads into a bed of marbles. Reports before the start of the race weren't encouraging.
The beginning of our race was uneventful. The pace over the first small dirt climb before coming back into town was manageable. No giant craters with water bottle mine fields this year. Then we hit Juniper Swamp Rd. The first portion of this double hump climb is paved. The pace went to very hard. I stayed with top 10 guys. After a brief descent, we get to phase two of this climb, a steep wall of loose as marbles sand and rocks. We had already overtaken Cat 4 stragglers here, and they were walking all over the place. Master's riders were having trouble too, one guy spinning out right in front of me, causing me to lose several positions cresting the hill. This was enough for John Funk (Cycle Fitness), Jonny Bold (Corner Cycle), a CCC/Keltic rider and one other to break clear of our field. Catching them would prove tough. A large portion of our field was shelled on this climb, less than 10 miles into the race.
After a sketchy high speed descent, we pick up pavement again. The covered bridge was back in the race. I wonder if anybody bites it turning on to slippery wood deck? The break was putting good distance on us heading down Rt 313. The deal was, teams represented in the break were very effectively blocking. It is so frustrating when this happens, as teams not represented in the break often don't step up to the plate. Both teams and individuals think it's the next guy's job to do something about it. You can sit back, rest, take a gamble somebody will do something about it, but your race might just ride up the road away from you too. In this case, knowing who was up there, I chose not to gamble. I still had one teammate with me, Richard Barnwell (IBC/Global), and we both put in disproportionate amounts of work closing the break down. We got a few other riders to jump in a few times, but Corner Cycle and CCC/Keltic guys kept the interference factor high. Just as were were about to close in on the four-man break, the CCC/Keltic guy in the break went down. Apparently he clipped a wheel. But he was back on his bike and chasing before we overtook him. Moments later, however, we were one big happy family again, maybe 40 riders strong. Richard and I both burnt way too many matches on this effort. We'd pay dearly for this later in the race. Of our other two teammates, one flatted on Juniper Swamp, the other got caught behind the split.
We head through Cambridge, then begin the long, gentle climb up Rt 59. There were a few half hearted attacks here, and I actually found myself off the front on the descent. I wasn't ready to go for it though. As we made the turns to pick up the infamous Meetinghouse Rd, I waited for the field. Meetinghouse Rd is a barrage of steep climbs, mostly on gravel. Shortly after the suffering began, Jonny Bold and John Funk got away again. I didn't see Jonny go, but John's move was decisive. I doubt anybody could have matched it. They joined forces and developed a substantial lead to the finish. The rest of us stayed together for the most part through this rocky purgatory. One section was particularly brutal, littered with sharp, fist-sized rocks. I heard two tires go Pfssssssssst right by me. There must have been a dozen riders from other fields either fixing flats or walking bikes with flats here. By this point, I was running out of water and felt early signs of cramping coming on. I secretly prayed I too would flat to end the suffering now.
We get on pavement again and get a reprieve from hills, dust, and rocks. We're down to maybe 20 guys out of 80 or so that started with 2 guys up the road. We snake through the town of Greenwich next, overtaking what surely must be the last of the Cat 4's. I was several guys back at this point. I see Eric Pearce (Bethel Cycle) roll off the front. He was making his move. Nobody does a thing. I should have been more careful and stayed on his wheel, as I knew this was coming. By the time I came to the front and started to pick up the pace, Eric had maybe 5-10 seconds on us. I was hurting though from the huge chase effort earlier in the race, an effort Eric benefited from (but didn't help with). Nobody else would come up to chase. We just pretty much all sat up. Eric was gone, just like last year when he won, but this time he would likely not finish better than 3rd with Funk and Bold way up the road.
A while later, a few of us did get a bit of a chase effort going, but it was too little, too late. We erroneously thought a rider in a white jersey just up the road was Eric. When we realized it wasn't him, the chase was deflated. My prospects of finishing well were now long gone. I had been out of water for a while, and my throat was so dry I thought for sure it would crack and bleed. If I stopped pedalling or pedalled too hard, many muscles would go into spasms. Despite spending a week in Arizona riding recently, it was nothing like the heat today. I ride outdoors and ski all winter, so I really don't have a chance to sweat until it gets hot out.
We get to the final climb with about 20 riders in pack, Funk and Bold way up the road, Pearce between us and them. This climb starts gravel, then paved, before a long fast paved descent about 4 miles out from the finish. It's not too steep, and unlike last year, what was left of our field went surprisingly easy up this climb. I fully expected to get shelled here, but had no trouble staying with them despite every muscle in my legs firing randomly in fits of pain. Even with the gentle pace, we seemed to whittle our pack down to only a dozen or so riders at the top. I guess there were a few guys hurting even more badly than I. It was essentially all downhill from here.
Two riders bolted well before the finish, maybe 1.5 miles out. I somehow missed the 1km to go banners, so the finish line caught me by surprise. I was just following the train home at this point anyway. As things wound up, I passed a couple guys that went early, just taking wheels that appeared in front of me until we were over the line. Surprisingly, this sad effort was enough to get me in the cash which goes 10 deep. $25 for 9th place.
I immediately drank two large water bottles after getting back to the car. While discussing the race with teammates and Dave Penney, Dave's rear tire pretty much just exploded standing there. He had a large shard of rock or glass wedged into the sidewall. How he ever finished the race on that tire is beyond me.
So it was a decent race for me. Of course, I had hoped to do a little better, but I did better than last year and there may have been more heavy hitters there this year. I think the chase effort early in the race and not being able to stay hydrated did me in. It is hard to say how the race would have played out if Richard and I just sat in and let others (maybe) pursue the initial break. That left us both cooked. But chasing down a break of the strongest riders in the field is fun. Hydration would still have been an issue. Car thermometer read 85-87F leaving Salem. As always, Battenkill was an epic race, one of the most challenging in the northeast.