My last appearance at a road race was in 2012 at the Killington Stage Race in Killington, Vermont. That was when I was taken out by a competitor in front of me who let up and swerved into me, taking out my front wheel, shattering my fork.
I’ve since recovered from my injuries and gradually planned my comeback. Actually, I started thinking about it the minute I found myself resting in the hospital bed. My comeback was going to be epic. What better way than to start racing again in one of the hardest races in North America. The Tour of the Battenkill. 68 miles of a mixture of paved, dirt and gravel roads, some rutted, 18% grades, multiple climbs and fast downhills. In some segments it was a combination of everything. But it wasn’t the terrain that got me worried. Mix that with 100 other people riding in proximity, and it’s a circus. Anything could happen at the touch of the wheel, a wrong judgement, equipment failure, or someone just not paying attention.
It’s incredible the amount of anxiety I had just a day before the race. I was thinking of the future and not of The Now and that was what was feeding it. But really, it was a mixed bag of emotions. Excitement, readiness, anticipation, fear, confidence, caution, determination – anything that you could name, I could feel, and I really didn’t know what to make of it. There were times when I asked myself what I was getting into. I instigated signing my whole team up for this race just by mentioning the registration date in a phone text. In just a few hours, we went for it, not knowing the level of difficulty. We’ve heard stories and some tips, but that was it.
“Run wider tires so you don’t puncture.” “Stay in the front so you don’t crash.”
But we were excited and that was all that mattered at the time.
So the way to quiet my mind was to breathe more. I did some yoga stretches after the reconnaissance ride of the last 12 miles to relieve some of the fatigue I could still feel in my legs. And even before heading out to the race, just as I woke up, I did a 12-minute meditation. It helped immensely in centering myself and finding resolve and solidifying my confidence. I was ready at that point. I also decided which socks to wear for the race after some indecision.
I got everything prepared the night before, so that the day of the race could be dedicated to saving my energies. I read it in the book, “Reading the Race.” What you’re supposed to do is not walk any more than you have to, and not think any more than you need to. Any extra steps or extra thoughts clouds the mind. That meant no social media until after the race. That also meant spending time pinning my numbers on my jersey before I needed to. We did it as a group that Friday night and it felt like a knitting club. It also meant getting our bikes cleaned, wiping the dirt off from the rain we went through from our four hour drive. And it meant getting the elevation map I so diligently put together in Adobe Illustrator with indicated dirt sections and feed zones onto our bikes. Apparently, that was key to the success of knowing what terrain was coming up and it prepared us when to eat in the race.
I was in a better place having done all the preparation and doing things the right way. We were graciously accommodated by Chez Brown, with perfectly cooked spaghetti and marinara sauce, garlic bread, veggies and dessert afterwards, then topping it off with a large living room to sleep in. Granted, it wasn’t sleeping in a first class, king-sized bed with plush bedding and down comforters – it was better because we were all together as a team. The course of the night was all about calming our nerves with positive energy, cracking jokes good and bad alike. At the evening’s end there were nine bodies strewn around a big living room, generating enough BTU’s to heat a small house.
The team woke up to this majestic view in the morning:
We got ready, packed up and said our goodbyes to the Browns. But not before we took a team picture.
Having prepared for everything the night before, all I had to do was wait. It was 9:15 am and my start was at 10:32 am. I took a few breaths and lounged around doing nothing except watching the second hand on my watch run its cycles. Then 10:05am hits.
“It’s game time!”
I clapped my hands.
I got my gear together and my teammates wished me luck. I reciprocated. I was nervous and I was ready.
With over 3000 cyclists registered for the race, approximately 400 CAT4 racers were divided into four fields. For the CAT5’s, there were nine fields.
I congregated with the CAT 4B’s at the start line. I made a few jokes and got to know some riders and they came from all over – from Montreal, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. It’s incredible a race such as this drew so many cyclists. It’s the first real test of how your form is doing on a broader scale of competition after a long winter of base training. It’s also a good indicator of how prepared your body is for racing. Those who do well will win races this year. Those who don’t have much work to do for next year.
The neutralized rollout started for the first mile. We rode slow. S.L.O.W. And even as we passed the mile mark, the next few miles, we didn’t even pick up the speed. I thought we were on a coffee ride. We went so slow in fact, the pace car had to stop about 500 metres ahead of us.
Once we hit the first dirt section, that was also the first difficult climb. I felt fresh. Riders in front turned up the pace immediately, but many more dropped off. The selection began. This was Meeting House Road. I was able to keep up with the lead group of 30 just enough.
A few more climbs appeared after that and I ended up in no man’s land. A small group began to form to chase back to the leading group. I was part of the echelon fighting the torrid pace and 15 mph crosswinds. We chased back and met with the lead peloton after 10 minutes of work. But once we hit a steeper climb on a dirt section, that was it. The group was blown apart. I ended up riding by myself for some time, which was good, because when I went down the fast dirt section, hitting 35 mph with just 24mm of tire, it was across some of the most jarring terrain. Ruts had formed and it shook me to the bone. I held on for dear life at speed, trying to keep the handlebars straight and absorbing all the shock throughout my body. My water bottle popped out of my cage like popcorn, joining their BPA-free cousins for a get-together in the dirt. There wasn’t a way to go back to recover it either. Who would want to ride that again? I was surprised that my bike survived that terrain.
The group I rode with before formed a few more times, but they wouldn’t, or couldn’t, pick up the pace. One rider tried to micro-manage everyone and it annoyed the group. A few times, I rode away from him just to get away from the Bill Lumbergh‘s of cycling. Another rider from Australia living in New York with a heavy accent wanted the same thing and made himself known by joining me. He admitted he was a bit too heavy for the hills, but he told me he could pull me on the flats where the winds howled.
“I’ll do you proud!”
…I told the Aussie.
There was a section of road where the hill was short, and I just punched it on the big (53×19) gear, foreseeing the momentum I would lose if I shifted lower. I immediately lost everyone. Later on when we met back up, the Aussie told me,
“You’re really killing me on the uphills, but it’s great because you’re crushing it like Lance Armstrong, dancing on the pedals.”
What a great compliment. But that put me into no man’s land. I couldn’t chase up because the lead group was too far ahead. And I couldn’t stay back because that group was too weak, at least on the uphills. I knew I belonged in the lead group, but that didn’t happen. My intention was to be in the top 20 at the very minimum. If I got to the top 9, then I’d get points to add to my category upgrade. But it wasn’t to be and I missed my positioning.
I rode alone for some time, which was okay especially on some difficult sections. There was a downhill where I hit 45mph and it was winding and twisty. I had never done such a technical descent at speed, if you don’t count Evans Notch.
By the time I came across the plains of New York State, the headwind slowed me and the group caught up again. They were the same people I’ve been trying to ride away from the entire day. I recognized them with their most distinct characteristics. A green Cannondale, a red and white Pinarello, and the Aussie jersey. So really, I’m somewhere in between a mountain goat and the gruppetto.
I conserved my energy before the last climb – a climb we recce’d the day before. I knew it by heart and I knew I could attack.
And I did. It was a steady pace on dirt and it was winding at parts. It wasn’t a real switchback because there was no respite. The grades just kept going up stepwise. I turn it up another couple of notches and within a few seconds, I lose everyone – except the Pinarello-man. He’s a few lengths ahead of me and I eventually lose contact. I keep at my own pace with the heavy breathing. Doing Pranayama enhanced my rhythm. At the top, they tell me there’s one mile left to go. I punched it with all my will and never looked back. But there was a problem. One rider caught up to me in the last 500 metres. The dirt section turned into paved road at the top, then to gravel as we hit the fairgrounds in the last 300 metres. I took the approach to the gravel road from the outside line, having learned from a past gravel road entry that going too hot on the wrong line can make you wash out into the ditch. The rider behind me swerved to my right to take the inside line. There’s no way I was going to be taken out after all this. I backed off and waited for him to make the mistake. He’s too hot and his approach was all wrong. He slowed up on the gravel realizing that. That was my cue. I punched it again only to see Pinarello-man just ahead of me. We’re in the same category so I shifted another gear up. I’m sprinting on gravel with a road bike at that point! That’s a first. I passed Pinarello-man just metres before the finish line at 28mph. We received the same time but I think he forgot it was a race.
My placing: 37th of 78 riders.
Just as I predicted – smack in the middle. My third eye has been quite powerful as of late.
At the end, I waited patiently for my teammates to come in from their races.
In retrospect, the race was a success, despite having one of our teammates get into an incident with another competitor and ending up in the hospital for some contusions. (No, there wasn’t a boxing match.) Of the 9 riders, 8 of us finished and many of us had respectable placings. But what was most respectable and something we can be proud about was our grit and determination to back each other up no matter what happened. It’s the kind of support you can’t buy. It’s the kind of support that comes naturally. And really, we haven’t known each other all that long.
As for the next race, stay tuned.