Last year, Battenkill was pretty much my first road race. I’d jumped in a few here and there prior to the April classic, but it was the first road race I entered in the context of training for a road racing season – that is, with any expectations of doing well! Expectations are a funny thing, I found out, as I limped into something like 27th place dragging all those expectations between my legs. With so much hype surrounding the race and so little experience road racing, my expectations had proliferated out of control. I had filled in all the bits and pieces that I didn’t know – like how it was to ride in a peloton, to climb hills in early spring, to ferret out a win in a field sprint, etc. – with visions of flawless mastery on my part. I’d decided to be a road racer and yeah, I expected to be darn good one straightaway.
With a 4-hour drive home from the race, I’d had plenty of quiet time to contemplate the events of 10k to go in my first Battenkill, in which swarms of spry women bounced by me up the final climb while my legs screamed and tantrumed and flat out refused to do any more work. I arrived home with a lot more respect for what it took to be a good road racer and a determination to get better.
This year, I went into Battenkill having gone through a full season of the school of hard knocks. Last summer provided practice with navigating pelotons, descending and climbing in road race conditions, minimizing energy expenditure during a race, and reading race developments. At Bennington I’d suffered up far worse climbs and survived, in Cascade I’d gotten dropped on far worse descents but fought back, at Green Mountain I’d made tactical errors and evaluated them later. Lyne taught me how to fuel and hydrate properly during a race, and that made a huge difference in feeling strong in the finishing miles. My dad’s gift of a Garmin and the discovery of the cue sheet were invaluable in deciding how to mete out effort during races as well. Another adjustment I made was focusing training this winter on pure base-building with a lot more long rides and increased overall volume but no intervals. I wanted to make sure my body would hold up over the length of the race this time.
That said, I had been down in the dumps in the weeks leading up to Battenkill. Rather than hyper teenage expectations, I had hardly any. I hadn’t even pulled together a bike to ride, and I nearly bailed on making the trip!
Expectations are a funny thing, I found out, as when I had lost sight of them, good people stepped in to help.
Earlier in the week my friend Scott had helped put my training experiences into perspective – and to encourage good recovery habits. Then, my friend and coworker Abby came to the rescue. She reminds the students all the time “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good” and her words became my mantra. So you might be tired and feel crappy and not have your best performance? At least go out and have fun racing, as that’s what it’s about anyway. So my “real” road bike (cross bike) isn’t ready, take the pit bike. Don’t have time to change to road gearing? Just make do with cross gearing. My mom pointed out, “Hey even people with the most expensive bikes and best gear can get flats that take them out of the race.” It didn’t have to be perfect, just good enough.
Still, driving home from work on Friday I had nearly made up my mind to stay home until I had a conversation with my brother Jesse. “Why wouldn’t you go?” He asked, to which I had no answer other than that I had been feeling crappy. “Well, your legs you mean?” Momentarily annoyed as I thought feeling crappy pretty much covered it, I muttered something about “Yes, the legs, and I’m just so tired.” “Well have you gotten in some rides as long as the race?” Annoyance turned to indignation, “Yes, every weekend!” “Well, the thing is, feeling crappy is just that, a feeling. Your fitness is there, so it might hurt more than usual but you can do it. I mean, you already signed up right?” It was like he was pouring Draino down the clogged convolutions of my brain. “Why don’t you go out and do some openers today…I’d recommend you go.” Then he stopped over later all kitted up and stinky from his ride – he was out getting it done, what was I doing? Yeah, no way was I bailing out of this one.
And so I went.
Friends in Lenox offered a comfortable bed and after a great night’s sleep, I set off for Cambridge, New York. Signs for a Saturday night square dance and town names including “Creek” and “Hollow” announced that arrival to the event was near. Once at the venue, I bumped into cycling friends I hadn’t seen since cross season or before, and it was fun to catch up as we checked tire pressure, taped on cue sheets, pinned numbers, and waited for our afternoon start times. Admittedly, I was not in high spirits but friends’ good vibes began to rub off.
At the start, Richard Fries set a jovial mood with his mention of the “sacrosanct” yellow line and reminders to dismount one’s bike should mid-race service be required. Soon we were off under a warm sun. I had no idea how my fitness would stack up so I decided to stay conservative early in the race. The pack stayed together over the first climbs, and I cautiously noted that the hills did not seem as horrific as I’d remembered it from the year before. About midway through the race, a couple riders became a bit more spirited up some of the climbs, and the pack split into two groups for a bit, but after some descents and flats both groups came back together. None of the climbs induced hallucinogenic pain as they had last year, and though I did get dropped on the one “S” descent, I was prepared for that and the friendly chaps on the Mavic motorcycle offered kind words as they putted past and again as I caught back on.
With about 20 miles to go, attacks went off pretty steadily, but nothing stuck until around 15 miles to go. Veronique Fortin and Alizee Brien danced away up a short steep climb with Marti Shea, Evelyne Blouin, and I following. Veronique easily pulled away from Alizee while Marti, Eveleyne and I stayed together a bit back of Alizee. The course was climbing steadily over rough gravel, leaving each woman to forge her own fate: both gaps remained about 20 seconds for several miles. Once the course smoothed out a bit, Marti and I rallied together and enlisted Evelyne to work in a pace line to chase down the two women ahead. Eventually, Evelyne dropped off the pace. Turning at the 10k to go mark to climb the final hills, I smiled to myself knowing that I still had some legs left and though it would hurt, I was contesting a top 4 spot. Marti and I worked side by side then she gapped me on the second tier of the hill and rode off toward Alizee. Staying calm I took a few moments to recover and then charged steadily ahead. Several north shore riders cheered and heckled as I climbed past them which spurred me on. Once Marti caught Evelyne around 5k to go, I had recovered sufficiently and I started to build my effort. The motorcycle dangled like a carrot just behind the pair. Time trial mode is no stranger to me, and I hunkered down and kept the legs churning. Little by little I crept closer and I started to sniff a podium finish. Finally around 2k from the finish I just managed to latch onto the two, and we descended toward Main Street. With 1k to go we started to glance around and Marti made a few attacks that I followed. Around 400 meters from the finish I came around the two and gave the sprint everything I had to finish in 2nd place, about 45 seconds back of the incredibly strong Veronique. Alizee (who it turns out is only 18!) finished 3rd and Marti 4th.
I have many to thank for helping me get to the start line, for avoiding the regrets of a missed opportunity. I’m so glad I went and made some fond memories at this season opener.