So disappointed. So frustrated. So sad.
Of course, I’m writing about Saturday’s Tour of the Battenkill Valley. If you’ve read this blog at all in the past month or so, you know that this race is a monument of cycling in the Northeast. Not only is it a stone’s throw from my home in Saratoga Springs, it is the largest single-day event in the country. It’s the one event that everyone and their uncle wants to race. Registration fills up months in advance, and people travel from across the country to participate.
Why is it so special? Well, you race on one 55-mile loop. No lapping around a boring circuit. And it features several dirt roads, adding both an extra challenge, and a feeling like you’re in Belgium racing on cobbles like Tom Boonen or Fabian Cancellara.
And it’s hard. There’s no hiding at Battenkill. This ain’t no crit, where even fat boys can hang in for the sprint. No sir. At Battenkill you bring your game face, your best legs, and you come ready to play.
I learned all of that one year ago, when I registered for the Battenkill thinking that it sounded like a cool idea for a race. Of course, registering for a race months in advance has its disadvantages. I was highly motivated when I signed up in December. But when April came, I was over weight, under motivated and out of shape.
Of course, I lined up anyway, and after riding the first few miles like a sack of potatoes, I was promptly dropped on the first difficult dirt climb. I swore then and there that I’d be back to make up for my embarrassing performance.
In the year that’s past I’ve gone on a successful diet to get down to fighting weight, and all through the winter, when I was suffering through three hour rides on my trainer, I was imagining myself flying up dirt roads. I ate gravel for breakfast, I dreamed of sprinting to the finish in Salem. I wanted so badly to win the race. I wanted the victory more than I can ever remember wanting any athletic achievement in my life.
And my preparations – both mental and physical – seemed to paying off. My fitness reached new levels this spring. I could fly up climbs like never before, so I allowed myself to be quietly confident – and sometimes a little cocky – in the weeks leading up to the event. This year I would come to play, I knew I could be a contender. On training rides with Dante I would say things like: “Well, you are riding with the future category three champion of the Tour of the Battenkill…” He would snicker and tell me to keep it up, but I think we both knew that I wasn’t completely speaking out of my ass.
My anticipation of the race in the days leading up to the event was so palpable that I experienced something I hadn’t felt in years: a deep excitement that manifested itself in trembling sensations in my stomach and tossing and turning at night. I was nervous. More so that I’d been since my early days of racing bikes when I hardly knew what a peloton was.
Suddenly my nerves got the better of me and I started second-guessing months of careful preparation: What if my gears were too hard? What if my tires didn’t have enough tread? What if I was too slow? What if it was hot? What if it was cold? What if? What if? What if? Recognizing that the questions were slowly driving me mad, I delved headlong into other work, principally writing non-stop about the race for my newspaper, for my blog, and for anyone else who would read.
Finally, on the night before the race, with two of my teammates staying in my apartment, I had to let go, and trust my work. Of course, I didn’t sleep at all that night.
I drove to the race under a gloriously hot August sun. Never mind that it was April. I methodically picked up my numbers, and pined them to the wrong side of my jersey. Then I slowly got dressed. Realizing my mistake, I got undressed and fixed my numbers. I put my bike together and warmed up. I put an extra set of wheels in the truck that would follow my race around the course, just in case I got a flat. Just in case.
As I did, I regarded the old wheels with their ratty tires with esteem. My oldest set of wheel, and my least attractive wheels, the acid-yellow Mavic box-sections rims have never once let me down, not in all the tens of thousands of miles that I’ve put on them. For a split, second I considered switching and racing on them, but I quickly realized it was just another butterfly, and stuck with my equally trusty lightweight racing wheels. After all, they had better tires on them.
I lined up at the front of the race with my teammate Pete. We discussed our strategy: stay close to the leaders, make the selections over the difficult climbs. And soon we started. The race rolls out of Salem on paved roads, but soon turns right onto the first section of dirt. I had no trouble rolling at the front of the field. A couple of riders went off on suicide missions, and were shortly brought back in.
Clearing the dirt, we rolled back through Salem, and headed south. The first test came at mile eight with a step, switch-backed climb out of the valley. I killed it. Everything was going perfectly. I was well within my comfort zone, so I pushed the pace on the climb. Looking back, the 100-strong field was strung out in single and double file. The months of work was paying off.
I knew one of the hardest features in the course would come shortly after that climb, when racers would fly down a paved decent before banging a hard right onto a dirt tractor track. I knew anyone not at the front would have to break hard into this turn, but I also knew that with the monster dirt climb just around the bend, hitting the breaks was the last thing you wanted to do. So I made it my business to be the first to the turn, and railed with reckless abandon, putting trust into my tires. The rubber stuck, and I was the first onto the dirt, and the first to the base of the wall of Juniper Swamp Road, an 18-percent grade.
The heat, and a week of dry temperatures, had left the road’s surface loose, and traction was scarce. I rode about 2/3 of the way up the hill, before my wheel started slipping and sliding. I hoped off of my bike and ran for it. At the top of the incline I jumped back aboard and took off down the hill. I’d given up a few spots, so I started hammering the decent as fast as I could. It was going fine, the dirt road flying underneath me when I heard a loud thud.
I thought nothing of it – just another consequence of racing on a dirt road – until about 100 yards later, when a familiar rough feeling from the rear end of my bike announced a flat. And just like that, my race was over.
I got off of my bike and swore to the wind. As I stood by the side of the road dozens of racers went clattering by. I wanted to cry. I wanted to throw my bike away. I wanted to yell at the leaders to stop. But above all, I wanted to get back in the race.
I dismissed each of these for various reasons. Got to be a man. Can’t throw my bike, it’s too expensive. No one is stopping for me anyway. But I still wanted back in the race… where were my damn spare wheels?
Eventually another rider clattered up with a rear flat, and we stood together, two disabled riders. We waited for what seemed like hours, and eventually the wheel truck drove up. I ran to get my spare out of the back, and slammed it into my bike. I took off in a desperate chase, but too much time had gone by. At least I had my trust Mavic wheel to ride home on. The wheel didn’t let me down.
I would up sitting in with other dropped riders. I found Pete a little while later. He had also suffered a rear flat, but he had the bad luck of not having any spare wheels. So it goes. I made it to the finish in just under three hours, 30 minutes slower than the leaders. On the other hand, I did stop twice (once to wait for my wheel change, and once to wait while Pete fixed his flat.)
On the ride home I passed and rode with a number of other riders suffering similar misfortune. It was a tough day out there, and ultimately, the strongest riders – with he best luck – took the win.
But the event still left a bitter taste in my mouth. One minute my mind, my legs, and my heart was in the race. The next minute, everything was dashed in an empty tire. I guess the only thing I can do is come back next year, fitter and faster.
Monday, April 21, 2008
So disappointed. So frustrated. So sad.