Generally the best way to start off a race day is to wake up before the alarm clock goes off. There is no drudgery wrapped up in the process that reminds you of the daily grind. I did a great job of packing Friday night so the fact that I was up at 5:00 made for a relaxing pre-race morning. I brewed up a pot of super strong and extra dark Peruvian Dark Roast from Cafe Monte Alto and searched the web and Facebag before really locking into race mode. My excitement was growing every second and my hands were already trembly.
I was out the door at 6:40 setting sail for Cambridge, NY on a very gloomy, raw, wet morning. The drive was fairly inconsequential aside from re-connecting with Nirvana In Utero. I wish I could find a band that was like the second side of that album 24/7. I also finally confirmed my suspicion that The Black Keys album, Brother, changes colors when it gets hot in the CD player. Clearly, I’ve been spending too much time alone lately. The drive over Hogback was pretty adventurous as everything was covered in ice from the previous nights rain. Through Willmington I ascended into the thickest fog I had seen all year. I was paranoid about hitting a moose and spent about fifteen minutes strategizing what I would do if I took one out at fifty mph in zero visibility.
I arrived in Cambridge with time to spare an found a great parking spot less than a quarter mile from the start. White Stripes Slowly Turning into You raised goose bumps over my entire body which confirmed my readiness for the race. After a port of potty run and packet pick up I was back at my car in time to meet Darren and Charles. We debated the pros and cons of various clothing options before I settled on my final choice. Trademark high black Smart Wool socks, knickers, bib, base layer shirt, jersey, and thin gloves under my cycling cloves. The biggest decision was not wearing a skull cap under the sweet S-Works Evade helmet that Darren was letting me borrow for the day.
I warmed up on the trainer for twenty minutes and felt great. I didn’t bring my hear rate up as high as I have been at the shorter races because I knew that I was going to be in for a three hour sufferfest. The new SR4 Tarmac christened Leviathan was feeling lethal and stiff. Everything was in place to wreak havoc over the back roads of the Battenkill Valley. We got the car packed up in record time with the extra hands and went through the fueling strategy one last time for the two feed zones. I had seven Hammer Gels in a flask, a banana, two extra caffeinated Hammer gels, and two water bottles on board. At the first feed I was going to take on a mini coke and and extra gel. At the second feed I had a bag prepared with extra gels, a water bottle, and a super caffeinated drink. I erred on the side of too much knowing how mighty the effort was going to be.
At the staging I felt relaxed. Rolling to the start I positioned myself on the front line. If anyone was going to go early I would be there. At the command we leisurely rolled out through the streets of Cambridge. The first mile of the race is neutralized so I just hung out at the front to stay out of the traffic of nearly one hundred other riders. When the moto pulled over and lead car took over a pace line established itself almost immediately. We weren’t riding fast but my hear rate stayed high out of excitement. Turning off the first main road the pace quickened significantly. We were approaching the covered bridge and everyone and their brother wanted to be there first. I coasted up the side of the group and took a semi-conservative line to stay out of trouble. The first dirt road sector gave me my first taste of what I’d be experiencing for the remainder of the day. The previous nights rain coupled with the spring melt left the roads in disastrous shape. Water bottles were strewn across the sides of the road after every rough section. I was riding S-Works 24 mm wide tires on Zipp 404 wheels which while fast were thinner than the choice of every other rider around me. I even spotted a few guys rolling 28s! I stayed close to the front onto the second sector when we took a sharp left onto the first steep climb. Looking up all I saw was little triangle and square prints in the mud. Clearly this climb had been walked by a significant amount of riders in the previous races. I shot to the front wanted to have the best line possible. I geared all the way down and went into stubborn mode continually telling myself that I needed to make this climb. I almost lost momentum once but I powered through the mud and got separation. I heard clanking and swearing behind me as the back of the group succumbed to the severity of the climb. At the top I had a five second gap over one rider and together we had about fifteen seconds on the field. It was way to soon for that sort of foolishness so I sat up. What I didn’t realize was that my acceleration combined with the mud shed thirty guys off the back that would never be seen again. One rider pulled through and wanted the group to work. I suggested keeping it smooth and working together. As he eased back he accused me of being Mark Miller. At that point he let everyone in earshot know about my exploits as a runner and triathlete proclaiming beast status. In all honesty I was pissed because I knew at that point that I’d be a marked man for the remainder of the race. Through the next series of hills I shifted around at the front assessing who would be a good breakaway companion. On one of the few paved climbs I put in a small dig just to see what would happen and the field immediately stung out. A rider named Will came up and commented, “nice” with a smirk. I had found my friend for the day I just needed to wait for the right moment to pounce. Will and I sat in for the next twenty minutes and talked a little bit about getting away if things played out right.
We approached the first feed and I surged again and got a perfect hand-up from Darren. I managed to pop the top on the Coke and get a few solid sips before discarding it at the end of the zone. I had been doing really well with my fueling up to that point so I didn’t feel the need to take on the extra gel.
Shortly after the feed we came onto what seemed like the only longer paved climb on the course. Judging from my Strava stats I would say that it was Joe Bean Road. Will and I ended up on the front and by the top of the climb with fifteen to twenty seconds on the scrambling bunch. It was still really early but I had the echos in my mind that I would be marked all day so I asked Will if he wanted to make a run at a long breakaway. Will committed right away and we hatched a plan to take short smooth pulls and put as much distance into the chasers as we could. One of my major mistakes on the day was that I relied on Strava data to predict the race time. I was counting on a 2:48 to 2:50 effort which looking at where we were seemed conceivable. The chips were on the table at this point. The commitment had been made. If I was going to win Battenkill it was going to be out of a two man breakaway over the last thirty-eight miles of the race. In Will I had found my equal. He was strong, tall and gangly like me and seemed to have the courageous spirit to pull this crazy move off. Through the slop the roads continued to deteriorate. We were now catching riders which complicated matters because we didn’t have a choice of the best lines to take. Somewhere around thirty-three miles we made a long 180 degree turn over the train tracks and were immediately smacked in the face with a menacing headwind. I didn’t really think about the wind as we were riding away but now that we had to fight it I realized that we were in for a major battle with the conditions. Will, who had just seemed indestructible a few minutes before was now asking to take it easier because he was struggling. With the wind and roads I knew that it was way too early to go alone. It would be suicide to try and solo that far out. I went into protection mode and did my best to protect Will. I let him take pulls on the downhills but I did the majority of work on the climbs. The thought ran through my mind that he was working me over but moments later he started cramping. We were limping along but the thought of the chase started to linger. I decided that I would keep Will with me until the second feed and that I would go solo on the next big climb. At the feed I had a small miscommunication with Darren and got the wrong bottle. I wanted the big hit of caffeine but instead I got just a water bottle. In hindsight I had caffeinated gels I was just too wrapped up in the moment to think straight.
Rolling down the next hill I hit the gel flask hard. Looking up there was a mountain and a dirt road that went straight up! I laughed at the absurdity as we started the climb of Herrington Hill. When Will cracked he was gone immediately. I feel bad because we didn’t even get to say goodbye. We had just blown up the race together only to probably never see one an other again. On the climb things got tough. Let me rephrase that things got nearly impossible. I’ll be one hundred percent honest and admit that on Herrington Hill I wanted to stop and walk. Those thought were fleeting and I hardened the fuck up and got back to work. On the decent I dropped into TT position and smiled. I was exactly where I wanted to be doing exactly what I wanted to do. A winters worth of training and visualizing was coming to fruition. My passion for the classics of Europe was manifesting itself in the now. Hours in front of the TV or computer watching my idols suffer in the harshest conditions on the Pro Tour could not match what I was living in that moment. Whatever happened I knew that I had confirmed that I was a hard man like my idols.
The unrelenting wind continued to kick my ass either as a straight head wind or crippling crosswind from the right. I knew my power was dropping but I was almost there. At the base of Stage Road Darren and Charles were going crazy. I had pictured this climb all week while grinding out one more god-dammed ride on the trainer. Unfortunatly as I attacked the climb I started to crack. My head was light and my legs began to tremble. Warning lights and sensors all around my body were flashing dangerous warning messages. Just as I crested the climb a lone rider in black passed me looking surprisingly fresh. My mind refocused as I realized that this guy was in my race. The lead car dropped back and confirmed my suspicion. The thoughts that I had been nurturing of riding into town solo were dashed. My mind raced as I went through the mental catalog of every race that I had ever watched. I needed to do as little as possible at this point. If the guy wanted me to pull I would tell him to piss off because I had been solo for much of the day. I tucked in and tried to save as much energy as I possible could. I had been sprinting well the past month but that was after fifty minutes of racing around an industrial park. There was no comparison to what I had just put myself through. I took two pseudo pulls in the last two miles before settling in on the wheel of my rival as we passed the kilometer to go sign. I had to wait. I had to be patient. I was already half an hour over my budgeted time allowance for myself. Quite simply I was shattered. Onto the last straight I continued to play the waiting game. The din of the crowd grew louder and louder as we approached the line. Finally in the last hundred and fifty meters I sprinted with everything I had left. I pulled even with twenty meters to go and even inched ahead. My vanquisher found one last gear and took the lead back in the last meters relegating to a bitter second place. Over the line I was smashed. I felt like I had let everyone down by not sealing the deal. At the Mavic neutral support trailer I smacked a barrier so hard it fell over on its side causing quite a stir. Darren and family were there for the aftermath to pick up my exploded psyche. What more could I have done?
In the thirty minutes after the race I put together the pieces of what had happened by talking to the winner ironically also named Will. When the ten man chase went through the second feed they saw that “breakaway Will” had blown up. They knew that ten guys working together could pull back one guy that had been alone in the wind the majority of the race. In some ways they were right but if I had to do it all over again I would do it the exact same way. Had I stayed with the group I could have made it to town and had a ten up sprint for the win. Had I continued to nurse Will the chasers would have caught us before the final climb. I did what I had to do to put myself in a position to win. After the race the two people from the lead car tracked my down and congratulated me on the effort. They both agreed that they had never been pulling harder for a rider in a race before. They really seemed to share in the disappointment. In bike racing more than any other endurance sport the best man doesn’t always win. I have to be satisfied with the knowledge that I blew the race up and doled out three hours and fifteen minutes of epic suffering that rattled me to my core. This race was the hardest thing that I have ever done and I’ve done it all! If winning was easy it wouldn’t be special. If I didn’t care about winning I wouldn’t race. Driving out of Cambridge all I could think about was Boxer from George Orwell’s Animal Farm. The only thoughts that ran through my mind were “I will work harder.”
Huge special THANK YOU goes out to Darren, Charles, and Maddie for the support along the course. Thanks for standing in the freezing weather all day to watch a bunch of cooktards racing road bikes in the mud!