I'm glad I waited.
I had the opportunity to do this race in 2009 and had to work. Again I had the opportunity in 2010 and chose not to race because of the time of year and the cost. This year I was determined to do it for the first time and I finally feel like I have the legs to handle it.
No, not win it. I am not an idiot. I think the probability of me winning this race in the Masters 40+ is darn close to zero at this time, although I suppose I would have done fairly well in the 4s or the 5s, maybe even having an outside chance to win it, judging by the finishing times in most of those fields. This is neither self-deprecation nor capitulation. It is simply an understanding of where I am now, as compared to where I might be in the future and who exactly I am competing against. There are darn good reasons to race in the 40+ however. (much smoother peloton, much more tactical racing, harder training and generally a more fun and less nerve-wracking experience). I have seldom, if ever, felt the same way in a 4 race. Those generally drive me nuts.
Hence I came to Battenkill with few expectations. Just my primary goal in bicycle racing: to have fun.
With that said I do have a lot of little things that I work on. This year is no different. My main focus is learning how to do well in a race while expending the minimum amount of energy necessary, until the time is right to expend a lot. That means drafting closer, getting more comfortable with being surrounded by riders very close on all sides, learning how to be more aggressive about maintaining or improving my position in the field, taking any advantages that I might have and also trying my best to make the other guy do the work. Patience, and not giving up. Realizing that there are always new opportunities that present themselves, even when they seem unlikely.
The field was full. One hundred and fifty riders signed up. One hundred and fifty riders lined up. The start was civil, almost tea-party like. It was blissful to be whizzing along at 25mph while nose breathing and putting out about 100 watts in such a huge peloton. Not long into the race I noticed people were getting antsy and pushing their way forward. This is one of my flaws. I too often allow people to shuffle me back when things get super-close in the pack. I need to work on this. I did the right thing, possibly by accident, and found a channel to the right to move way up right before this, the only covered bridge on the course and perhaps the most recognized icon of Battenkill.
I had excellent position right after the bridge, but people got very aggressive at that point, really jamming their way forward. I made the mistake of letting them do this, and did my best to compensate for it by climbing a bit harder on the minor dirt grade on which we found ourselves. I would find out later what the reason was for all of the jostling and fighting once we hit the first real kicker of a climb, Joe Bean road. It does sort of come up out of nowhere and once I saw the top of the hill in the distance, I knew I had made a mistake in not pursuing being further up in the pack when we hit this hill. It gets quite steep near the top and I could see three riders go clear. (I had a pretty good idea of who two of them were). The resulting surge split the pack in two and I was stuck in the second group.
(note to self for next year - good position for Joe Bean)
By the time we had reached the top, the race was over for half the field. A breakaway of three, followed by about 35, followed by about another 35 (my group) and that's it. Everyone else was dropped and likely never to be seen again. My group was racing full bore at this point, and we spent what seemed like the next twenty minutes either climbing full force or completely strung out chasing the first peloton. We could see them at times, especially on run-ups to a longer climb, but never got all that close. Battenkill is one of those races where, if you examine the results year in and year out, the finishing times seem to correlate with rider strength. This is not a hard and fast rule, but it does seem a significant pattern.
Here's who I was up against.
Notice the pattern on the jersey? That's not just a clever design, it's the real deal and he's allowed to wear the stars and stripes, being the current Masters national champion in road racing, Roger Aspholm. The second rider is Fred Thomas, who put up a time trial at Killington last year that would have had him in third place in the Pro race. The third rider was someone I had not seen before who came down from Canada. I have certainly seen plenty of guys from Bloor in races and they are always strong.
And following them,
The first peloton. Carl Reglar (Danbury Audi), who has been destroying fields at Bethel and winner of the queen stage at Killington and the Wilmington-Whiteface RR last year, able to do no more than hang with the pack. That's just how tough this race is. The rider in the foreground is Troy Kimball. Look him up. In fact, this pack is basically a who's who of Eastern Masters.
Tailgunning was the right move for me on this day. I could move up on the climbs if I needed, but I didn't have to. As soon as we got to a descent I would bomb them and gain a lot of ground, especially if it was dirt. Lots of riders fear descending. I am not one of them.
In fact, I didn't really see the wind until the final 20 miles of this race. We had been steadily shedding riders on the climbs until our little group was down to maybe 20 riders. The attacks came just before, and during, and just after Meeting House Road. I was very thankful to have not taken a pull up to that point because I needed everything I had left to answer the attacks. I don't know how many of us were left at that point since I found myself leading and mostly in the front, but I'd say it regrouped fairly well. We slowed down dramatically for a few minutes.
I was starting to show signs of fatigue when the pace quickened and we strung out heading in to the last big climb of the day, a stair-stepper with five climbs in all. I watched as about half of our group attacked the base of the climb and went clear. I could do nothing to follow them. In fact I was starting to fall back and in danger of losing contact completely.
(this is one of those moments which made me realize I am starting to get a bit better at this sport)
Once it became clear that it was do or die, I just told myself to forget the pain and forget about the legs not working. Stand, sit, whatever. Just keep pedaling and keep pushing. I did it. Near the top I had no legs left, so I used my arms instead, pulling on the bars as hard as I could to muscle my way over the top and maintain my spot in the small group that was left.
That's it. No more dirt. No more hills. Just about 5k to go and the race is over. We had maybe 8 left and could see the few who got away and were determined to catch them. The pace was high and things started to fracture and really hurt. I did my fair share, pulling through as hard as necessary to keep the pace going but not gap the guy behind me and it looked like we were going to catch them but just ran out of road.
At 1k to go we realized there were six left, and that's how it was going to be. The pace slowed a bit for the last two hard right-handers (more sand and gravel in the corners than you'd normally have, but it's Battenkill so I guess it's expected) and once we hit the final stretch it's only 100m to the line. Not a long enough sprint for me but I gave it what I had. The gear was spun up to about 130rpms and that got me close at the line, but my bike throw missed it by about a wheel.
I was more than pleased with this. A step in the right direction.
I did about an hour of 50 watts or so warming down. Slept wonderfully that night.