Thoughts before racing:
This is gonna be hard
That one hill is STEAP!
The gravel is gonna be sick
The whole race is gonna be sick
I get to eat a lot of food today
I probably won’t crash or get any flats
I’m probably gonna win
Thoughts during Battenkill:
Thoughts immediately after the race:
Kennett REALLY thirsty
Kennett hate this race and I doesn’t care if two spectators walking by at the finish hear just how pissed off he is
Distance: 124 miles (two laps of a 62 miles course)
Gravel sectors: 14 (7 per lap) –note, they’re called sectors not sections. Big difference.
Elevation gain: just under 9,000 ft
Calories I brought with me: 3,200 (though I only ate a measly 2,700)
I decided I hated the race right about the time I got my second flat, which was on the most crucial part of the course on the first lap. I’d been riding 5-10 guys back at the front on the Becker Road gravel sector, the first of three gravel sectors in a row that make up a nine-mile stretch of dust, pain, and are home to many race-ending chunks of gravel larger than limes. And much sharper too. One almost broke Ian’s arm in half. If one had hit Steve he likely would have suffered a broken torso. If one had hit David he probably would have assumed it was a gnat. If one had hit me it actually wouldn’t have hit me but would have instead hit my bike and broken it and Allan would have been PISSED.
I’d been feeling superb the last couple days since we got to New York, riding with that wonderful sensation in my legs that makes you question whether your power meter is reading way too high or something. The race got underway at noon, Sunday, under sunny skies and 70-degree, muggy air. We’d ridden parts of the course the two days before, though almost half of what we’d ridden had been sections of the cat 1/2 race, which I’d mapped for the turn-by-turn using Ride With GPS. For some reason the website liked to call the cat 1/2 race the pro race as well, which made the route-finding extremely difficult, considering there were like 32 different maps on the website and half of them had “pro route” in their title. Anyways, we knew that there were two main sections of the two-lap course that we NEEDED to be at the front for. 25 miles into the race there was a super steep stair step climb, in total about a five or eight minute effort, which was immediately followed by a fast descent and then a fast, false flat downhill gravel section. The other place that was crucial to have good positioning was at the start of the 9-mile gravel sector (three separate sectors separated by two short stints of pavement). The lead up to this gravel sector was hard in itself, located right outside of a “large” town that involved some turns and a few short steep hills. Both of these crucial sections of the race had feed zones right before them, which made feeding extremely difficult and risky.
I got my first flat roughly 15 miles into the race right after the third gravel section. Ironically I didn’t flat in the gravel sector itself, but right after it on a corner that had like five pieces of gravel on the pavement. I thought that it was a bad place to have a mechanical, since the pack had broken up over the last couple miles and was strung out in the crosswind with gaps. I kept riding hard for a minute in the strung out line I was in, in order to make it to the top of a little riser so that I’d be able to get some quick speed for drafting the caravan back to the pack once I got the wheel change.
The Mavic neutral support got to me fast and had me rolling again in no time. Five minutes later, with the hardest effort of the race in my legs so far, I was safely in the group, which was now bunched up into some headwind. Crisis averted.
Leading into the Jim Bean climb (that really steep one I was talking about earlier), the pace went way up as the sprint for the base of the hill ensued. I found Gabe’s wheel somewhere near the front and he went up the left side with me right behind, making it to the very front just in time to start the climb. I knew how important it would be to not directly follow any hard accelerations, since there were so many kickers at the top, plus a possible strong crosswind up at the top there as well. I did most of the climb riding in the top 5 or10 wheels, then slowly let a few guys pass me once we got to those rollers at the very top so I didn’t have to jump quite as hard during Mancebo and the other fast climbers’ attacks. David and Gabe were right up there with me as we crested the top and barreled down the backside, heading into the fourth gravel sector of the first lap.
Once we hit the gravel, hands were going up all over the place, signaling flat tires. I prayed my rubber was strong and wouldn’t break. It held, for the time being. The peloton had been shredded like cheese behind me at this point, from the climb, the gravel, and all the flats on the gravel, but it came back together pretty quickly once we hit the next flat headwind section. It was the perfect time to attack, but Steve beat me to it.
He went with Competitive Cyclist rider Max Jenkins and they immediately stretched their lead to two minutes as the peloton scratched its groin and looked around for someone to do the work. They stayed off for a good chunk of that lap but were reeled in on the 9-mile gravel sector. A few miles after Steve had gotten away, Optum and Kenda took charge of things as we came into the town of Greenwhich. Being the designated Map and Route Finders for the past two reconnaissance rides our team did on Friday and Saturday, Steve and I had thoroughly warned everyone to be at the front after we went through Greenwhich, 40 miles into the race and a few miles before the fan got shitty.
I worked my way up, using some energy on the hills outside of town to guarantee myself a spot at the front. I found David just before the last couple turns and we both began the 9-mile gravel sector right at the front.
Moments into gravel I realized that I was hurting. The road seemed flat and the gravel wasn’t even that thick here either. Why was this hurting so much? I finally came to terms that it was, indeed, uphill, which made me feel better about the suffering I was doing, which in turn made it feel like I wasn’t suffering that bad after all. The gradual climb turned to a descent and we took a breather. I think I saw Jesse barrel past in the thickest part of the gravel without blinking an eye.
A mile or two later, once things were flat again and we were almost out of the first of these three gravel sectors, I was still right up at the front and feeling good. This didn’t last for long, for I suddenly realized my rear wheel was bouncing. I panicked. This was not the time for a flat. I looked back and there was carnage. The lead bubble at that point was only like 25 guys, followed by a strung out line of riders that stretched back into the ever-increasing dust storm. I kept riding hard in the group until my tire was completely void of air. I kept looking back hoping to see the yellow Mavic car or one of the motorcycles coming up behind us so I could get a super fast wheel change. This was not to be, and I ended up dismounting when I couldn’t keep a straight line any more and waited for quite a while on the side of the road. By the time the wheel car got to me and had the new wheel on, I was minutes down on any sizeable group. Joe found me and began pacing me back up through the caravan and the chaos of the other dropped riders. The dust thickened to the point of me not being able to see more than a few cars lengths up the road. I weaved in and out of cars and other riders, all while hoping to avoid the largest of the rocks in the road. A small hill presented a cyclocross situation during an especially thick sand pit and I had to dismount and run up the hill 15 meters before I got back on again. I continued to pass a lot of people and slowly made my way through the caravan. If I could make it all the way through this and the final gravel sector in the caravan I had a chance at pacing back on when it became pavement again and the pace at the front let up (not sure if it did). But I had to do it before the peloton got to the last gravel sector of the lap, which had a big hill in it. If I wasn’t at least within a cyclist’s stone throw of them at that point, it was game over.
I took a long power feed from Joe and a final draft on his bumper and passed him on a descent (still in the gravel). I barreled down the hill, my thin road tires buried in the loose stones, Tokyo drifting but not caring. I was going to get back in the race, God damn it.
I heard a hissing sound. I was not making it back in the race. My rear tire was flat again, the third and final flat of the day. I was furious now and screamed fuck multiple times as loud as I possibly could as I came to a stop. The riders whom I’d just passed a few minutes ago went by me. I’d only been riding for 10 minutes and my wheel was already flat again. This was due, in part, to bad luck, but also to the neutral support’s failure to put more than 60 PSI in the tires they’d given me.
Joe screeched to a halt at the bottom of the hill behind me when he saw me get off the bike. He jumped out of the car (jumped is a loose term) and replaced my rear wheel. I got back on and hammered. Joe passed and I was on my own, off and on for the next 15 miles as I burned passed lone riders and groups of weaklings. I’d pull with them for a few minutes, see that they’d already given up, and I’d leave them behind for the next group up the road. I couldn’t believe people were willing to call it quits already. I smashed up the final gravel sector climb and caught my teammate Gabe near the top. He and I took turns until the start/finish line, going by other deflated groups on the road like they were standing still. It was all for nothing. A race official blew a whistle at the finish line and motioned to us to stop and that our race was over. The peloton, I learned later, had only been 3-4 minutes up the road (uncatchable but still no reason to cut us). Honest Gabe stopped, but I continued on in defiance, out of anger, out of hope that I’d be able to somehow catch back on, but also due to the sheer fact that I’d eaten a monumental amount of food the night before and the morning of the race and there was no way I was racing less than five hours today.
So I did the last 62 miles of the race completely alone, going close to as hard as I thought I could hold for the next three hours. I felt like I could also use the intensity that a high altitude athlete can only get from riding at sea level. It was a lonely and futile pursuit and I really couldn’t be considered a part of the race at that point, but I wanted to get my money’s worth of hurt. I felt sooooo strong! Too bad I was 20 minutes down.
I’d only had three bottles and by now I was 90 miles into the race. I became increasingly thirsty. I scanned the ground for bottles and feed bags, the sides of houses for hoses and water spickets, I even thought about stopping at a creek. I eventually broke down and stopped on the side of the road to pick up a bottle that had been tossed in the grass. It was less than half full and contained as stranger’s spit, and it was delicious. It saved me.
I crossed the finish line just under 5.5 hours, pretty well spent, but not in the race intense way that I’d hoped for, like the three finishers on our team (Steve, Ian and David). David and Ian were our top finishers at 20th and 22nd.
Conclusions about the race after I had a day to think about it:
The race is awesome. I just had terrible luck, like a lot of people. Sometimes you make your own luck with flats and crashes, though this was not one of those cases so I have nothing to take away in terms of lessons learned from this weekend. Basically all I can say is that shit happens and at least I had good legs. There’s always next year. It’s just a shame that we don’t have more races like this in the States. We have a thousand crits but only one classic.
More pictures to come. Maybe.