I’m sure that many of you are eagerly anticipating The Tour of the Battenkill coming up this Sunday. With only a few days left to prepare, I thought I’d offer my thoughts in what will be my 6th time lining up to contest a race on this fabled course. What was once an odd anomaly of a road race in a remote corner of upstate New York has become the crown jewel of the New England racing season.
It is easy to be distracted by the most distinctive feature of “The Battenkill,” the several lengthy sections of dirt. Most races are contested over paved roads on major thoroughfares, but any rider who has trained in the Upper Valley knows that dirt roads are nothing to be afraid of. The real challenge of the course is the 2,900 feet of climbing in about 64 miles. This wouldn’t be an inordinate amount of climbing for a road race, but it is concentrated in several key parts of the race, making for a number of relentlessly grueling intervals.
The race will not be won in the first several dirt sections, but they could be where the race is lost. It goes without saying that it is important to be near the front of the peloton at these points in the race. Even if you are an accomplished dirt road rider, chances are that there are other people in your field who are not. Their nervousness could lead them to allow gaps to form, or even crash. Getting caught behind an inexperienced or nervous rider when you hit the first several dirt sections could leave you chasing the main field for the rest of the race, expending precious energy, even if you are able to catch back on. Enter these sections as near to the front as you can, but try not to waste too much energy in the process. Battenkill is a race of attrition. It is incredibly easy to waste energy at indecisive moments of the race. There are miles of flat, paved, and downhill sections on the course where there is little chance of putting any significant time into your opponents. Attacking or riding on the front in these sections will only sacrifice energy that could be put to better use at the decisive moment of the race.
There are also challenging parts of the course that will sap your energy but probably not draw out the eventual winner. Juniper Swamp Road is one such moment in the race. The climb on Juniper Swamp is dizzyingly steep, and many riders find it disconcerting because if the dirt on this section is loose, it can be difficult or even impossible to stand. Try to stay seated and keep your weight over your rear wheel. Don’t panic, the winning move will not escape here. Try to keep yourself in the largest group of riders. This is the field, and there will be plenty of racing left to catch those that have escaped off the front on this short climb. Another taxing moment of the race comes on the long “stair-stepped” climb up Joe Bean Road. Again, try to keep yourself in contact with the largest group on the road. If you find yourself fading a bit, slow your pace gradually and allow a few riders to pass (see my post of sag-climbing). There is plenty of descending on the other side of the climb during which most of the field will regroup.
The first moments of the race that can be truly decisive are the rollers on Meetinghouse Road. The fact that this section is dirt is irrelevant. The true challenge is the relentless climbing punctuated by descents that are far too short to recover from the preceding effort. Take comfort in the fact that there is some sustained descending once you turn right onto the pavement at the end of this section. If you are feeling strong, seize the moment to split what’s left of the field. The riders who are left will be strong and most likely willing to work. I find that I always feel better coming off of this section, as the speed remains on the descent and the flat paved roads that follow it. If you find yourself getting dropped on Meetinghouse Road, as is often the case with me, here is a helpful tip: the descents between the climbs can be taken at speed. Tuck yourself into the most aerodynamic position you can manage and point your bike straight down the hill. There’s no sense wasting energy by trying to pedal down these sections, and if you make yourself aerodynamic enough, you will connect with the more timid (and often lighter) riders in front of you.
Stage road offers the final and best moment to launch your winning attack. It is a lengthy dirt climb several miles before the finish, and once you summit, it is nearly entirely downhill to the finish. By this point in the race, all but the heartiest competitors will have been dropped and if you find yourself in this select group you will have a simple choice. Do you like your chances sprinting against a select group of strong climbers, or would you like to improve your odds by splitting the group one last time? If you like your chances in a small group sprint, try to identify the strongest rider in your group and glue yourself to his or her wheel. If you choose correctly, you can be assured that you will not miss the winning attack if it goes on the climb, and you will not be dropped if the group increases its tempo as you ascend.
If you decide instead that you prefer your odds solo or sprinting against only a handful of riders, launch your attack. Contain yourself over the first half of the climb, and if possible, launch a counterattack after a failed attempt by one of your competitors. It is almost universally true in bike racing that the winning attack goes when the racing is at its hardest and you are feeling your worst. Remember, everyone is tired, and everyone is hurting. The only question is, are you willing to suffer more than the rider next to you?
Good luck, and don’t forget to have fun!