Since I signed up for the Tour of the Battenkill months ago, people have been giving me strange looks. “Wow, that’s a tough first race,” one seasoned rider observed. “You’ve never raced before and you’re doing Battenkill?” questioned another. Sure it’s billed as the largest and toughest single-day race in North America, but since I did the preview ride two years ago (granted, it had 1,000 less feet of climbing) and watched my husband race it in 2011, the race has been on my mind. I found that the more people questioned me, the harder I trained. So when Saturday finally rolled around, I felt prepared and eager to enter as a recreational rider and emerge as a racer.
Everyone seems to have their own epic tale of Battenkill. Whether it’s getting caught up in a nasty dirt road crash, running into a deer or getting side-swiped by a support vehicle, the stories from Battenkill are as legendary as the course itself.
My only goal on Saturday was to survive until the end. When I lined up with 50 other women at the start, my objective was to hang on for as long as possible and to stay alert for attacks and crashes. As we rolled out, I found myself on the back and knew I had to move through the peloton to position myself for an upcoming narrow covered bridge and the climbs to come.
I’d never ridden in the middle of a large pack. The draft was fantastic, but I felt my body tense up as wheels kept inching closer to mine and people wedged their way into the tiny space in front of me. The pace accelerated on the early climbs and I knew that Perry Hill Road had a very steep section that was known to split fields. Anticipating this, I moved up as much as I could, but we hit the climb at such a blistering pace and riders kept cutting in front of me. I couldn’t hang on to the lead group as they shot over the crest. I burned my first match trying to hang on. A sharp left-hand turn dropped us onto dirt and the infamous Juniper Swamp road. Unfortunately the chase group failed to get organized and we found ourselves scattered and chasing as a monstrous, dirt road wall loomed just ahead. What little organization we did have shattered on the climb. I knew I had to find a wheel or I was in for a very long day.
Fortunately I latched onto a strong chase group and we worked together to cut away at the time gap. I tried to limit my pulls, but I could feel my quads beginning to cramp and seize every time I was out of the saddle. Determined to keep pushing on, I downed energy drink and kept eating and somehow the cramps slowly eased up.
And then came Joe Beane Road, a wicked climb with five pitches and false flats in between. I hung with the group until one woman attacked and accelerated away at a pace only a few others could follow. I worked with another dropped rider as the climbs kept coming. She would inch out ahead and I would bomb the downhills to make up time.
At 45 miles in, we had picked up some other riders and were cooking along when my Garmin and power meter permanently auto-paused. I could care less about heart rate and power, but I felt a huge weight on my shoulders not knowing how much longer the course was or how many miles until the next killer climb. I felt directionless and at the mercy of my legs, which were stiffening and cramping by the minute. Others began to verbalize their discomfort, but I said nothing. Like karma in action, the complainers dropped out of sight as we climbed up Meeting House Road.
I spotted my family at the top of the climb. When my husband and coach yelled that I had a shot at a top 20 placing, something suddenly clicked and I found the space to dig a little deeper. During all those long, cold wintry nights on the trainer and outside when I battled against a bitter headwind, I always visualized myself cresting the top of Meeting House Road, bombing the downhill, surging across the flat road and then absolutely smoking the competition on the Stage Road dirt climb at the end of the race.
Sinking into the drops, I was ready to hit play on the movie I had been directing for months. I shed two riders on the descent and prepared for the final dirt climb. There were a variety of racers from my field and other fields who were dropped and riding solo up Stage Road. I found a comfortable cadence, settled in and then attempted to pass as many of them as possible. I passed a few Cat 3 women, who cheered for me as I squeezed out every bit of energy to find the top. “This is my first race,” I said, in one exhausted breath. I hadn’t mentioned this fact to many people, much less those in my field. I didn’t want them to spit me out the back because I was vulnerable or inexperienced. I wanted to look the part.
With under 5k to go, I didn’t see anyone else from my field. All that stood between me and the finish was an excruciatingly flat time trial. My legs were screaming for this to end and my stomach was raw from a combination of sticky energy gel and hitting V02 efforts a few too many times. But I channeled my inner Fabian Cancellara and pushed on.
I finally rounded the last corner, 1k to go. I hadn’t crashed or come in last! I was about to finish the race! Somehow I found the energy to let out a wide smile as I crossed the finish line.
I placed 20th. Not bad for a first race. Not bad at all.