Live from Flanders, the time has come for my annual treatise on the Tour of the Battenkill. I’ll be back home tomorrow and will be posting some photos from the trip and writing about De Ronde, but as we’re still pretty busy here I’m going to make you, my five readers, wait for my account of the biggest one-day race in Flanders, and instead offer a post on the Battenkill, which I actually wrote on the plane over to Europe on Thursday evening.
Every year, for the past few years it’s been my pleasure to field emails, facebook messages and blog comments requesting some kind of secret to the Tour of the Battenkill. There’s no secret, but I’m certainly willing to share what I know about the race.
Although I’m not the fastest amateur out there (not by a long shot!) I have had the chance to study the Battenkill more closely than most, and probably more closely than I should admit. Witness: My former home in Saratoga Springs is only a short ride from the Southern Washington County course, and I used to regularly train on many of the roads used in the race and this year will mark my fifth participation.
Each spring for the past four years I’ve made a point to study the course. Sometimes I started in the fall. Unlike Prospect or Central parks, you can learn something new on each trip around the circuit. In 2009 I pre-rode the course no fewer than three times before race day. This year, geography has made that a little more challenging, but I still managed to ride the revised route with promoter Dieter Drake last fall, when it was brand-new, and again last weekend with John and Scott.
Considering all this effort to study the race, my Battenkill palmares is somewhat lacking. My best race was in 2009, when, as an upwardly mobile cat 3, I finished sixth or seventh, depending on whom you ask (that year is also remembered by “epic” problems with the phototiming equipment.) I upgraded to cat 2 shortly thereafter. 2008 could also have been a good year, until I got a flat at mile nine -- after telling the wheel van driver that I was going to win. Smooth.
I was fat in 2007, so there’s nothing else to say about that. I came into the race fit last year, but was undone by negative racing, and wound up somewhere in the top-40. Not satisfactory by any means, but still good enough to elicit congratulations from some newer racers.
Further still, it has been my pleasure to cover the professional men’s event at the Tour of the Battenkill for three years, interviewing a succession of gracious winners, while getting the best mobile seat in the house to watch the drama unfold. There was nothing quite as cool as watching eventual winner Caleb Fairly and runner-up Floyd Landis race across Meeting House Road in the closing miles of last year’s race. It was a sporting moment I won’t soon forget, regardless of my personal feelings about Landis. With the race’s consolidated format this year (and my new job) I will not be covering the race in any formal capacity, which takes some of the pressure off my weekend, but will also leave me out of some of the insider aspects of the race—which I’ll certainly miss.
So, between the racing, writing, study and practice, it may be fair to call me a Battenkill scholar. Or, perhaps, a student of the Battenkill? Disciple? Maybe that last one is taking things too far.
Regardless of the label, it’s now less than a week to race day, so it’s time for me to impart some of my accumulated knowledge, paying particular attention to the course revisions that will define this year’s event.
First of all, a couple of key points, frequently asked questions, if you will:
1) What tires should I run?
Whatever tires you usually run for a road race. The dirt roads in Washington County account only for about 25% of the course, so while you’re not likely to win the race by running a fat tire to gain additional traction on the dirt, you could lose the race by sapping your legs on the pavement. 23 or 25mm tires will do just fine, but there’s no reason to go any wider. Also, the roads are in good shape in general, and especially this year—meaning the surface of most roads is nearly indistinguishable from the paved roads, at least as far as your tires are concerned. I would say, though, that you might consider running slightly less pressure than you normally do, to increase the traction on your road wheels.
2) What are the roads like?
See above. When I rode the course last, the roads were in really good shape. There was one spot where a creek had blown out the road and fist-sized stones had been used to fill the gap left on Meeting House Road, but even that small section is rideable. Otherwise, there are just the usual potholes to watch out for. Keep in mind, though, that the condition of the roads can change with the weather. Things could go to shit in a hurry if it rains and gets significantly warmer (incidentally, since writing this, the Capital Region did get a lot of rain, stay tuned to temperatures this week), or if any of the roads get graded between now and race day, which has happened in the past. It certainly pays to be ready for anything.
3) What climbs should I look out for?
This question was the subject of a rather lengthy, disjointed email I sent a relative of mine a couple weeks ago. I will summarize the email thusly: Battenkill is not marked by one iconic climb, but by a near-endless series of small, steep climbs. To do well at Battenkill you must master them all. Race near the front to make sure you don’t let others gap you off the back. Here are the key points: Joe Bean Hill is the longest, but the long descent down the backside gives even slow climbers a chance to catch back on. Juniper Swamp is the steepest, but it’s so short that most fields will just roll over it without blinking – even the elite fields that have to race it twice. Still, it is really steep and you probably won’t be able to stand up, for want of traction. Plan on churning your 25 or 27. In fields unable to roll the climb, some riders may be forced to walk – again, it’s best to stay near the front. The climb out of Shushan is long and grinding, as is the climb out of Salem, but neither are very steep. The three rollers that comprise Meeting House Road are not the most challenging climbs on their own, but the quick succession makes them hurt. For many, if not every, field, the race will be won and lost on Stage Road, the last climb that brings you from Buskirk back toward Cambridge. If you have anything left at the bottom, twist the throttle wide open and hold it there. Burton Road is part of the addition, read more about that below.
4) What dirt roads should I look out for?
As I’ve mentioned, all of the dirt roads were in good shape when I saw them last. Hopefully they will remain in relatively good shape. The most critical of the dirt sections is the four-part sequence that stretches between the second feedzone and the finish line: Mountain Road, Becker Road, Meeting House Road and Stage Road. Mountain Road trends uphill at a generally painful slant, before dumping you out onto a short, paved incline. Then it’s a white-knuckle descent down Becker Road. Not only is the trip down the hill fast and potentially scary (depending on who’s around you), but you take a hard left at the bottom onto the paved portion of Meeting House Road, before that quickly transitions back to dirt. Despite the relative smallness of the three rollers on Meeting House, a peloton intact at the bottom of Becker will have exploded by the time it reaches the end of Meeting House, most often leaving just a small group to settle matter amongst themselves. A longish paved section follows, before you arc back north and eventually hit Stage Road. If you’re still racing at this point, make your companions suffer on the climb -- it’s steepest at the bottom and eases off toward the top. After 60 miles of racing (or 80, depending), this climb will hurt, a lot. Once back on pavement, you’re nearly done – just hit the jets and burn for home.
Now for the new sections:
It used to be that after climbing Joe Bean Road and descending Bunker Hill Road and Ferguson Road, you turned right onto NYS Route 29 and enjoyed an easy ride along the Battenkill for about 8 miles until you hit Greenwich and racing resumed. For most people this was a chance to recover, eat and take stock of the situation on the road.
You can go ahead and forget about all that.
Now, you’ll turn left at 29 for a short stint, then bang a right over the Battenkill, and will be subject to a series of punishing climbs on Carney & Cassidy Road. Then you get a brief respite, before more climbs, both dirt and paved on Cambridge-Battenville Road and Center Falls Road and Old Cambridge Road. Once you’ve started foaming at the mouth, you’ll descend back to a right-hander onto NYS Route 372, followed by a left at the familiar intersection with County Route 74, and the course resumes as it’s been raced for the past few years with a trip through the Burton Road feedzone. Steve will be holding my bottles, and if you try to swipe them I’ll put you in a ditch.
A friend emailed me last week and said that he’d heard the new course additions would be a game changer. I denied the claim. No doubt, the addition is very challenging, and doing away with the only bit of rest on an already-demanding course is just the sort of cruelty that Dieter likes to traffic in. But a game changer?
The Battenkill has always been about mastering the many climbs and dirt roads. The new section is therefore just more of the same. Dieter isn’t changing the game; he’s just asking us to elevate our games a little bit.
But that’s not all. There’s also a new finishing sequence. For the last couple years, the race has come north on Tunpike and South Union into Cambridge, then turned right at the IGA, for a 300-meter long finishing stretch to the firehouse and Rice Mansion Inn.
This year, you’ll skip the right-hand turn and cross Main Street, going one block farther north and taking the next right onto Spring Street. Then, in a turn that will be familiar to anyone who raced the dearly department Balloon Festival Classic, you’ll turn right on Broad Street, for a shorter finishing straight to a line in front of the Cambridge Hotel, birth place of pie ala mode.
The new finish is more technical, and some of the pavement in the last half-mile is in fairly poor condition, meaning that you will have to think and keep your wits about you as you come to the line. Suddenly, in addition to mastering the climbs and dirt roads, you’ll also need to pull a trick or two from the crit racer’s bag of tricks to win the race. Is this an improvement? Certainly not for me, but it doesn’t necessarily hurt anyone’s chances either – the Battenkill doesn’t come down to a close sprint too often, and when it does it’s never a big bunch gallop.
I happened to bump into Dieter after John, Scott and I had finished our pre-ride, and he listed two reasons for the new finish: First and most obviously, the new finish allows him to be a better neighbor by keeping Main Street open to traffic. Secondly, and more important for the family you’re dragging up to Cambridge for a weekend of “fun watching Daddy race,” the race expo is in Railroad Park in Cambridge, across the street from the Hotel – which means that your family can watch you finish will enjoying everything the expo has to offer.
So, we can debate the relative merits of the new finish from a racer’s perspective, but for the spectators and the promoter, it certainly makes sense.
Now, go out and win (unless you’re in my race.)
Feel free to post questions here, I’ll do my best to answer!