Sometimes life takes you on unexpected journeys. In February I wasn't really planning on racing the "Queen of American Classics" this year. It wasn't on my schedule of races. Southern Cross, yes. Barry Roubaix, yes. But a trip to New York didn't really seem in the cards.
Then all of a sudden, it was.
My friend and former athlete Marc suggested I come to New York for the Albany Spring Classic Track and Field meet. He was planning on coming out of retirement and throwing the javelin again.
My friends and former athletes Brandon and Tasha invited me to New York to help them celebrate their nuptials on April 25.
The Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology accepted my poster submission for the annual conference in Philadelphia on April 22nd - 25th.
The Master's 35+ Cat 1-4 race at Battenkill was on Sunday April 19th.
Now all of a sudden, there were some dots on a map. Could we connect them all?
Mor and I talked it over, looked at the calendar, and decided Yes! This called for an epic road trip.
I booked my flight to SIOP to fly in and out of Albany the friday before the conference. I had Johnny Sprockets set me up with some S-works tubeless 24mm tires, box up "the Rabbit" (my Cervelo S2), and ship it to Marc's office. I reserved a rental car with unlimited miles. We packed our passports just in case.
We flew in to Albany, and in a moment of travel brilliance I completely forgot about our checked luggage, and made straight for the rental car pick-up counter. Mor gave me "the look", and made her way to our abandoned bag, and saved us from a trip back to the airport later that evening.
We then headed due north to Saratoga Springs to pick up the race packet and have dinner. at a lovely little place on Broadway called Wheatfields. We then headed back down to Troy to spend the night with Marc and Talia, our gracious hosts for the evening. Saturday morning we slept in late, then I went to work re-assembling my bike. I had brought my torque wrench (in the almost abandoned checked bag), so I was prepared for the moment. As I unboxed the frame and wheels, I had a moment of brilliance, and labeled all of the various pieces of packing material with a red sharpie so I would be able to put everything back just the way it came to me. I then moved onto assembling the bike. Having no repair stand made the work a little more labored, as I was trying to steady the bike and assemble it at the same time. It was relatively painless, and it felt good to be able to do that myself.
I then took it out for a quick spin. I made it about a mile, and the Rabbit was making a small grinding noise as I pedaled. I wasn't able to determine the cause while I was climbing, so I pulled into a driveway and turned the crank manually. I found that my chain was grazing the edge of my chain-keeper once every rotation of the crank. I grabbed the chain catcher and tried to bend it, but instead of bending there was a "pop" sound, and the chain catcher got a little loose, and when I got back on the bike I quickly found that my front shifting had gotten really sketchy. I had to shift the chain all the way down onto the smallest chainring on the rear cassette to get it to go from the little to big ring up front.
I figured I would adjust it that night when we got back from the track meet. I went home, took a shower, and we got in the car to head to the track meet. When I told Mor about my ride, she said:
"Why are we not taking the bike to a bike shop to have it fixed?"
So that night, after the meet, after dinner, it was time to adjust my front shifting. I could tell that the front derailleur had come loose, and that the bolt needed to be tightened. I opened the user manual back on my phone, found the right tension, and started to torque it up. Except that it didn't stop turning. It just keep spinning and spinning. Uh-oh.
So I took the cable out, took the front derailleur off, and sure enough, the threads off the end of the bolt were completely stripped. It was no longer a bolt, just a peg. My only hope was to take off the chain keeper, thread the bolt back in, and pray that I could catch enough threads to limp through the race. Mind you, I was doing this work without a stand, trying to balance the bike with one hand and pull appropriate cable tension with the other, kneeling in a dark poorly lit porch. Even with the chain keeper removed, the bolk did not get enough "bite" to tighten to speck. The only thing holding the derailleur in place was friction caused by the cable tension pulling it down. You could wiggle it with your fingers.
So I did the best I could, and did the walk of shame upstairs to tell my wife that HER intuition about MY bike was correct, and that we would be spending the morning frantically trying to find a mechanic.
The Battenkill is a famous trout stream. When my parents came to help me move to Albany in the fall of 2000, they continued on to the coast of Vermont and Maine. At Christmas a few years later, my father said that he wished that he had at least tied a string to a stick and thrown it in the river just so he could say that he fished the Battenkill. So when he came to help me move back to the midwest in 2006, I arranged some time in the schedule so we could get licenses, fishing rods, and go fish the Battenkill, so it wasn't my first time in that part of the country. The race only crosses the Battenkill proper in two places, but crosses innumerable feeder streams and brooks, and circumnavigates it's drainage basin in New York State (the headwaters are in Vermont).
The second day of the Battenkill is the smaller of the two days. On Saturday there were something like 6 different Cat 4 fields with more than 100 riders each. The combined 35+ Cat 1-4 field on Sunday morning had 18 pre-regs. The race predictor had me pegged as #16.
We arrived at 7AM, 2 hrs and 10 minutes before the race, with the hopes of finding a mechanic on site who might have the required parts to fix the bike. At the time, I wasn't confident that I would even be able to start the race. It wasn't a great feeling. I rode from the parking to the expo-area and found that we were some of the first people there, and no mechanics had arrived yet.
So I rode back to the car where I was uncharacteristically scrambling and disorganized. I was struggling to find the right mix of base layers, arm warmers, and socks for the cool temperatures, and was worried about whether or not I could even start the race with a bike that couldn't reliably shift into the big ring.
[Pausing for the collective groan of my single speed friends...and moving on].
Mor was not happy with my level of disorganization. It was not our normal style. Eventually I was able to pull myself together, get my clothing dialed in for what was shaping up to be a chilly morning (in the mid 40s at the start), and get my nutrition aligned and packed. I tooled around the fairground a little, running back and forth between the parking lot and the exposition trying to find a mechanic and get ready. I used the time to test out the bike, and found that even after my "repair", I could still get the chain on the big-ring if it was in the smallest gear on the rear cog AND I pushed the shift lever ALL all the way in, AND soft-pedaled. The worst case scenarios seemed to be dropping a chain and for some reason losing the ability to shift into the big ring. It wasn't pretty, but I was limping. I mentally committed to the race.
The mechanics were not in the Expo at 8AM when they should have been, so I wasn't able to talk to them until about 8:10AM. Short story is, they weren't able to fix the issue, only get it working to about the same degree as I had before, and I didn't get my bike back until 8:45AM. I rode back to the car to say good bye and kiss my wife, and the first words out of her mouth were "Where are your water bottles?" She had put them on my bike, and I had not yet noticed that the mechanics had taken them off. It was that kind of morning. It would have been a long 68 miles with a single bottle of water.
They say that the longer the race, the less you need to warm up. Well, with 1.5miles in spread over a whopping 11 minutes of warm-up time, I put that theory to the test. Just after 9AM I headed to the start line, and rolled up behind some skinny looking dudes from Boston. The "One2go,one2go,one2go" guy was on the microphone asking them about their team name. I learned that 545 Velo is a team out of Newton, MA. 5:45AM is the time they meet for their weekly Wednesday morning group ride. I shuddered at the thought. I am not a morning person.
Without much fan-fare, the pace car rolled out of the fairgrounds at 9:10AM, and we were in following down a flat stretch of pavement. There was a neutral for a short bit, we turned right, and the pace quickened. My race strategy was simply to A) sit-in, and B) hold on for as long as possible. There were three Cat 1s, three Cat 2s, five Cat 3s, and four Cat 4s in my field. I kept reminding myself that I should not be the one attacking off the front this time.
Things went well early on. A few fliers went off the front in the first 20 minutes, but did not hold their breaks. We cruised fast downhills and the climbs were short enough I was able to hold pace. I was working, but not dying. After 20 minutes I clicked my lap timer, to remind myself to start getting nutrients in my system. By the time I needed them it would be too late to intake. Six minutes later we were climbing up Meetinghouse Rd towards what I could see in the distance was our first section of gravel. I sense tell that the casual pace was about to get frenetic, so I tried to prepare by delicately downshifting from big ring to small ring up front. It wasn't delicate enough. Just as the field attacked at the first transition to gravel I dropped my chain. I had to dismount, wrestle with it for a few seconds, and then remount. The field was gone.
I hit my lap timer again, to signify that I was now riding alone, and attacked the nothingness in front of me. As I crested the first big hill fueled by frustration I could see the pack down across the next valley. The only thing I could think to do was to go get them. So that is what I set out to do. At the top of the next hill were some photographers. I quoted "O'Brother where are thou" and asked them "How's my hair." Mor was there too, snapping photos just up the road. I had hoped to find her while I was still attached to the main group, but instead she got some great shots of me soloing off the back.
For the next 47 minutes I ground on alone into a crossing wind over and down the second significant climb. Every once and a while I could see the peleton ahead of me. Then a few stragglers who fell off. I put my crosshairs on their backs, and drove my feet into my pedals. I rode alone for 15.7 miles at an average speed of 19.7 mph.
When I finally caught the next rider, we immediately started working together, and quickly reeled in the 3rd. I don't know what their thoughts about it were, but I was vocal in suggesting we all work together. We had turned into the wind, and after facing it alone for a few miles, it was such a physical and psychological relief to be able to tuck in behind a someone else for a few moments and catch my breath. How much of a difference did it make? I clicked my lap timer again, when we started working as a threesome. My average speed during that lap was .7mph faster than the previous solo lap, but average heart rate was 5bpm slower. More speed, less effort. Thanks Wilson and Patrick.
The effort was relatively short lived. We worked together for 22minutes, enough to cover 8 miles, and the unthinkable happened. We caught up to the leaders of our wave. Even the woman driving the follow car shouted encouraging words at us, that they were right there and we could go get them. Had I any breath I would have suggested that she take a pull if she was so interested in getting there, but I had none left, only espirit de escalar. We had closed the gap to 100m or so, and I gave one last final push to get us over the top and the three of us tucked in behind the lead 9 riders who were still together. I had been dropped because of a mechanical, and was somehow able to claw myself back onto the lead group. Pant, pant, pant. It was time to return to my goals of sitting in, and hanging on.
And so I held on, for a whopping 2 minutes and 20 seconds. The reason we caught up with the field is that they were all sitting up in anticipation of the start of the 3rd big climb. Meanwhile, the three of us were attacking like maniacs trying to catch back on. Which we did, just in time for a big attack half a mile up the road. In hindsight, there wasn't much else to do. Had we read the "signs" a little better, guys sitting up and drinking, slowing down, we might have been able to sit up as well. But had we done that, we probably wouldn't have re-attached at all. We would have reached the climb as a threesome, not re-attached, and likely been torn apart anyway. We definitely had different climbing abilities. The end result would have likely been the same. The three of us would have been minutes apart from one another, and minutes off the field at the top of the climb. But at least we can say that we worked together and reattached to the main group which is an accomplishment in it's own right.
So I was alone again. I made it to the top of the climb, and then set my sights on Wilson and Patrick, my two compatriots. I'm not usually vindictive, but I was just a tiny bit happy that neither of them had been able to hang on to the main group. I would have been more than a little pissed if I made that last big surge, got them reattached, and then fell off alone like a booster rocket and watch them speed away with the leaders. Nope, we were all three once again in No-man's land. I caught Patrick first. We were in the rolling flats between two climbs, and I passed him. I encouraged him to grab my wheel, but he did not and I pushed on alone.
Next was a junior from the 9:00AM field. I was more than a little disappointed when I finally caught him, and realized he was in a different field. I had been hoping I was reeling in a place from my own field. Instead I caught a child. Next up was Wilson in his highly visible red and white kit. Wilson was the first rider I had to chase down the first time I fell off. The hardest part about chasing him down Was that we were very evenly matched, with similar strengths, so he surged when I surges, and he slowed when I slowed. I finally caught up with him on what turned out to be the fourth climb. I gave him a fist bump, and he said, "I'm just trying to finish."
Me too my friend, me too. I had shifted into survival mode the second I got dropped the second time. We took turns pulling up the hill. We crested with me in the lead, but after we got up to 30+mph he passed me again, and then disaster struck again. The strong crosswind, plus chatter from the road, caused my chain to start bounding so much that it fell off the front chain ring again. I wasn't shifting this time, it just bounced off.
Not only did it drop into the gap between the small chain ring and the frame, there was now enough slack that the chain had also been sucked into my rear wheel and was slapping against the spokes. I slammed on my brakes at 35mph and locked up my rear wheel to keep the chain from snapping a spoke and skidded to a stop. If you look closely at my Garmin track you can find the exact spot where one click I was going 33mph and the next click I was at zero. Wilson disappeared down the hill and another rider, the second junior rider I had just passed, zoomed by just as I got my chain on and rolling downhill again.
Thankfully Patrick did not catch me, but Wilson was gone. I was able to catch up with the Junior again, and he decided to get chatty. I tried to maintain my composure and not get snippy, but I was not in a good mood having lost my chain and Wilson again. He told me about his racing crits in THE City (i.e., NYC), and the tour of the Catskills and something called the Devil's Kitchen. I mumbled here and there about Barry and SouthernCX and mountain biking, but mostly I couldn't talk because I was working REALLY hard to catch Wilson, and this teenager was riding along side me at a conversational pace. I can not tell you how badly I wanted to drop him, how many times I subtly attacked him over the next 20 minutes, but was unable to escape. The attacks were subtle not because of any sense of courtesy, but because I was completely out of matches.
He did give me some intel about the race we were doing. Apparently there was a big climb on Joe Bean Rd, one of the hardest ones in the race, coming up, and from there it was all downhill from there. Mor was out on the course taking photos at the top of this hill. I was in such a dark place that I didn't even see her bright white coat or hear her melodious voice cheering me on. She coined the hashtag #JoeBeanisNoJoke. I concur.
Unfortunately Joe Bean Rd was not the last climb in the race. One the way to the last climb, I started getting passed by the lead riders from later waves. I think I confused the heck out of Andy Schmidt, a midwest Junior from Lake Geneva when I said, "Mr Schmidt, nice to see you today" as he and three other younger juniors from the next wave passed at the beginning of the last climb.
Patrick, my compatriot passed me on the last climb too. He said "You are faster than me on the flats my friend" with a wink in his European accent, and I replied, "And you are faster than me on the climbs, Godspeed" and I never saw him again either. Things got really blurry from that point onward.
At mile 60 I was going to take the last salt pill from my handlebar, and fumbled it onto the road. I turned my head back and saw it come to a halt on the pavement, and made a snap decision to not turn around and pick it up, and just ignore the cramps that were building in my legs, and just get home. I had some nutrients left which I finished, drank some water, and started to pedal as much as I could. I was able to get enough sodium back into my muscles to finish the race without serious cramping. Just some of the "slow it down a bit" kind of almost cramp.
At the last climb of the race, a short but steep gravel climb with a switchback, another master's racer caught up to me. As he passed I saw his number was in the 200 series and called out that I was relieved he was in a different wave. I told him there wasn't anything I could do about him passing me, but at least I didn't have to feel bad about it. I was grateful that as I covered the last 3km there was no one coming up behind me. I checked often, as I did not want to be pinched at the line by anyone, and would find some strength to hold off anyone else from passing me. Thankfully no one else came. Mor was at the finish waiting and cheering, and my doctoral committee chair and friend Kevin was waiting the end of the chute with a bottle of water. He had raced the day before, but came back up on Sunday to get some miles in, see some of the race, and try to catch up with me a bit. He and I rolled around to cool down a bit, and chatted. It was very nice to see him. After that, we went back to the car. I took a shower at the fairgrounds, packed up the car with three suitcases and the bike, and set off for Portsmouth, New Hampshire to start the rest of our vacation.
68.2 miles with 4,921ft of climbing in 3:35:57 (Avg speed 18.9mph)
50 miles in no-mans land.
12 out of 16 finishers (1 DNF).
2nd Cat 4 finisher
17min 27sec behind the leaders
5:30 behind Wilson (first Cat 4)
2:24 behind Patrick.