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Battenkill’09: America’s Queen Of The Classics

America will never be Belgium, but as of 2009, it does have its own hardman Classic. In its first professional edition, the Tour of the Battenkill rightly assumed its place as one of the best races in North America. PEZ was on hand in the trenches doing battle with some of the best. Read on!

April: bad weather, bad April Fools jokes and great races. As a cyclist you have a love-hate relationship with the month: often not quite as fit as you’d like to be, and too often struggling with motivation as the winter holds on for dear life, the big races hit often and hard. April brings us some of the world’s best races…the Classics!

You know the Classics – basically an overly long bike race on some shitty, windy course in cold weather with way too many riders and some kind of crummy obstacle thrown in for good measure, such as cobbles, steep hills or dirt. It’s pain on two wheels!

The Queen of the classics is of course Paris Roubaix, but unbeknownst to some, there’s an American Queen of the Classics. Until this year the race was appropriately called Battenkill-Roubaix. However for 2009, with the introduction of a Pro Invite only race, the event changed its name to “Tour of the Battenkill”. The name in itself strikes fear in my heart. Bat-and-KILL!

Sim’s team and staff for the weekend.

Frankly that does not sound like a race I’d like to do. But wait, it gets better (or worse). The Tour of the Battenkill, which is held in the northern part of New-York state is held the week following Paris Roubaix. Now you might think it would actually be cooler to run the American Queen of the Classics on the same date as THE Queen of the Classics. But you’d of course be wrong. The organizers of this event see big.

Tony Cruz, fresh off the plane from the real Queen of the Classics: Paris-Roubaix.

In having the event the week following Paris-Roubaix, they can thus invite teams and riders who actually raced Paris Roubaix the week before. And guess what… Pez was there. But unlike most press agencies, Pez didn’t have the big telephoto lens and a notepad. Nor was Pez sitting on the back of a press motorbike. Pez went one better. We were right there in the peloton rubbing shoulders in the Pro Invite Tour of the Battenkill with America’s top teams and riders fresh from Northern France’s Hellacious Paris-Roubaix. How did Pez do this you may ask? Well you’ll have to wait and tune in to part 2, where we’ll go into just how Pez found itself bouncing over dirt roads elbow to elbow with Tony Cruz and co. and we’ll also go into how Pez prepared itself for such an event.

The Event
Ok that’s enough preamble. Tour of the Battenkill; New York state; 200km, 5 hours 45 of racing; 48km of dirt roads; 14 major climbs (major for a spring classic anyway); 2433m of climbing; 4700kj, and about 3 rolls of bar tape I had to pull out of my teeth by the finish line. This event was huge. A real and true classic. The organizers did a great job of running cylcosportif and amateur events in the days before the pro race, meaning everyone got to ride or race the course and see what it was all about, and then cheer on the pros.

The course consisted of 2 laps of 100km course. The main attraction was obviously the dirt/gravel sections and some pretty mean steep hills (some paved, some gravel). Only 62 riders finished out of the 158 starters. The means 96 riders didn’t finish, and some teams had zero riders make it to the finishline. The numbers show the true toughness of this event. 22 teams of 8 riders were invited, with riders from all over the world, including north America, South America, mainland Europe and as far away as Australia.

The Race
We rolled out of the town of Cambridge, NY at a steady pace at 11am. I hadn’t raced over 180km since Austria in 2004, and I’m a pretty poor classics/flat with short steep hills rider. So I really wasn’t sure how I was going to do in this race. But I felt fairly confident that what I might lack in physical fitness, I could probably make up for in experience. I was hoping I could finish the race. So many things can come into play at a race like this, such as flat tires, crashes and a lack of fitness or adeptness for that specific kind of course.

We hit the first few sections of dirt and things started to get cracking early with a fairly fast pace. The first few dirt sections went fairly well and I was starting to get settled into what would be a very long day. The first 90km of the race went by fairly quickly, and I took up my usual place of hanging out at the back of the peloton and following wheels. I’m one of those riders who invariably hangs around at the back or is off the front, but rarely in the middle or at the front of the peloton. On a course like this, being at the front is clearly the right place to be, but some people just don’t ride like that, and I’m one of them.

So I was having a pretty good time, until things got a little hectic near the end of the first 100km lap on the steep gravel hills. Some riders were starting to get tired and gaps were opening up. So I found myself dropped from the main field and bouncing around between the team cars that follow the race. Frankly I wasn’t too worried about this. I sat behind cars for as long as I could and gradually made my way back into the main field. A few seconds after getting back on, my team-mate and team boss for the day pulled up along-side me having just got back on himself and said “Jesus, that was the hardest thing ever.” I looked at him and said “really? That’s just like every weekend race I do back in France”.

When I got dropped I wasn’t overly worried about it. Now I’m not proud of this, but I have a fair bit of experience working my way back up through the team cars to get back into the peloton. In fact, back in 2004 I spent what feels like 4 months bouncing up and down the team cars. It got to the point where I knew the team Directors and mechanics better than the other riders in the peloton. Not my happiest period in cycling obviously, but at least it taught me something. When you are dropped you just have to make sure you stay in the team cars and keep your cool. It’s very easy to overdo it and never get back on at all. Eventually the peloton will slow down a little. Even if it is only a few KPH or for a few moments, and that’s the moment you are waiting for. The key is to use the cars for as long as you can, until the peloton slows down. Then you have to take that opportunity, give it your all and get back on there and then. But the hardest part is to, dare I say “relax” and wait for the right moment.

Chewing Bartape
By the end of the first 100km, things were getting a little painful. We’d got rid of the riders who were tired and as the main field came through town and over the finish line to start the second loop of 100km we were flying, deafened by spectators at some 55kph. We got out of town and were lined up in one very long line, in the gutter and the wind. This is where you see the difference between pro and amateur races. In a Pro race you can pretty much rely on the guys ahead of you to hang on to the wheel in front for dear life. If as much as a 2 meter gap is opened by a rider anywhere ahead of you, it could likely mean the end of the day for all riders behind. At 55+kph, with a cross wind, inches from the gutter on the side of the road, every single rider is picking bar-tape out of his teeth. You push and push, pray to everyone and anything that you can hold on to the wheel in front of you just a few more minutes. You live in hope that everyone will slow down, even if it is only 1kph for 20 seconds… just enough for you to recompose yourself.

The rocket powered field made for a miserable day for many of the riders. It was a day for suffering.

This is when things can get dangerous. Your heart is pounding so hard it feels like a machine gun. Your heart is so far up your chest it’s trying it’s hardest to force its way out through your nostrils. That vein on the side of your head is ready to pop. Your legs are in so much pain and so full of lactic acid that you don’t even actually know if you are pedaling anymore. Every muscle in your body is tight as you grip the bars, push on the pedals, pull on the front end of the bike… your teeth are clamped so tight you could crack a molar; you get tunnel vision, you forget about the other 150 riders around you, you don’t care how close you are to the side of the road, you get to the point where you start to think that torture by some war-lord would actually be a welcome relief. You have to trust the guys around you. It invariably happens, that a slightly less experienced guy somewhere ahead of you is giving it everyone he’s got, head down staring at his front hub. He looks up suddenly to find that either the rider in front of him has slowed down, or that he’s about to cross wheels. So he slams on the brakes. And that’s when the S*** hits the fan! Always always keep your head up!

Hands Down Your Pants
After our nice little bit of Belgian wind riding pain, things slowed down for a while and we were able to chat and go back to the team cars to get water and food. The Peloton called a truce and many riders stopped to take a pee on the side of the road. This brings back a funny memory from this monstrous event. I was sitting on my top tube answering a call of nature by the side of the road, the team cars slowly making their way past me, when my own team car pulled up along side me. The guys doing the team duties that day were not that used to team caravans and long races where the peloton stops for pee breaks. But they were very attentive and wanted to make sure I was ok. As I’m standing there happily going about my business, I hear:

“SIM, SIM, you OK”. They yelled.

“Yep, fine.” I said

“You need anything? Need water? Need food? Here…” and they handed me endless bottles and food.

I looked at them, looked down at what I was doing, hesitated for a moment, then said: “Ermm…. I’m kind of occupied at the moment” I answered. “You guys keep going, I’ll catch up with you and get some water from you in a second.” There was something comical about the whole scene. Once I had finished, I got back on my bike, worked my way up to the car, had a bit of a chat with guys and got some food and water. The guys were great. They were taking really good care of us and were super attentive. And what’s more, they were loving it back there!

Quiet Before The Storm
That was it. That was the quiet. A little later, the storm hit. With some 150km in the legs, everyone was getting a little tired. I heard a couple of Canadian guys from Canadian Pro team Planet Energy talking. One guy said to his teammate in French (Canadian French) that seeing as he weighed 150kilos, he was getting pretty tired. I looked at him for a moment. Thought “You fat liar, there’s no way you are over twice my weight.” I was perplexed, the guy was a skinny cyclist. Then I realized that in their Canadian way of talking I had misunderstood. He was actually saying that after 150km he was tired. That brought a smile to my face. Quite a humorous misunderstanding really.

But the humor ended there. Things got crazy again as we went over the next few hills, and with only about 50 guys left in the peloton, a few of us got spat out the back. It turned out that this is the point in the race were the whole field got blown apart, leaving riders dotted all over the New York countryside struggling to ride in to the finish.

Foot-In-Mouth Disease
We formed a bit of a group and rode in together. I found myself next to another Canadian Planet Energy guy. I’d met a couple of the guys in France a few years ago. In fact the Canadian national team used to base itself out of what is now our team house and team HQ. So I turned to the guy and asked him (in French) if he had been with the National team in France. He looked at me blankly for a minute… then eventually said “erm… I’m English speaking Canadian.” Oh well, another Sim goof. I seem to be pretty good and putting my foot in my mouth.

Albeit Last!
As a team we did pretty well. We had 3 guys finish, James Driscoll on loan from Rock Racing finished a very impressive 6th, Ex Pro John Delong finished 25th, and I rolled in 62nd in 5hour 43mins of racing for this Pez-man.

John DeLong looking a little worse for wear.

As my mate Darren Lill, who rides for Team Type 1 this year but was not at Battenkill said to me two days later in a typical Darren e-mail: “Well done for finishing Battenkill Sim… albeit last!” That brought a smile to my face, he summed it up nicely. It was both good and bad. Brings us nicely full circle to that love-Hate relationship with the classics… “All be it LAST!”

If you want to go see the Pro race and make the most of it to ride the cyclo-sportif event or race yourself in your own category, check out the race website. It’s a great event, well organized and well well worth the trip (if you are into S&M)!

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