What's Cool In Road Cycling

Best of PEZ: Photog’s View Of The Battenkill

Best of PEZ: This year’s Tour of the Battenkill is in the books. I once again made the 8 hour trek north to shoot what is arguably America’s most unique one day road race. After all, I had had a blast the previous year, shooting the race from the back of a motorcycle, in the cold, and the rain. Now that may not sound like a good reason to return for most ordinary folks, but that’s the stuff us cycling photographers live for. Capturing the human element stretched well beyond the limits of physical capacity.

By Darrell Parks

Of course the race would be kicked down a notch this year as the UCI status had been dropped. I got a hint of things to come when I tried to use the online media credential form a couple of weeks before the race. After completing the form I was presented with the wonderful “A transmission error has occurred” message. A few e-mails later and the Media coordinator had confirmed me for credentials and a moto ride. I responded with a few basic logistical questions regarding meeting times and locations, moto safety briefings, etc. since I had no luck finding this information on the website.

Flash forward to a couple of days before the race and I had not heard back from the Battenkill Media guy. A quick reminder note resulted in the following response. “You should be all set, contact the Moto Coordinator to see who your driver is. He’s also setting up the meeting time and place.” Great, I’m all set! I’ll just wait to hear back from the Moto Guy on my drive up on Saturday.

One of the nice things about my trip to Battenkill is that I go right through New Jersey. I know you’re asking yourself how New Jersey could be a “nice” part of the trip. Well I grew up there and still have many friends and family in the “Garden State”. They also happen to live about 4 hours into the drive so it breaks up the journey and it’s a great excuse to visit and crash for the night.

So I get to my friend Johns place around 9:30 and we indulge in a few beers (thanks for the Guinness John!) and some hearty reminiscing. A little after 10 my phone goes off and it’s the Moto Guy! He apologetically informs me that my call to him was the first he’s heard about my needs for the race. As a matter of fact not only does he not have a moto for me, but they’re short a moto for someone else that was promised a ride too. “I’ll be out on the course all morning and should be in between 12:30 and 1:00. Just meet me near the finish and I’ll let you know if we’ve found a ride for you”. And that was the last I ever heard from the Moto Guy…

Sure I got to the Tour of the Battenkill headquarters of Cambridge, NY around noon on race day. And yes I did wait at the finish line for my moto guy to come in between 12:15 and 1:00. I did watch plenty of other moto guys arrive as they led groups of riders in the non Pro categories across the finish line. I actually witnessed hundreds of racers charging for the finish line during my wait. There were young junior racers as well as the master’s crowd and everything in between. The fact that I did not have my camera with me at the time let me “See” more of the race then if I had been watching through my lens.

Some of them came in and collapsed from pure exhaustion. Others would step off their bikes only to have their legs engage in the perpetual cramping tug of war. You know the one where your hamstring locks up and pulls your leg up to your ass. And then you desperately attempt to straighten your leg to stretch out that contorted hammie and your overcooked quad takes control and violently and painfully locks your leg in the opposite direction. You then try to bend your leg to stretch the quad only to start the masochistic cycle over again. I noticed this happening to dozens of finishers. Was it the unexpectedly warm temperatures causing the participants to become dehydrated? Or was the 2011 Tour of the Battenkill parcours truly one of the most demanding cycling race courses devised by man?

The truly interesting thing about watching the finish of these races was the reactions of all the cyclists themselves. They were all truly having a great time. Yes, most were void of every ounce of energy they had started the day with, but they could not stop talking and carrying on about what a great race this was. From the course, to the organization, to the race support, and on and on they went. The volunteers had to keep hearding them out of the finish area as they seemed to just want to congregate there and rehash all of the cool moments of their race. But they did have to move as more and more riders crossed the finish line. Before the end of the day over 2600 cyclists would cross that line!

It was now almost 1:00 when the voice of American cycling, Dave Towle, wandered by. We chatted a little about my situation and the race itself. One thing he said really stuck with me and seemed to capture the essence of the Battenkill. “I’m not sure if it’s the biggest small bike race in the world or if it’s the smallest big bike race in the world, either way it’s a great bike race”. He had summed it up perfectly. All of these cyclists came to compete on this wonderfully unique race course. Not only that, but it was the same course that their professional counterparts (and maybe even some of their idols) would be racing on later in the day. Thousands of them out there racing their bikes and praising the course and the organization. If that doesn’t define a great race then I don’t know what does.

So 1:00 came and still no moto guy. I decided to take a quick look next store at the Rice Mansion Inn. This was the Media headquarters for last years race. Maybe they had a clue as to where I could get some information on my moto guy. I found last year’s media host (and the inn’s proprieter, Christine) who promptly dropped whatever it was she was doing to give me a hand with my dilemma. We quickly headed back to the finish line so I wouldn’t miss my moto guy when he showed up. Christine ran off in an attempt to get to the bottom of case of the missing motorcycle official. She returned minutes later with a Tour of the Battenkill T-shirt (Swag is good- thanks Christine) but no more information than what I had already collected during my stay = zippy.

Wow, look at the time! It was now fast approaching 1:30. With the Pro race slated to go off at 1:45 it was time to initiate plan “B”. The photo moto ride was not to be so I’d have to cover the race the old fashioned way – by car. Christine volunteered to print off some course maps for me and away I went. If I was lucky I had just enough time to get to the car and get out in front of the race. First stop = the Historic Eagleville covered bridge.

The other change to the Tour of the Battenkill for this year was to the course. Last year the race did two large circuits of about 60 miles each. This year the pros would do 2 shorter loops of about 18 miles before venturing out on a lap of the larger 60 mile circuit. This was great news for me as it meant the race would pass through the Eagleville covered bridge 3 times. This scenic historical bridge is one of the defining monuments of this race and now I could shoot it from 3 different vantage points! The other plus to the short opening loops was that the second dirt section was just a 10 minute drive from the bridge. This allowed me to shoot the bridge, shoot the dirt section and then return and shoot the bridge again. I repeated this for the first 2 loops and the beginning of the large circuit as well. Who needs a stinking motorcycle!

After the start of the large circuit I decided to check out the new section of dirt introduced for the first time this year. The course profile showed a fairly long section of undulating terrain. If I drove in the opposite direction of the race I should have enough time to scout the complete section with a few minutes to spare before the arrival of the Peloton. Upon arrival of this dirt section I became both worried and excited. Unlike the other hard packed sections of dirt roads this one had been freshly graded! The road was comprised of soft squishy dirt with rocks the size of small mammals strewn about. And boy did it undulate! If it wasn’t going up it was on its way back down.

The problem was it was fairly twisty and mostly in the woods. I’d been hoping to find a spot that was open, where I could shoot the race from a little distance to get a nice dusty compression shot of the riders and the cars. I was almost to the end of the new dirt section and losing hope of finding my perfect shot when the woods disappeared. I was presented with a nice long stretch of road with nothing but plowed fields on each side. This is just what I had been looking for. I found a parking spot along side of the road and pulled over. I opened the door to scout out a position for my shot and nearly fell over. The stench was unbearable. I looked out over the fields and noticed what was surely fresh manure scattered everywhere. As I shut the door and drove back down the new dirt section I could only imagine the horror the cyclists would endure as they gasped for air, their bodies desperately trying to take in as much oxygen as it can, only to try and avoid the wretched taste and smell that was sure to overcome them.

After shooting the race on the new dirt section I had barely enough time to beat the race to my final dirt section for the day. I would next head to Meeting House Road, which with a little luck, would leave me just enough time to get back to the finish to catch the winner cross the line. I made it to Meeting House just as the leader, Jesse Anthony, was beginning the climb. He was being tailed by 2 other riders at about 30 seconds back. At the same time the peloton was on the long straight downhill section just preceding the climb. This is one of my favorite cycling images as the composition of Meeting House Road offers a very unique perspective.

So I made it back to the finish with about 3 minutes to spare before the winner crossed the line. And yes, you’re usually cutting it this close when you’re attempting to capture a bike race by car. Everyone was expecting to see Jesse Anthony first across the line. In the end It turned out to be New Zealander Brett Tivers who overtook Anthony in the final 2 Kilometers. Brendan Housler, who had been working with Tivers to catch Anthony, rounded out the podium for 3rd.

So The Tour of the Battenkill continues to please all takers and is surely focused on making itself a great race. On one hand I hope they can get things squared away with the UCI and allow some of the larger Pro Teams to compete. On the other hand I Hope they stay as they are “the biggest small race in the world”, where they can focus all their attention on making this a great race for the riders. The lack of a moto didn’t have an impact on the outcome of my captures. I know my Moto guy would have found a ride for me if he wasn’t 100% dedicated to making this a great race for the cyclists! Maybe I’ll contact him tomorrow to lock in a seat on a moto for next year’s race – I certainly plan to return!

Visit www.darrellparks.com for more. Don’t forget to check out Darrell’s fantastic 2012 calendar!

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