You don’t bother to shave for The Tour of The Battenkill. It is long, cold and dirty. This is the race you’ve been saving your Paul Bunyan jersey and that extra bottle of man-up for.
Battenkill is the largest amateur race in America and is often considered the hardest. It is 62 miles over the hills and through the dirt of upstate New York out in the middle of nowhere. Despite the remote nature it attracts a huge number of cyclists from around the country and the world. The Cat 4 field in which I raced was broken into 6 fields for safety.
With trickle-down economics finally hitting the budget minded traveler (think spas and other anemities appearing in cheap hotels) it almost came as a surprise to me that motels still exist. My family and I decided to keep things reasonable we would go budget on the first night and use some of that extra money for a post-race splurge on day two in Saratoga Springs a couple of towns over.
While our first night was no-frills to the extreme, there is something that is still very comforting about walking into a toasty warm room from a cold, dark night in the shadows of the mountains in Vermont.
The Battenkill race literally takes over Cambridge. Unfortunately you have to walk from one end of town to the other to register which is 20 minutes each way from the parking lot. I know, I know, why wouldn’t I just bike there to save time? I brought my family and wanted to make sure they knew where everything was while I was out racing.
This was strategic error #1. I gave myself what would be more than enough time to prepare for any other normal race, but not a full hour which is what would have been needed for a relaxed round trip to get my numbers and set up my bike. As it turned out I had to run back to the car, hastily put everything together and race to the start line without my GoPro or a 2nd bottle of water.
I still missed the start by 3 minutes.
Luckily it was a neutral start. I charged up the road and got my “warm up” in by chasing the peloton at 28mph, catching them just before the pace car turned off and the real racing began.
It had rained the night before the race which left a damp heaviness in the air and a softness to the dirt sections. You wouldn’t have known it, though, the boys out front were pulling 27mph over the spongy, potholed gravel. The speed and rocks shed a third of the group straight away. I felt bad for those who got flats early on. There will be too much carnage up the road to simply accept your “DNF” and call it a day. No. You wait for the service car, take your free wheel, climb back on your horse and ride!
There was quite a bit of chatter in the parking lot about what psi to run your tires at. The general consensus was to go light — 105psi otherwise you’d spin out on the dirt sections. Since I knew the dirt would be wet and offer a little more traction I went with a relatively high 110 and it worked like a charm. No flats, good traction, and excellent rolling on the pavement.
Some delicious Cambridge, NY mud
So there I was, feeling surprisingly good and taking some pulls with the lead pack through the first feed zone where I made strategic error #2.
I had this feeling that there wouldn’t be any food so I loaded up my jersey pockets with everything I thought I would need before the race–mostly the super-low viscosity PowerBar Gel which still flows through flasks even when cold, as well as a few granola bars.
As our group pulled in my suspicion was confirmed: food was only being handed out by coaches of larger, organized teams. Not a problem but what’s this? The water is bottled water? As in: I have to ride no-handed to use two hands to break a safety seal and try to pour the shit into my bottle-cage-sized bottle while the peloton pulls away? Yeah! I guess so!
Since my water gauge was reading “E” rolling through was not an option. I did what looked like a jester’s juggling act which resulted in 3/4 of a tank and 15 lost places in the standings.
It was early in the race and I still had plenty of gas left so I dropped the hammer once I had my water situated and managed to catch a few guys who got dropped from the lead pack. We were also joined by some riders from behind who had better luck in the feeding zone. New temporary alliances formed and we charged ahead. Some speed was attained. Scenery was glanced at. There seemed to be more dirt than the course map suggested.
Photo Credit: E. Glading
At the amateur level there is no such thing as gentlemen’s rules. You apparently don’t slow down in the feed zone to keep your group together to fend off others. You don’t wait for a strong racer who dropped a chain. You plow ahead with absolute tunnel vision, gnashing your teeth and fighting for that finish line which is still many miles away.
The second food stop had proper water bottles but the jerks in my pack didn’t take anything and pedaled straight through — I lost another dozen places despite literally grabbing a bottle, drinking it while pedaling, and tossing it to the side of the road.
Riding solo now I was better able to take in some of the scenery, and appreciate the great work of the organizers to have police at every intersection allowing the smooth passage of the riders. I thanked many of them as I rode by.
By mile 50 most riders left on the road that weren’t in that lead pack were shelled. There was no organization or groups to be seen. Just ragged individuals struggling to keep the pedals turning. I started to make some places back and passed some riders I knew were in a field that left 5 minutes ahead of us.
A moment of fierceness on one of the dirt climbs
On one of the last dirt climbs my right quad gave out and I gave it an on-bike massage but had to remain seated for the duration in order to keep it from re-cramping.
Once free of the dirt the lead group from race group behind ours rolled through looking far too fresh so I hitched a ride for a few miles and crossed the finish line feeling pretty good, all things considered. The results were nothing to write home about but I think I had learned enough to improve my position should I choose to return in the future.
After catching up with a bunch of riders who were also up from NYC, including the crew at CiS we had to jump in the car for the second half of our weekend because if you’ve put yourself through the brutality that is Battenkill you kind of owe it to yourself to go hit the spa in Saratoga Springs to restore those aching muscles.
Saratoga Springs has a long history that I won’t bore you with here, but they love horses and as their name suggests, they are situated on top of naturally occurring springs. Depending on the rock and the gasses that may be present, each of the springs is unique; some are naturally carbonated and others taste like the cool mountain streams that you see in water commercials on television.
Using a hand-drawn map of the town my family and I went on a natural springs treasure hunt. The water flows freely around the clock and you can drink the water from all of the springs in town.
The main attraction for me, of course, was the hot mineral baths at The Roosevelt Spa in the Saratoga Spa State Park. The water is brown due to the minerals, is slightly effervescent and served at body temperature. It smelled like iron and cilantro. The spa provides you with a warmed towel when your bath is over. It is heaven.
Then you will want to have dinner. Being Not-New-York(City) the vegetarian options are limited but there if you look. My wife and I found a great mushroom risotto at Scallions which was hearty and delicious.
In keeping with our theme of variety and adventure, I would say the year is off to a good start.
Charts and graphs viewable at Garmin