by Jack Gregory
On Sunday, May 6 2012, I rode the inaugural Berkshire Cycling Classic, a “cyclosportif” in the European fashion, and also the only US qualifier for the Master’s Worlds. In 2012, the UCI decided that some sort of qualification should be used to get to the Master’s world championships. So they decided on a cyclosportif style event would both provide the necessary litmus test, as well as promote these events, and “big cycling”. A Cyclosportif, or Gran Fondo, is an event that is run like a big ride open to the public (no racing license needed, unlike USA Cycling races), but which has a timed, and therefore competitive component. These rides are very big in Europe, and are really the main outlet for competitive amateur riders, especially “not young” ones. I rode the L’Etape du Tour 2011 in the Alps, one of the biggest (10,000 rider limit) and longest running of these. So I had hopes that the first American version I tried would be similar. In particular, I wanted it to be a race.
The “front” of a cyclosportif is a race. The riders are racers. The riding is racing, complete with attacks, breakaways, pacelines, etc. In Europe, current pros ride them when they aren’t busy. There is no shame. A few years ago, the L’Etape du Tour was won by the then-current French national champion; his team hadn’t been invited to the Tour itself (which is going on at the same time), so he did the next best thing: a difficult stage of the tour in front of motorcycle cameras, police escorts, etc. Really, I have been in many races that had less race orientation than L’Etape du Tour. I was going to treat the Berkshire event like a race: stay with the leaders until I could not.
Accordingly, I studied the route extensively. I wanted to know the climbs; where they came and how difficult they would be. The route was 81 miles. This would be the longest race I had entered since the early 1980’s, and this one was a lot hillier than the few 100-milers I did then. I wasn’t worried about handling it, I was worried about racing it. For a long time after I registered, it was not possible to see who else had signed up. Despite using the standard racing signup site BikeReg.com, this event had it participant list blocked. I was frustrated by this. I often used this to see who else is going that I know, who I might be able to get a ride with, or who the competition is, my teammate count, etc. Thankfully, they opened this up with a week to go, and things were back to a normal race.
The good news for me was that my teammate and 2010 master’s world champion Dzmitry Buben was entered. He is a really strong rider and one of the top guys New England. But nobody else really stood out. I knew a couple names from NE races, but not a lot. There were a lot of NY riders. Even my other CCB teammate on the list was someone I didn’t know very well. Not on the list, but known to be riding, was Erik Zabel, brought over from Europe to help promote the event.
I met Dzmitry before the start, and pledged my allegiance, which of course is a pretty empty gesture considering he was literally wearing the rainbow stripes on his sleeve. Another CCB had signed up (day of, $100), David King. I knew him a little, and we will see him later. The final CCB guy is a youger (28) rider who I have ridden with in a few races. I saw him in the starting pen, at a distance, but I never saw him again. Before the start, I reset my Garmin, because I wanted the miles to match the route, and I knew where the climbs were. (http://ridewithgps.com/routes/1116360) .
The PDF from the organizers posted said “The event is a timed ride and not a race.” I am pretty sure all cyclosportifs say this. You have to wonder, as my wife did, as to what the distinction is. We start en masse, 200 strong, all age groups, all “abilities”. I am on the wheel of my world champion teammate, who immediately rockets off, on the wrong side of the road, down the 10% grade that leaves Lenox. I am wondering, uh, yellow line violation? But there were a lot of us breaking the rule, and besides, it is not a race, so what the hell? Every so often a car shows up on our (wrong) side, and we squeeze by. I try to follow, but the crazy Russian (actually, Belorussian) goes like crazy, and I do my best. I catch glimpses of his pink shoulders scooting around up front and make my way up a little more patiently, but the field was full of crashes-about-to-happen, so I knew I must get up there with him.
Eventually, I get to him, and take my place on his wheel. I had passed teammate David on the way up, and muttered something about getting up front on the way by; I assumed he was close on. There weren’t really any ascents to speak of in the first 15 miles, so it was pretty normal race situation, with an occasional joker going off the front for some kind of glory, discovering actual wind, and coming back. I try to stay within a bike or two of Dzmitry, and we are always in the first 20.
Eventually, I get bored enough to look down at my Garmin to see how far to the climb, and to my horror, it is blank. Off. I had turned off the recording to reset it, and forgot to re-start it! It screams its head off if you move it in this state, but of course I heard nothing in the mad descent and chase to the front. So it timed out and shut off. I turn it on, horrified that I would be wasting my energy dragging my PowerTap wheel around these hills with nothing to listen to it. Thankfully, it does come on and sync up to the GPS, but there is a stupid message box, covering most of the data, saying “To Save Activity, hold Reset”. I hold reset. Nothing. I try this a couple times, each time holding Reset a little longer. The Message Box from Hell stays there, and stares back at me for the next 75 miles. At least it appeared to be recording, so I had hope. I only lost the first 7 miles or so. But I could not see power or speed. I could see miles (now wrong, of course) and time. Great; I know what time it is.
As we approach the first real climb, I am sitting in about 15-20th place when I feel a couple drops on my face. No rain, it is a dry but cloudy day. Must be a puddle, drops coming off the tire ahead. But it keeps coming, and I am wondering, what the hell? I look. There is water running down the seat tube of the guy ahead, off his bottom bracket, onto his rear tire, which is spraying me. His bike is leaking! Why would a bike leak? The incredulity of this penetrates even my skull. Then I get it. The guy is taking a piss, in his shorts, and it is pouring, not dribbling, off his seat. Cripes. Doesn’t anyone go to the back any more? A couple guys notice and complain, but the guy ignores it. I do my best to avoid a straight shot and it eventually recedes to stories you tell in race reports. No, I didn’t get his number. If I did, I would look it up in the results and post his name all over the internet. He is probably from New York.
I finally find Erik Zabel. In truth, it wasn’t really hard; I just hadn’t remembered to look. He is wearing “1” and dressed in all black. Rides like a pro. Duh. Doesn’t seem like he has gone fat or anything, that is for sure. At least the pee guy didn’t pee on him. Maybe we would have seen how East Germans deal with it.
At Mile 17.5, I start the climb on 2nd wheel. I know what to expect, I have studied this and the other big one for weeks. It gains around 400 feet in just under a mile. About the same stats as Great Blue Hill. Only this is a steadier grade on smoother pavement. I am doing 350 watts (I can’t see the damn meter, but I know the feeling), and I am losing ground. I am not losing it very fast, but riders are passing. This is ok, part of the plan; start at the front, slip to the back, use less energy, and you are still in the group. But about halfway up, after losing about 35 places, I hear a motor. The Mavic wheel moto. Whoa! I look back, and there is nobody there. Where did all those 200 starters go? I was absolutely shocked that they were all gone. I crank it up and with a few other guys who were off the back a bit (only about 100 yards), get together over the top and give chase; it looked fine, the group was in sight, and I was confident we would catch. It took about a mile, and we passed the damn moto and got back on. I was at my limit, but we were back, and I just needed a descent to recover. I hate playing yo-yo with a moto.
And then we immediately hit another hill, and I was not ready for it. And this was my biggest error. I had only focused on the big climbs and ignored the rest. But they are not ignorable. Almost every blip on the profile is a hill bigger than any near Sharon (except Blue Hill), small-ring territory. And I couldn’t hang on. I figured that was it, but got in a group of 5, then 4, of a bunch of younger and over-eager types hammering when they got to the front of the pace line. It was fast, but pretty ragged in that panicky sort of way. I tried to get them to smooth it out a little, as they blew one guy off right away. It was mostly downhill, so the speeds were high. We went like this for miles. Never saw the lead group again, but we never had a spot with long visibility.
We then approached the big one, at mile 31 or so, a 4-mile ascent which starts very gradually, but has a last mile that is nearly identical to, well, Great Blue Hill. My little group really wanted to work hard on the lower part, to catch some dudes ahead, and I cautioned against it, but they ignored me. I decided to let them go, holding my “long climb” pace. And I ended catching and passing them all on the steep part, though I relaxed when I got to front, because despite their flaws, I wouldn’t be able to stay ahead of them anyway. So we regrouped after the top, with a few that we had caught, but the organization was a mess, and I stopped trying to fix it. At some point, we get passed by a race official on a moto. Wait… didn’t they say this wasn’t a race?
My group eventually gets caught from behind by a larger group containing David King. I have no idea where he was, but he was clearly not in that lead group that dropped me on the first climb. But he seems a lot stronger than me now. I am feeling the effects of the climbs and all the pace line stuff in a small group. The merged group of about 15+ is a little more race-like, and when I took pulls on the front, I really felt terrible. Climbing at this group’s pace was more difficult. I can feel my legs aren’t going to be able to do this. I finally decide to sit on the back and try to survive. I came off once, got back on the descent, but I knew the writing was on the wall. I wasn’t going to be able to hold this group. So at around 50 miles in, I let them go. I figured I would just take it easy and mail it in, maybe stop at one of the rest stops and eat myself silly. After all, it was not a race. I had mentally given up. The thought of doing 30 more miles alone on these relentless hills really had me depressed, on top of feeling like a complete failure.
As time went on, though, I started to recover. We had merged back with the riders doing the shorter 100k event, so there were a lot of singletons to chase all the way back. A couple times, a group would catch me that I would try to stay with. Each group was progressively easier to stay with, and within 10 miles of the finish, I was with a group that I could stay with on the climbs. On the last 2-mile hill, after starting at the back, I actually caught and passed most of them, using the same long pacing I used before, and was going very well by the top. I had no hesitation this time; I knew I could stay away for the 5 miles or so to the finish.
I finished in 64th place (out of 192 finishers), almost 30 minutes down, and still averaged over 20mph. It was good for 6th in the 55-59 age group, which kind of surprised me. It is a great course; I got shut out of Battenkill when it filled up in 2 hours, and this one was a good replacement. Which I think means it was a race. As for feeling like a failure, that has faded. My power meter recording, which worked after the first 7 miles, shows that I was really working as hard as I have ever recorded in those 5 minutes after hearing that moto on the climb. Before that, I was pacing myself and not trying to set records. But all my real power records end at Blue Hill distance; about five and half minutes. This time, I had to do that and then another five minutes of over-the-limit riding.
So I wasn’t a failure; I was just up against people who are a lot better than me, riding in an area that is full of terrain I cannot train on.