Why Is Tour of the Battenkill So Popular?

The superlatives fly about the Tour of the Battenkill: America’s biggest one-day road race, the toughest road race in the country, the greatest number of flat tires at a single cycling event. Since it began eight years ago, Tour of the Battenkill (originally called Battenkill-Roubaix) in upstate New York has skyrocketed both in attendance and attention.

As the event announcer (along with Richard Fries and David MacLeod ), I had a finish line view for the two days of racing this past weekend, April 14-15. After calling the names of some of the thousands crossing the finish line, the question I pondered was: why has Battenkill captured the imaginations of so many cyclists? The answer reflects changes happening in our sport.

 

America’s Biggest One Day Race?

With 2193 starters across 38 races, it very well may be America’s largest single day road race, though I’ll leave the comparison stats to others. No matter what, the numbers are big. Nearly 2200 starters in Saturday’s amateur races. 150 more for the Sunday UCI pro race. 100+ for a Sunday morning charity ride with Greg LeMond. 100+ for the preview ride three weeks prior. Hundreds more registered but didn’t show-up (DNS)—which with an $80 entry fee is a story in itself.

More than 1000 of those racers were in the category 4 and 5 divisions, with no less than 14 separate category 5 races contested. Riders hailed predominately from the Northeast, but promoter Dieter Drake said riders from 48 states attended, plus hundreds from Canada (the border is three hours north). The tightly-run event turned Main St. in the village of Cambridge into a pro-tour level finish venue, bolstered by a product expo, live music, and this year the appearance by LeMond.

 

The Toughest Road Race in America?

Of course there’s no answer to that question. Battenkill’s steep punchy climbs help shatter the field, but plenty of races get more vertical. At 62 miles (124 for the UCI Pro race) and winning times of 2:45 – 3:00 hours, it’s not overly long. But the 62 mile loop that starts and finishes in the village of Cambridge is unlike any other in the US. It’s a backroad journey through open farmland, narrow canopies of trees, and a covered bridge—the kind of  naturally car-less, rural roads you wish you could ride everyday.

But Battenkill’s numerous dirt sections are its trademark, and therein lies one of the special ingredients that have led to its popularity. It’s not actually the toughest one day race in America, but to many of the riders—especially those new to racing—it feels like it might be.

 

The Greatest Number of Flat Tires?

Here again we have no stats. The list of DNFs (other than the UCI pro race, which is a different deal) wasn’t overly long. But the dirt sections did cause countless punctured tires. Support vehicles—including Mavic neutral support in Sunday’s pro race—ran out of spare wheels. Many riders started with their own flat fixing kit, which some put to use.

Rather than being a discouragement, the flat tire factor might actually have contribute to the day’s drama. It means uncertainty and luck that could work for or against you. Techy-types groove by selecting tubeless tires (Stan’s No Tubes saw the opportunity and was a lead sponsor of Battenkill), sealant, or extra-big rubber. Moreover, the punctures come because you’re out there flying down gravel roads in a cloud of dust, with a number pinned to your back, and a tunnel-vision of getting to the front and not being gapped.

 

The Future of Cycling?

At criteriums and industrial park circuit races, riders get dropped and pulled, or scored a lap down—if they’re given a finish place at all. While in road races, grinding away after getting popped can be the loneliest, most discouraging miles you ever pedal.

At Battenkill, the course and pace shredded the packs of 100+ riders to bits, with a group of a half a dozen finishing together considered large. Arguably, everyone was dropped except the usual lead group of  2-3 riders.  But that didn’t lead to helmet-throwing disappointment. Instead, many were plotting a return for next year.

The race somehow blends the best flavors of a grand fondo and a road race together. The result is that everyone who finishes … even everyone who starts … goes home with rich stories to tell.  And therein, I think, is the secret of Battenkill, and where our sport is heading.

 

Image: Dave Kraus

24 comments

  1. drew

    I am plotting a trip out soon. Sounds incredible! Many of our agrs (almanzo gravel race series) events are similar, but arguably harder though. I would even stretch it a bit and put dirty kanza in there, certainly harder and more flats anyways.

    I think a big part of the appeal is that for regular riders these type of races feel the closest to the stuff we love to watch the pros compete in all spring.

  2. A Reader

    Absolutely. The growing popularity of “Roubaix” races all over the country shows a desire to move beyond the tired format of criteriums and circuits that weekend racers put up with. These events seem a much more interesting pursuit where coming in last is still worth the ride. Charity ride/Gran Fondo with enough HTFU thrown in to appeal to tough guys; what’s not to like?

  3. Andrew

    Alan, I think that you have captured the spirit of the race well. Most folks lining up at Battenkill, even in the Masters’ groups (I was in the 50+) know that the variables may result in flats (yes, I flatted) or getting dropped early. You are correct about the splintering of the pack after a series of punchy climbs. The combination of pavement, dirt sections, enthusiastic residents, great organization, and one big lap (as opposed to multiple laps up the same hill) combine to make it a really super event.

  4. Zach Johnson

    Definitely check out the Almanzo 100 if this type of riding interests you.
    By far my favorite race each year. Still maintains a personal feel as the numbers increase… (see hand printed race packets and hand written thank you notes from the race organizer). Best of all, it’s free!
    http://www.almanzo.com/

  5. DavidA

    Ive raced alot of Belgian Kermis races and trained on some funky roads in Belgium and Holland…but never had to race on GRAVEL. Why are races run on gravel, were it is not the strongest who wins, but the person that has the least amount of crashes on GRAVEL and flats gets to contest the placings???? A strange way to promote racing if you ask me, the sport has gotten expensive enough without purposly trying to cause crashes and flats and broken equipment on a “Euro” type parcours….

  6. Eto

    Alan,
    You have recognized a developing trend that should contribute to the growth of our sport. The industry is on it too with the recent introductions of event specific offerings from Specialized and Trek. Like a gran fondo or even a challeging century event, it is all about participating not necessarily “winning”. Everyone wins when they create a lasting memory that includes new people and places.

    The mountain bike scene was an early adopter of this style of event as the lengths of races lengthened and became known as “marathon” events (40+ miles) offering multiple distances. Here in the mid west we have two nationally recognized and attended off road events in the Chequamegon and Ice Man taking place in Wisconsin and Michigan respectively. The popularity of these events has grown over the years and now registrations fill up within hours versus days.

    Great piece.

  7. e-RICHIE

    >> America’s Biggest One Day Race?
    >> The Toughest Road Race in America?

    If so many people are paying just to ride, is it really racing atmo? I get the aesthetic aspect of riding courses like this but unless you are in it to win, how can it be confused with competition? Folks can just as easily leave from their front door (or near to it) and plot out courses that will challenge their abilities. If they can’t, finding routes is easier in the internet era. It’s clear that folks want to pay for epic – epic is the new black. Just don’t confuse it with racing. The event seems to parallel so many others in that the revenue stream from the masses helps offset the costs needed to produce the race that occurs on Sunday. It reminds me of how ‘cross turned a corner at the first Providence Natz. There were so many categories and age-graded combinations on the course over the long weekend and many were there just to be a part of the ordeal rather than to race or to win. I’m not ready to consider participation and racing in the same sentence.

  8. SCW

    In response to e-RICHIE:

    Are you saying that all the pro domestiques aren’t racing? Most are not riding Flanders or Roubaix (or smaller races) with any chance of winning. Instead they’re there to help a teammate, or build fitness, or get exposure for their sponsors.

    I’ve ridden Battenkill for the last three years with little chance of winning. Instead, I rode to 1.) help a teammate try to win and 2.) measure myself against a bunch of other guys of roughly my level. My proudest moment as a bike “racer” came in the year I DNF’d – I gave my wheel to a team leader so he could try to win. He did not. I would do it again in a heartbeat. That’s racing.

    In the backs of our minds, all of us amateur racers certainly want to finish first. Realistically, we have jobs, kids, and lack of genetic gifts that mean the only wins we’ll ever see may be in the B category at the local training race or office park crit. Many of our resumes are filled with placings in the 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s, and if we’re good, we’ll have a few top 5’s here and there. No wins. It’s still racing.

    Yet we keep at it. We suffer through intervals, winter trainer sessions, and smackdown rides to improve. We explain to our spouses how that $10 gift certificate prime from Bob’s Sproting Goods was worth trying for, even if we didn’t win it. Don’t tell me that’s not racing.

    I think part of the popularity of races like Battenkill is the same as the draw of cyclocross, at least for us amateur “racers.” In your standard crit or road race, the distinction between ability and results is a fine one: you can dangle at the back of the pack all day long, but as long as you can hang on, the gap between you and the winner is small. At Battenkill and in cross, the pack strings out and you end up self-selecting into groups of similar abilities. And then you get epic battles happening between evenly matched racers. For 30th place. Because someone forgot to tell us we weren’t racing.

    1. Padraig

      E-Richie: It’s always nice to have you join the conversation, but I must forward an alternative to your view. The first time I ever “raced” I was pack fodder at best. In truth, I had no idea what I was doing. But I paid an entry, pinned on a number and pedaled until I blew up near the finish. To most of the world, that’s racing. Years went by and I defined racing differently. The truth is, the concept of “racing” isn’t absolute the way a triangle is. To be a triangle, a figure must have three sides. I have a great deal of respect for the level at which you raced, but let’s be aware that Lars Boom could look at your ‘cross racing and say, “That’s not racing.” Which is bullshit. It is. “Racing” is relative.

  9. Touriste-Routier

    I raced at Battenkill for the 2nd time this year, but I have always loved riding/racing on dirt roads (road bike, not MTB). However it is a strange beast of an event.

    What makes it strange? The sheer number of Masters Cat 5 racers; these types are the core of the Gran Fondo movement in the US; I know, I have organized a series of high profile Gran Fondos, as well as a series of Spring Classic tribute events (my marquee event sold out for the 2nd year in a row).

    One would think 45+ year old first timers wouldn’t be rushing in line to sign up for a USAC event, but they do. Would this still be the case if the Battenkill Charity ride (which I also rode last weekend) was run as a real Gran Fondo/Cyclosportif? I don’t know. But we do know that these riders don’t register in droves for other road races & crits.

    The great thing about Gran Fondos/Cyclos is that they offer something for everyone; you get out of it what you put into it. Expect to see more of these events, as there seems to be demand for massed start rides of attrition over challenging courses. Cycling has long missed an equivalent of a marathon, a 5k, and a triathlon, where personal best and times are more important than placings. Events like these fill the void.

    Battenkill attracts these type of riders, but rather than lining up with 1000 others, the fields are broken up into groups of 50. If you think of a Gran Fondo as a hybrid of a race and a century, you can think of these Battenkill categories as a hybrid of a Gran Fondo and a traditional road race; it makes sense more so in reality than words.

    As for the comments about crashes on gravel; they are relatively few at these events; less than your typical criterium, Most of the dirt/gravel roads at Battenkill are fairly benign in terms of surface, though Wright Road was particularly nasty this year (deep loose dirt). And for people wondering about the name “kill” means body of water in Dutch, who settled the area prior to the American Revolution. The Battenkill is a river: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battenkill

  10. Adam

    I’ve ridden Battenkill twice as a Cat 3. Even flew in from another country to do so. While I realize that the Pro Am racers did each lap in a little over 2 hours while I was a little under 3, it reminds me of a story from my running days. Local marathon where some Kenyans came to race. Of course they cleaned up, but in one of the dinners afterwards this was the best conversation I’ve heard:
    45 year old woman: “how long did it take you?”
    that days winners: “2:16, what was your time?
    woman “Wow, I did in four and half hours. I can’t imagine doing it in 2 hours.”
    Winner: “I can’t imagine running for four and half hours.”

    It’s all relative, and as Lemond said, it never gets easier, you just get faster. I really beleive that they guys in Cat 5 are pushing themselves just as hard.

    The attraction to me of Battenkill is that its got great towns around it to stay in and make a weekend of, close to JFK, no laps and it really does still feel like a cool ride that a dude and a bunch of his friends used to do that’s just got more people now.

  11. Paul Feng

    Touriste-Routier and Adam made the point I was waiting for, drawing the comparison with marathons, etc. While the majority of my riding is solitary (and I like it that way), it has struck me as odd that there are very few cycling events analogous to marathons.

    Now excuse me as I go enter my first sanctioned road race in cat 5, as someone who qualifies in at least one “masters” category…

  12. Alan Cote

    I agree with Padraig’s comment that there’s no one definition of “racing”. Which was just what I wanted to explore with the article — that this style of race and racing is super popular, and why that is. I have some ideas about the attraction after working the event and talking riders, and would love to hear from more about it on RKP.

  13. aKrafty1

    e-Richie,

    I have read and respected much of what you have written over the years and have always looked up to you for all you have done for cycling in both tradition and sponsorship, but imagine how the sport would be if the elitist view of “I’m not ready to consider participation and racing in the same sentence.” or “unless you are in it to win, how can it be confused with competition?”.

    Everyone who drops their coin and pins a number is racing. I’ve never won a race I’ve entered, I have entered many, the dream of winning has been there everytime. That is what makes this sport awesome.

    Amature racing would die quickly if the only field offered was the P/1/2.

    Respectfully

  14. drew

    I certainly do not fall more often in gravel races than in more traditional road events! The flats can be part of the game, but its a minor issue. I’ve ridden 1500+ race miles on tubulars in gravel events with just one flat and that was with a 22c tire in a race which was half road. I do seem to flat more on clinchers due to pinch flats. Regardless, the races are very rarely determined by a flat.

    – rideonpurpose.blogspot.com. almanzo.com

  15. Rick

    I remember in 1999?, Brendan Quirk getting excited about Rouge Roubaix. I have no idea how he heard about it. We went down there in 2000 with about 3 guys and we were hooked! Next year, we brought 10 or 12 and it was so cold our bottels froze. It was about doing something defferent-closer to the classics. I’ve done Rouge 3 times and every year, when I hear the stories, I say “I’ll be there next year”. See you there next year.

  16. RCSracer

    This type of racing isn’t new. Nor is its popularity.
    Look at Paris to Ancaster and Lake to Lake (promoted by none other than Steve Bauer) in southern Ontario Ca.
    Over a thousand racers in each year after year and very difficult courses.
    The draw is that it’s difficult to finish, much less race.
    That racing happens in groups is the gravy on top.
    For those that rarely win an event, you must have another challenge to draw you to it.
    A difficult course makes it attractive in ways a simple road race may not. To ride 60 miles on the road after the group gets away doesn’t thrill me. But finishing Battenkill is something to talk about.
    I’ve done each of those races multiple times and look forward to the preparation each year.
    It’s seems to me it’s all about goals.

  17. Alan Cote

    I’ve ridden Paris-Ancaster 3-4 times, and it’s a fantastic event. But it’s a different flavor — kind of grand fondo meets steeplechase, and with singletrack sections and other trails it’s too much for a road bike. I don’t suggest that Battenkill is the first of its type, but rather I’m trying to understand the popularity of it and similar events (like P-A)… it how that reflects where bike racing might be going.

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