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