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
Editor’s note: veteran journo Alan Coté is known for his work for most of the big cycling magazines distributed in the U.S. He has served as a contributor or editor for Outside, Bicycling, Bicycle Guide, VeloNews and Winning, among others. His sources reach deep into the industry and we were shocked to learn what he reveals in his first piece for RKP. Oh, and for the record, he helped Padraig get his interview at Bicycle Guide.
AIGLE, SWITZERLAND—Details about impending equipment restrictions from the UCI have leaked out in recent weeks. Bicycle racing’s world governing body is ruling over sock length, safety tabs on forks, and more. The sharp, if mysterious, voice over at the Inner Ring posted all the details here.
But in an exclusive interview, Red Kite Prayer has learned from an inside source, who only agreed to speak on condition of anonymity, about a much bigger rule change that’s looking to be implemented starting in 2013 – a rule that could even avalanche to sportifs-type riders as well.
RKP’s source, whom we’ll call Bas Gorge, told us that gear restrictions are being considering for pro level racing. While a maximum gear size has long been in effect for junior racers, the idea has never before been considered for the pro level. What’s even more surprising is that a limit on low gears is also on the table. We spoke to him at his Swiss office on a wet spring day.
On the big cookie side, the UCI considers the matter one of safety – this after early Tour de France stages in 2011 took out the likes of Bradley Wiggins, Tom Boonen, and Chris Horner, to name a few. The UCI created a commission to look at the problem, and one of the resulting recommendations was a gear limit – though this hasn’t been made public.
“We must always keep in mind the sporting criteria, and this is where gear restrictions make certain sense”, Bas Gorge said. “Requiring a maximum gear of say 52 x13 has several advantages. First, it limits top speed in the sprints. Second, it limits top speeds on fast intermediate sections of a typical parcours. Both of these are where crashes occur most often.”
Bas Gorge went on to make a Cold War analogy. “When the US and the Soviets developed atomic missiles that were too powerful, what did they do? They set limits on the size of warheads. There’s a sprinter now called the Manx Missile, yes? The UCI is stepping in with an arms treaty before many people get hurt.”
Bas Gorge went on to explain a third reason for keeping the big meat strictly vegetarian. “Among the UCI management, there is a feeling that current pros lack souplesse. Sure they may ride faster than ever, but aesthetics of the sport must never be forgotten. With a pedal stroke that is not fluide, a pro can easily look like a beauf.”
While a 52×13 top gear rule may be surprising, what’s even more startling is a gear restriction never before seen in cycling: a limit on how low a pro can go. 39 x 23 is the current target, and Bas Gorge explained the two-part thinking behind this.
“With low gears there is no safety concern, but there is still as always the sporting criteria. And the problem here lies with the speed of the grupetto.”
Indeed, in grand tour mountain stages, the Green Jersey often finishes far behind the stage winner and yellow jersey. For example, in stage 18 of the 2011 Tour de France, which finished atop the Col de Galibier, Green Jersey holder Mark Cavendish crossed the line 35:40 behind stage winner Andy Schleck.
“Pat McQuaid was on the Galibier and he wasn’t happy about freezing his derrière off waiting around for the green jersey podium ceremony,” Bas Gorge said. “In theory, a bigger bottom gear will increase the speed of those riders, as their pedaling frequency won’t drop below its naturally lowest rhythm.”
When RKP questioned the idea that simply using bigger gears on climbs will result in increased speed for the gruppetto – pointing-out that this requires an equivalent increase in power – Bas Gorge cut us off.
“To that, we say that maybe the days are numbered for power meters in competition as well.”
We moved on to asking about part two.
“The second reason behind the low gear rule lies with a different aspect of the sporting criteria,” Bas Gorge said. “For certain mountain stages, pros are fitting compact cranks with 34 tooth inner rings—or even worse, triple cranks. This is the realm not of the professional but of the cyclotourist. Such equipment is grotesque on the machine, and these twiddly gears equate the professional to someone of much lesser ability. The UCI is looking to protect the long-term sponsorship value of the professional.”
Moreover, they’re even considering including these rules for sportif rides like Etape du Tour—though only rides held under UCI sanction would be affected. “These rides are getting too many entrants, especially slow ones. It costs organizers up to €1000 per hour to keep the roads closed, so it may be a way to filter out the weakest from entering.”
We asked about gearing for women’s racing, and Bas Gorge replied with a shrug, “Pfft, I have no idea, the UCI doesn’t pay attention to women’s racing.”
What the UCI clearly is paying attention to is: change.
“Synthetic fiber saddles, plastic waterbottles, shoes without laces … where will it stop?”, he asked, stabbing the butt of a cold Gauloise into an UCI-logo ashtray as he stared out the window into the drizzly Swiss sky.
“No one else seems willing to stand in the way of progress and reason, so the UCI must.”
― Alan Coté
April 1, 2012