At about 40 miles in I stood up on the pedals and my legs almost gave way. It was too much. I was at the limit. A gap opened.
Looking back through race reports from prior years it seems the Quabbin Reservoir Classic Road Race has been held in all manner of adverse weather conditions including a particularly nasty winter storm in 2011.
This year was different. The parking lot at the top of the hill overlooking the eponymous body of water was bathed in warm spring sunshine. It was so warm that, fearing a repeat of the previous week’s sweat drenched debacle in Coxsackie, I even ditched my faithful Twin Six base layer.
More than four hundred riders from across the north east had converged to battle it out over sixty five miles of rolling Massachusetts countryside. Many familiar faces were there. Camaraderie among bike racers is one of the best things about the sport.
This race has everything: short, leg sapping power climbs, perilous twisting descents, and a monster of a hill at the end.
Last year I cracked badly, suffering from hideous leg cramps I was barely able to make it up the final climb. This year I vowed to do better.
The cat 4 race began with a neutralized descent from the parking lot at the top of the hill all the way down to the valley floor, the pack of 100 or so competitors gingerly navigating the mountain road, feathering their brakes as they went. The air was thick with the odor of either singed rubber or burnt carbon. I couldn’t tell which, but the squeal of the brakes sounded bad and smelt worse.
The first ten miles were uneventful, the pack staying together over the gently rolling terrain. Then, shortly after the course turned north, things started to kick off. At the foot of each climb the riders on the front would turn up the pace, thinning out the weaker riders and sending them off the back. I was able to hang in without too much trouble.
After about fifteen miles we hit the first of a series of fast descents. Positioned in the middle of the pack I was unable to take full advantage of this part of the course. The riders at the front could use all the momentum from the downhill to pull them up the next climb. In the middle we suffered the effects of the accordion – forced to slow as the pack bunched and then strung out again as the front crested the hill. Precious energy was wasted.
Crossing the half way point at the northern end of the course I could feel that there were only so many more of these short climbs that my legs could take and that if I emptied the tank on one of these smaller hills I would have nothing left for the big one. Soon I too would be going backwards.
About 40 miles in, after a long fast decent, we hit a small rise. The pack powered up it but I sputtered and fell back. Several other riders had suffered a similar fate. A chase group formed and then split into two. I was in the first group, dropped back into the second and then went off the back of that one too.
Alone on the road with 25 miles to go is not a good place to be, especially with the big monster hill at the end looming. I caught up to another rider wearing a Venge kit who had been gapped at the same time as me but he was complaining of cramps and soon fell away.
Despite my predicament, there is also something quite liberating about being dropped. The pressure of holding onto the pack, the focus on keeping a steady line and not touching a wheel all goes away. It’s just you, the road and the clock.
Up ahead I could still see the follow cars behind the main pack. No point chasing them now, they are too far away. Conserve energy. Push on, but not too hard.
Then came salvation. On a fast twisting descent about 20 miles from the finish I was caught by four riders: Julian, the rider from Venge who had complained of cramp earlier, Adam and Ben, a father and son duo from Nottingham in the UK and Brian from Portland Velo in Maine.
It was a chance to get my race back on track.
Together we formed a rotating pace line.
Brian seemed be the strongest, taking longer pulls at the front. Occasionally the line would fall apart and Julian would pull it back together. Ben was perhaps the weakest but nevertheless he skillfully maneuvered from wheel to wheel at the back, wisely never taking a pull while benefiting from the line.
We swept up a few riders, as we rode down into Ware where the course joined Rt 9 before the turn onto the final climb.
I had scouted this section earlier in the car. It consisted of two smallish climbs broken up by some false flat and a descent.
Things got a little messy here. Up the road were riders in ones and twos, remnants of the Cat 4 race and other fields all struggling to the finish.
Smelling the barn, some riders took off up the first climb, I held back and kept a steady pace. My tank was running low. There was no point emptying it here. Soon the more aggressive riders were reeled in.
At the base of the final climb a group of ten or so riders came together, and then as the pitch steepened shattered. A rider from 545 Velo, a US Military team member, and one of the Tall Sock Racing crew pulled off the front and I went with them. Together we ground our way up the hill. Fifty meters from the line I put in a spurt, went past them and moved up into the top 50.
Later that afternoon I had an ice cream in Amherst with my family. Maybe next year I can celebrate finishing with the pack.
video credit: Tim Cary, Northampton Cycling Club