Editor’s Note: Evan Cooper is a sophomore, a sports editor for the Daily and an aspiring professional cyclist. He races for the Tufts Cycling Team and for the elite amateur squad Team Ora presented by Independent Fabrication. This series will chronicle his season as he tries to make racing into more than just a hobby.
I had a personal revelation this weekend. It won’t seem like much on the face of it, and taken out of context it probably seems inconsequentially obvious. But after I backtrack a little, I think you’ll see what I mean. So what was the earthshaking conclusion that I recently came to? Simply this: No one knows me better than I do.
And now for some context.
Last weekend was the Tour of the Battenkill. The biggest single−day Pro−Amateur event of the year in the United States, Battenkill is generally the first big goal on many cyclists’ calendars. After taking second in the Category 3 race last year, I expected nothing less than the top step of the podium this time around. Go big or go home, right?
The big difference this year was that I was in a new field: the Category 2 field. Cat 2 is one level below the top level of amateur racing, and more often than not, the Cat 1’s and 2’s are combined in one field, with a few pros often thrown into the mix as well. But at a race with such an enormous draw like Battenkill, the 2’s are given their own field to race in, providing aspiring riders like me with a golden opportunity to shine.
The usual Battenkill course — on which everyone but the Pro/Cat 1’s and Cat 2’s races — is a 62−mile loop featuring 25 percent dirt roads and a number of climbs. None of them are epically long, but there are enough of them to leave your lungs burning and legs throbbing by the time you reach the line.
The Pro/Cat 1 and Cat 2 racers, though, contest an additional 20 miles, with the added loop including a second trip up one of the race’s more famous obstacles: Juniper Swamp Road. This little beast is a short but incredibly steep dirt hill that would give many cars trouble reaching the summit. Rarely is it the defining moment of the race, but if you’re not careful, it can spell the end of your day.
But that wasn’t my problem. Neither trip up Juniper gave me any trouble, and I crested the summit both times safely in the lead group without expending much effort. As the peloton rolled along on one of the less eventful stretches of paved road not long after, a rider rolled off the front and pedaled away from the field. No big deal. With about 60 miles left to race, none of us was all too concerned. Not long after, a single rider sped up the right side of the road on a slight incline, rapidly forging a gap to the idling peloton and making his way up the road as well. But still, none of us was worried about two lonely riders trying to survive 60−plus miles of dirt, hills and wind. That is a long way to go.
I should have known better. Both of those riders are known for their strength in long breakaways, and the latter of the two has been on an absolute tear all season long (though the season is barely a month old). By the first feed zone, their lead was already over two minutes. But the peloton never showed any sense of urgency, and neither did I.
We continued to take the flat and paved sections at a sadly pedestrian pace, only turning the pedals in earnest when we hit the dirt or began to climb. Then our anger would show. Then we would unleash our fury on one another. But this inconsistent pace always favors the riders in the breakaway, who are consistently putting power to pedal.
Needless to say, we never saw those two riders again. The race was for third now. As for me, a crash on one of the final dirt sectors with about 15 miles to go found me on the wrong end of a split in the field. I was having a moment of weakness after launching an attack of my own on that same long dirt section and had drifted too far back in the field when the crash happened. Forced to slow nearly to a near stop, I didn’t have the snap in my legs to reconnect with the 20 or so riders who were spared. I spent the next hilly dirt section of the course alone, turning myself inside out to regain contact, but to no avail. Back on the pavement, I was reabsorbed by a few other riders, and we formed a chase group. We picked up a few more fading riders along the way, but we never closed the gap. We finished about 50 seconds back of the group ahead, our race now for 21st place — a sorry consolation. I didn’t contest that sprint, and simply rolled in for 30th place. Not exactly the top podium step I had dreamed of the night before.
So where did I go wrong? What foiled my plans for glory? In a word, me. I, and only I, am responsible for the missed opportunity that was the 2010 Tour of the Battenkill. I missed my chance when I watched that rider fly up the road while the peloton thought nothing of it. I let myself down when I didn’t spring from the safety of the complacent peloton myself and try to do what everyone else told me was impossible
“It’s 82 miles,” they all said. “That is suicide. Don’t worry about it — they’ll be back.”
So I listened. I sat there, safely in the field doing what was supposed to be smart: biding my time until the race got truly hard and all the excess baggage was shed from the field and only the strongest remained. But wait, that already happened. Those two brave men up the road had already forced the final selection, and that excess baggage was all the rest of us. And you know what? I should have known better. I should have known that I should have been up the road with them. I should have known that everyone has their strengths, and everyone has their weaknesses. And riding in a 60−plus mile break on challenging terrain, however stupid it supposedly might be, is my strength. I may not have the raw power to drop helpless riders with a searing attack, but give me an advantage on a course like that, and I won’t readily come back.
A little cocky? Maybe. But I think it’s realism. I know what I am good at and I know what I am not. But none of that matters when you don’t even try. None of that matters when you always try to do what is “smart.” Maybe smart doesn’t mean just one thing. Maybe what’s smart for you is stupid for me. Maybe the smart thing to do sometimes isn’t really all that smart. And now I know that. I already knew what I was good at and what I was not; I just didn’t know how to let me be me.