by: Gavin Chow
“Oh… that hill. You know that’s not a hill, don’t you?”
Killington, Vermont, Memorial Day weekend, 2017: the GFNY Racing Team gathered at the charming Butternut Inn and Pancake House for our first foray into stage racing. Three days, 110 miles of racing over what the organizers described as “challenging” terrain. The seven-strong team was split between the Men’s 4/5 Open category and the Men’s 4/5 Masters category. Juan “I’ve bought my standard” Sanchez, Ramon “Oh wait, I’ve been here before” Thompson, and Justin “what do you mean by ‘ride outdoors’?” Bangs represented the team in the Open category.
For once, Masters was relatively liberally construed to mean a racing age of 33 and over. Alas, GFNY Racing sent Chris “I don’t have my racing legs yet” Washburne, Stan “markup and redline” German, Jared “that hill is just like Bear” Skolnick, and myself, so at least we stuck to the stricter definition of Masters. Our logic was based on last year’s Masters field being 20 minutes slower overall on GC than the open field, but more on that later. And we were also joined by friends Susanna, Emma, Mike, Omar and Nick, with Susanna and Emma racing in the Women’s 3/4/5 category, Mike and Omar opting to tour the local climbs and cheer us on at the finish, and Nick joining us in the Masters race
Because it’s Killington, the one thing we knew was that it has hills. Lots of hills. And not the little hills that we’re used to in New York, but those things that can legitimately be described as actual mountains. However, the feature we knew least about in Killington wasn’t the hills, but the three-to-five mile uphill drags that pepper the area. The race guide didn’t really describe these as hills, referring to them obliquely as “very gradual ascents”, confirming that residents of Vermont have a somewhat twisted sense of humour. Because these Killington Special “very gradual ascents” were nothing but nasty climbs that the race organizers would use to inflict pain, torture and suffering on us.
To add some fun to the mix, none of us have done stage racing before – the most we’ve attempted is back-to-back races over a weekend, but nothing like this madness. And it really was madness, starting with a 38-mile circuit race, then the 61 mile Queen stage ending on top of a mountain, and ending with an 11 mile time trial. The Technical Guide was filled with talk of liberally construed sprints, time cuts, infringements, penalties (both time and monetary), and other such stuff that racers generally understand until pedals start turning, after which they become utterly nonsensical. Fortunately, Stan had had his associates red-line the race guide, highlighting the most important parts – about 74% of the manual.
Stage 0: the race to Killington
It’s a little known fact that bike racers are excellent at packing just the minimum amount of stuff needed for a bike race, but absolutely appalling at packing to go to the race. We maintained that tradition as we assembled at Jared’s, loading up 5 cars with 10 people, 11 bikes, two spare wheelsets, enough spare tools and components to build a 12th bike, a GFNY canopy, and enough spare team kit to dress half of last week’s GFNY field. After a brief stop at Rutland Kmart to stock up on more supplies, 3,000 litres of water and half a ton of cookies, we headed to sign-in to pick-up our race numbers, and check-out the competition. Kudos to the Kelly Benefits Strategies guy who didn’t have sufficient body-mass to push open the door to the Killington Welcome Center, electing instead to slip sideways through the 4-inch gap. And thanks for making Juan look like a giant.
Stage 1: this isn’t quite Central Park.
Stage 1, a 2-lap 36-mile circuit race, featured the first Killington special ascent – a 5-mile long ascent at 2-3% between Bridgewater and Plymouth Notch. As the Masters field rolled out of Skyeship base, the peloton seemed happy to roll along admiring the views. A couple of early attacks were reeled in quickly by our friends from Dave Jordan Racing, then a single escapee disappeared up the road; it would turn out that (a) he’d never be seen again, and (b) he’d get DQ’ed for “licence issues” – aka he was a Cat 3 masquerading as a Cat 4. Meanwhile, at the back of the bunch, we enjoyed the tow to Bridegewater before starting the long, slow ascent. I’m told by Chris that the front of the race was “very smooth”; alas, at the back, it was almost stop-start, with the field surging every 30-45 seconds. Whilst it rarely required huge power spikes, it was still enough to burn a match or two every couple of minutes. Before long, Stan, Jared and I were hanging on by the skin of our teeth. Jared cracked half way, and Stan and I were in a fight for survival as the field charged over the top into the rustic village of Plymouth Notch (and, as the race guide notes, the birthplace of Calvin Coolidge). Heading down the descent, we lit up matches one after the other in a bid to catch back onto the back of the field. And just as we caught on, the field surged once more to line out for the sprint… and that was the point at which we discovered that we were both all out of matches, firewood, and anything else that would power our legs. So we gamely waved bye bye to the front of the race.
We sat up briefly to recover and come up with plan B; alas, plan B mostly featured “riding as hard as we could to make the time cut”. That meant maintaining 20mph on this decidedly painful circuit, as we swept up a guy from the 50+ Masters’ race, then got joined by 2 guys from our own field. The combined efforts got us to the finish line at 21mph, 13 minutes after the leaders, and handily within the 20% time cut. Up front, Chris showed his “lack of racing” form and took a KOM point on the second ascent of the hill, and took 11th in the sprint. Jared, Stan and I battled to the end to make the somewhat liberally construed time cut and race into day 2.
In the open race, Juan, Ramon and Justin executed their “stay up front” strategy well, until an errant rider bumped wheels on the right of the peloton, and caused a mass pile up, taking out Justin on the way. Fortunately, Justin’s fall was broken by a pile of bikes and bodies, and he emerged unscathed. Alas, his bike fared slightly less well, with a wonky rear wheel and a severely rubbing back brake. He gamely soldiered on till realizing that his bike needed some TLC to make it into day 2. Ramon was dropped somewhere near Plymouth Notch, but he found a strong group to work to the finish in, and Juan finished strongly in the pack.
- Distance: 38 miles
- Vertical ascent: 1,800 ft
- Average speed (winners): 24.45mph (masters) / 23.12mph (open) – so yeah, masters field slower? Erm, no!§
- Normalized power: 224W (Gavin)
- Intensity Factor: too high
- Ice cream of the day: Vermont Maple Walnut and Peppermint Candycane.
Results – Stage 1
|Field||Bib||Racer||Position||Time||Time gap||KOM pts||Normalized Power|
Stage 2: did someone say Bear Mountain?
Sunday morning dawned bright and decidedly warmer than Saturday, which was a slightly worrying omen for what lay ahead – a decidedly hot day of racing on the Queen Stage. 61 miles, but more importantly two big climbs. Or three, depending on how you read the race guide. After several trips back to the team car to remove layers of clothing, the fields lined up at Skyeship Base for what would be an incredibly tough day of racing. Climb 1 was another one of those painful Killington drags – a gradual 2 mile, 500ft ascent, just 3 miles into the day’s action. Climbs 2 and 3 would be the real tests though, with the second featuring 1,300ft of climbing over 6.5 miles, and the third and final climb of the day requiring 1,250ft of climbing over 4.5 miles.
As the fields rolled-out, everyone (wisely) elected not to attack so early on in the day. In the open field, Juan and Justin stayed up front, with Ramon being gapped slightly on climb 1. He gamely chased back on the 20-mile descent towards the day’s sprint line, dragging half-a-dozen dropped riders with him.
In a cruel twist of pain and suffering, the sprint line came just a mile before the KOM, stretching out the fields before the day’s real action had really got going. With the sprinters forcing a reshuffle just a mile before the base of the climb, Juan and Justin found themselves battling through tired non-climbers to the base of the second climb. Up-front, the real climbers forced the pace into the KOM, shattering the peloton into pieces, so Justin turned full domestique for Juan and brought him safely into the second group before dropping back.
The strategy in the Masters’ field was endearingly similar, with no attacks over the first climb. Jared was unable to shake the fatigue after his long solo effort on Stage 1 and was dropped half way up the climb. Chris, Stan and I made it over the top safely, and enjoyed the 20 mile descent into Stockbridge and the day’s sprint line. Whilst I enjoyed watching some bike-yoga at the back of the pack, Stan and Chris went to the front to contest the sprint; Stan led out Chris and his “not race-ready” legs to a fabulous fifth place, just missing out on the sprint points. And, just like the open race, sh*t got real at the base of the second climb. Chris battled into the second group on the road, and Stan and I joined the long tail of gapped riders. Coming over the top of the hill, I went on a 12-mile solo chase for company, finding absolutely no-one to work with till mile 47, when I was joined by a man from Kissena who kindly dragged my tired, screaming and lactic-filled legs to the base of the final climb. Stan, with another rider for company, came over the top of the hill about 3 minutes behind, and came tantalisingly close to catching me, but was thwarted by the efforts of Mr. Kissena to keep us away.
For both fields, the final climb, Bear Mountain, was where the real pain would be. The technical guide indicated that the final climb would be 4.5 miles and 1,250ft in elevation – just like our own Bear Mountain in NY. What it didn’t mention was that the first two miles would gain 1,000ft of elevation and average 9%, or that it featured a number of 18-20% ramps, or the complete lack of respite, or the searing sun right on our backs as we climbed.
With Juan and Chris representing the team at the competitive end of the races, the rest of us went into “oh crap, this is a nasty climb” mode and entered our own personal pain caves to grind out the climb to the top. Juan suddenly realised the foolishness of bringing his standard crank instead of his compact, forcing a reduction in his average cadence from 120 to a mere 119 on the climb. I could see Ramon just 100 yards up ahead of me, but never quite caught him. As we all reached the top, we were greeted by our cheerleading squad of Susanna, Omar and Mike. Alas, by the time I reached them, I didn’t have sufficient energy left to do anything other than blink my gratitude to them. Thanks guys for gamely running alongside us to cher us on, even though you could have achieved the same speed with just a brisk crawl.
- Distance: 60.5 miles
- Vertical ascent: 4,600 ft
- Average speed (winners): 21.32mph (open) / 20.71mph (masters)
- Was the masters field slower? Yes, by 4 whole minutes.
- Justin’s Ice Cream of the Day: The Double Maple – maple walnut and maple bacon, topped with salted bourbon caramel and cinnamon toast crunch.
Results – Stage 2
|Field||Bib||Racer||Position||Time||Time gap||Average Speed||Max HR||Final Climb Time|
Stage 3: Trial by pain
In contrast to the first two days of racing, day 3 didn’t dawn either bright, or clear. Low clouds covered the mountain, and rain was forecast for the later fields. Fortunately, the day’s racing was scheduled to be a short 11 mile time trial, starting in Bridgewater and ending after another Killington Special 3-mile long up-hill drag. As none of us had bought TT bikes with us, or aero bars, disc wheels, skinsuits, or anything else to make us faster, it would be an intense intra-team competition for line honors. And an intense personal competition not to get passed too early in the day. For many of us, it would also be our first time trial, and our first standing start whilst being clipped in. I am happy to report that we all stayed upright at the start, although in my case it was pretty close to disaster right out of the gate.
As we settled into our best aero positions, it was time to ramp up the pain and get into personal suffering mode. After two intense days of racing, many of us struggled to get our heart rates deep into threshold, but that didn’t make it hurt any less. Except for Justin – who realized that TT’ing is just like an outdoor version of Trainer Road, so whilst we entered our pain caves, he went into his happy place. He would go on to win the intra-team TT competition, and spent the entire journey home shopping for TT bikes.
For me, the battle not to get passed to early fell apart miserably at mile 3. As I plowed on in my own personal hell, I heard the sound of a race moto in my left ear, then the distinctive whomp-whomp of a disc wheel. With no-one starting 30 seconds behind me, the guy a whole minute behind me came roaring past on his full TT rig, skinsuit, aero helmet and everything else, going at least 5mph faster than me. And I was only 9 minutes into the race. Great. He was swiftly followed by 2 more at miles 5 and 7, but by then I’d decided to ignore them entirely, in favor of attempting to calculate how much longer the pain would go on for. After the long drag up the last Killington special of the weekend, I rounded the corner into the finishing straight to be greeted by the three best sights of the day: a descent, the finishing line, and our cheering squad! And that was it. Three days of racing. Over. Jared summed things up by collapsing on the grass at the finish line. I attempted to follow suit, but didn’t have the energy or cognitive abilities to attempt a graceful fall, so elected instead to rest my head on my top cap and suck in every atom of oxygen within a three-hundred mile radius. Three incredible days of racing, over.
- Distance: 10.6 miles
- Vertical ascent: 476ft
- Average speed (winners): 27.23mph (open) / 26.38mph (masters)
Results – Stage 3 TT
|Field||Bib||Racer||Position||Time||Time gap||Average Speed||Normalized Power|
Are you all insane?
Erm, you knew that already, so don’t be surprised! For all of us, Killington was about race experience, achieving some personal goals, and finishing knowing we’d given everything we had. And we did that, and some more. Along the way, we learnt that we didn’t need to bring nearly as much stuff as we did (but rest assured, we’ll forget that in time for the next race). We learnt that the Masters field wasn’t that much slower, with only a two minute gap on GC times to split the two winners. And we learnt that pancakes really can fuel a bike race. Did someone mention KSR 2018?
Weekend race data:
- Pancakes consumed: 50+, plus approximately half a barrel of Vermont Maple Syrup (well, that might have been just me. Gotta have something to power the legs!)
- Number of gear changes
Results – General Classification
|Field||Bib||Racer||Position||Time||Time gap||Quote of the Weekend|
|Open||395||Juan Sanchez||40th||5:12:25||+19:10||“Compact is too easy”|
|349||Justin Bangs||53rd||5:57:45||+1:01:30||“There’s ice cream?”|
|Masters||170||Chris Washburne||41st||5:12:27||+18:12||“I think my race legs are coming back”|
|116||Gavin Chow||56th||5:44:08||+49:53||“Did anyone bring any cookies?”|
|130||Stan German||57th||5:52:41||+58:26||“I led Chris out!”|
|161||Jared Skolnick||60th||6:32:59||+1:38:44||“OK, maybe it’s not like Bear Mountain”|