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“What’s the beer situation here?” The brief silence that followed signaled that this was probably not the best question to ask at this particular establishment. “Well, we’re a bar, so….” The surly waitress had already made up her mind. She did not like us as a group. We did not look like we belonged. We looked like we were going to be loud and talk about annoying things. Like bikes.
Words & Images: Andy Bokanev
This was Team CLIF Bar’s second day in the town of Cambridge, New York. A place that just over 2,000 people call home, a place that once claimed to have invented pie à la mode and a place about as far as one can get from the West Coast. We were less than 12 hours away from the start of what many consider to be the most prestigious (or infamous) one-day race in the United States: Tour of the Battenkill. We were in town to kick off the United States of Criterium, a season-long project that will follow the team around to some of the most unique and legendary criteriums around the country. And we were starting it here in Upstate New York.
We all drove into town in the pitch black of the night before. After leaving the relative comfort and safety of the Interstate, the directions told us to take the exit and make a left turn at the light. We ended up on a rolling road lined by barren trees, darkened homes lit up by light-bulb candles placed in each window, as well as the occasional cemetery. Our travel-tired minds started to play tricks on us. Is that a deer? Is that car following us? We have to be getting close now. GPS says 40 miles to go.
We were not heading to a hotel. There are not many of those in towns such as Cambridge, and putting up a whole team can get fairly expensive. At races like these, teams often rely on host housing as local families make their homes, extra bedrooms and couches available for riders and staff to feel at home. Host housing really does make the American cycling world go round. But you never really know what to expect. Big-screen TV? Espresso machine? Washer/dryer? Friendly dog? Good! Creepy stuffed animal in the corner? Tiny futon in the middle of the chicken coop? Roaches stealing your oatmeal? Not so much.
“Is this Andy? What are you wearing?” I looked down and described my outfit to the moto coordinator on the other end of the line. She was not impressed. “We’ll provide you with a jacket and gloves for extra protection.” I did not want to admit that I was a little concerned about being on the back of a motorcycle after pre-riding some of the gravel climbs and descents that Battenkill has to offer. But this was a new experience and a fresh perspective that I wasn’t going to pass up.
The moto driver (“I’m Kirk, like Captain Kirk”) set me up with a helmet, gloves and a reflective jacket about five sizes too large, and we blasted off after the peloton. Battenkill is often won from a breakaway group and it took about 3 miles for the first break to establish. It continued to grow and shrink while staying out for the rest of the race. After four hours under the Battenkill sun, the results for Team CLIF Bar were as expected. Road racer Menso De Jong crossed the finish line about three minutes after the winner, followed about 15 minutes later by Stephan Hoffman. The crit specialists John Bergmann, Miles Lamon and Paul “Pete” Morris rolled across the line close to the end of the field after losing the peloton at some point halfway through the race: “No DNFs, man.”
That’s when I started thinking. Why were we even here? After all, this race neither has the UCI status of a few years back, nor is it part of the National Race Calendar (NRC). Why spend the money and the time to bring a bunch of burly criterium specialists to duel it out with skinny road-racer types much better suited to the 105 miles of pavement and gravel and some 5,800 feet of elevation gain?
“Quite simply, it’s rad,” said Dylan Seguin, Team CLIF Bar team manager. He went on to explain that one of the main objectives for this season-long project is to feature some of the best races that the United States has to offer. And while Battenkill is not at all suited to crit specialists, the race’s special place on most people’s bucket lists, the unique parcours, the gravel, the level of competition and the personalities involved make it a must-do that’s too good to pass up for a story. Even if the team was not expected to leave with a strong result.
And that’s when it occurred to me. These dudes are a little different—both in how they approach the sport and how they run the team. And this project is not just about the racing, the bike or the winner. It’s about families that provide traveling cyclists with host housing and necessities (our Wi-Fi password was hgG68tGJGWQ4HF56fgFHG). It’s not just about the sponsors of the race. It’s about the organizers whose phones rang nonstop in the days leading up to the race. It’s not just about the podium. It’s about the announcer who talked virtually nonstop for two to three hours while sticking to about 80-percent fact. It’s not just about the training and nutrition. After all, this is elite-level cycling. It’s about competing in the professional peloton while balancing full-time jobs, school, friendships, roommates…and Tinder.