Once asked by a reporter to summarize his experience on a difficult Tour de France stage, quirky former pro Dave Zabriskie responded, borrowing a line from The Big Lebowski, “Sometimes you eat the bar, and sometimes the bar eats you.” For the occasion of the May 10th Rapha Cycle Club/CRCA Bear Mountain Classic (“Bear Mountain”), Zabriskie’s remark could easily be re-rendered as, “Sometimes you eat the Bear, and sometimes the Bear eats you.” Suffice it to say that even early on in the race it became readily apparent that the Bear was hungry, the Bear was merciless, and the Bear would ultimately eat me whole. For its location, terrain, and the high- quality field that turns out, Bear Mountain is a special race. Its status as a target race for many throughout the Northeast – and in some cases the entire U.S. – was heightened even further by its serving as this year’s New York State Championship Road Race as well. The race offers up one of the most stunning backdrops and difficult profiles of any race we do all year. The course consists of a 14-mile circuit through Harriman State Park, located about 45 miles north of Manhattan. The setting is pristine, and the rushing brooks, quiet lakes, and woods thick with green that we race past help make the suffering ever-so-slightly more tolerable. In terms of profile, each lap of the circuit begins with a hair-raising descent where speeds touch 50 mph. A hair-brained 180-degree hairpin turn at the bottom of the descent puts riders on the brakes and onto the foot of a 2.5-mile, stair-step climb that winds its way up Tiorati Brook Rd. An undulating backstretch provides some respite, and a chance for riders that may have been gapped on the climb to catch back on. A second 180-degree hairpin turn at the south end of the circuit leads into 5-mile section of road punctuated by leg-sapping quarter-mile climbs and sustained false flats.
My preparation the morning of the race couldn't have gone better. For once, I arrived to the race well in advance of my field’s start time. This meant I had ample time to register and pin my numbers, chat with my teammates, and loosen up the legs with a good warm-up, which was important given that just two minutes into the race we’d hit the climb up Tiorati Brook Rd. It didn’t seem to do much good. Things hotted up quickly going up the climb, and I found myself digging deep just to hold my position in the middle of the pack. The changes of pace seemed pretty ferocious, as the guys on the front would hammer up the steeper stair-step grades and then settle into an almost equally strong tempo on the milder sections of the climb. Able to recover a bit on the back of the course, I prepared to face another fierce injection of pace up the second set of climbs heading back toward the start/finish area by getting as near to the front as possible. Mission accomplished, and I made it through the first quarter of the race well and good. The same story played itself out up Tiorati Brook Rd the second time around. Unfortunately for me, though, this time I lost contact with the bunch toward the top of the climb. The peloton marched sinuously around the curves and turns further up the road while I thrashed away at the pedals to no avail. I fought off feelings of dejection and quickly got about the business of chasing, linking up with four other dropped riders. We cooperated well, taking intermittent, short pulls, and regained contact over the flat sections a few miles later. Though I’d been dropped temporarily on the second lap, I went into the third still confident in my ability to stay with the group on the major climb.
In my short racing career, I’ve come to learn that the decisive moment of any race isn’t the foot of the final climb or the start of the sprint, it’s all of the things that happen before such moments that are most decisive. With that in mind, and with my weakness on the climb made patently obvious the two prior trips up it, I bombed the descent. And I typically descend like a sheep! It was a white-knuckle moment for me, but I was determined to be as well positioned as possible through the 180-degree hairpin at the bottom of the descent so as not to waste a single watt of power at the foot of the climb. Those stuck toward the back of the bunch at the hairpin must slow to a crawl and are forced to start the climb with zero momentum, like a standing track start. I came second wheel through the turn, carrying as much speed as possible, and was well positioned as we tackled the climb for the third time. About half-way up, I surged to close the gap to the wheel in front of me. I paid for that effort dearly, and I sank through the back half of the remaining group. I sunk every ounce of determination imaginable into holding the wheels, but they slipped by, one by one, without any regard or sympathy for my efforts. In bike racing, you get no credit for trying.
And so it was, I found myself unceremoniously dropped on the climb. I harbored hopes of latching back onto the group over the climb - hoping that the pace slowed on the flat sections. My spirits were lifted temporarily when a small chase group approached from behind, and I jumped on their train in an attempt to shorten the distance at least partially to the lead group. But, as if to add insult to injury, I got dropped from the chase group! I was totally cooked, unable to transfer any meaningful power to the pedals, and feeling on the verge of cramping. I produced a meager TT for the final lap, riding in isolation. My day ended with me rolling in 20 minutes down on the eventual winner. "..., and sometimes the bear eats you," indeed.
I never expected Bear Mountain to be easy, hence all the disciplined winter training, the hard intervals and early Spring racing, and the mildly obsessive calorie counting in the months leading up to Bear Mountain. But, I did expect things to go better than they did. The best laid plans... Getting dropped is just part of racing, and it’s provided some good lessons and sharpened my focus for the next races. Hopefully, these sorts of experiences will only sweeten the taste of any future successes.
Photos by ToneB for CRCA on Facebook