Recently the umpteenth annual Tour of the Hilltowns road race took place in Windsor, MA. For those who are unfamiliar, Windsor is in the western part of the state, where the terrain is significantly lumpier than it is in the east. That is not to say that it is flat where we are, in eastern, MA. The truth is that everything here is fairly rolling and long straight flats are hard to come by, but the hills are much smaller than out west. In contrast, we ride quite a bit in western Maine. If you want to talk flat, that is flat. Sure, there are the mountains like the Mahoosucs or the Whites but along the river planes, it's flat, dead flat, for miles and miles and miles.
So back to the story, given that Hilltowns is a classic road race within the region and given that I'd never done the race and in fact had never ridden in or even been to that area of the state save for the Grand Fundo ride last year, I figured that I should give it a go. The drive out to the western part of the state along RT2 was uneventful. We stayed on secondary roadways and came in the back way to Windsor, backwards on the course along RT18, coming onto the course at the foot of the fabled East Hawley Road climb (aka, "the climb"), the primary feature of the Hilltowns race course. The roads appeared to be in well used condition in general and the terrain was rolling and sloped up significantly. We arrived at the venue, Notchview Reservation, which is a Trustees of Reservation site that offers XC skiing in the winter months.
Most of the normal cast of Masters 35+ were present, which I was sure would prove for an interesting and challenging race. The day was hot, though not nearly as bad as it had been the previous few days. Still, the sun was going to play a part in the proceedings without a doubt. From the start pace was strong and attacks started quickly. The first few were easily neutralized on the mostly downhill terrain but when a move went and gained momentum on some of the more rolling terrain, Gary J. from the WheelWorks team and I decided to make a go. It was a fierce chase to catch and the results were short lived. Looked like the race was likely going to stay together until "the climb".
And so it did, through the long winding descents, I stayed in the top 5 in order to keep safe and conserve. As we approached "the climb" the groans started. Exclamations as to how this was going to suck were readily heard. I'd never seen the climb before but mapped it out. It compared almost identically to the top part of the Kancamagus Highway climb headed West, which was just about 5 miles of fairly steady 5% grade. On paper, that didn't sound that bad. In reality, I know what a bear the top of the Kanc is, though that is typically with 80 plus miles of climbing in my legs. My plan was to just try and hang. For much of the climb it was hard but I was holding steady. On the upper third things started to get ugly and I was struggling. With maybe a mile to go, and unbeknown to me, far less of the actual sustained climbing, I fell off the back. Bill S. was there as well and tried to spur me on but I wasn't sure how much more we had and was in a world of hurt.
I ground my way up as they rode away from me. Soon there after the grade leveled out a bit to what was more of a power section. The pace piked up and the gap grew as I pushed as hard as I could. I suspected we were near the top and knew that the lead group would really be pushing hard now. I was right. Slowing I inched back towards stragglers off the back but in front of me. Bill was gone but I slowly, ever so slowly, pulled back toward a few. I was having shifting problems as I chose to swap wheels at the last minute. The shifting seemed fine but as it turned out, the spacing of the hub was a little different and the 12-25 cassette was a little further inboard than the 11-25 on the other wheelset. This translated to me not being able to get into the 12 tooth cog, which left me with a 13 tooth cog as my max, a max for which I really was wishing for more on some of the steeped descents.
Marky G. was the first and I could see he was suffering, so slowed enough for him to latch on and went for the next group. After a good 5 miles of 35mph plus descending I finally caught a group of 4 riders, making 6 of us. One of the group had actually come by me near the top of the climb and I was unable to hang with him on the way down. He proved to be very strong and didn't work well with others, throwing the ad-hock group into disarray. He and I seemed to match pretty well though so we struck off together, and spent the next 20 or so miles working well and saying nary a word to each other. Well, he didn't say anything anyhow. I'm usually pretty animated. Through the feed a snagged a bottle from Cathy and pressed on, still with no pack in sight.
It wasn't until the base of what turned out to be the final, seemingly endless, 5 miles of rollers, up to the finish that we saw the pack. They were 500 yards ahead at that point, just as the climbs were starting. For a brief moment I courted the notion of a massive effort to bridge back but the reality suck in when we reached the second in the succession of rollers, laid out in the baking sun. It was all I could do to get back to the finish. As it ended, I was over 8 minutes back from the leaders, who had broken free of the pack on the East Hawley climb. The pack still finished many minutes ahead of me. I was spent, hot, dehydrated and my legs were nearly cramping from the countless miles of head down chasing. Still, it was a good experience and now I know what the course is like. I need to spend more time climbing and less time just going hard and steady as hard and steady is never hard enough. I also recognize that I really, really need to learn to HtFU and just live with it when the suffering hits. I've been trying this year to dig a little deeper but clearly I'm not quite there yet. Next year!