The ECCC made its way to State College, Pennsylvania for what is widely regarded as the best weekend of racing in the conference.
The weekends brutal schedule began early with an undulating 9.5 mile Team Time Trial Saturday morning. MIT won both the Men’s and Women’s A TTT, proving the merits of having a wind tunnel on campus.
Later in the afternoon riders toed the line of the ECCC queen stage, Black Moshannon road race. Light rain and fog covered the tops of the surrounding mountains, making what was to be a hard day in the saddle, a little harder. Each 21 mile lap consisted of 2500ft of climbing, with the grueling Black Mo climb, that left every field in tatters. The 63 mile men’s A race was a battle for the yellow jersey, as current series leader Robin Carpenter (Swarthmore) out sprinted Adam Bry (MIT) to retain the jersey. In the women’s A/B Katie Quinn (MIT) bested Lindsey Knast (Temple) in the 42 mile affair.
With tired legs after the road race, half of the ECCC teams headed to Chen’s Mongolian BBQ Buffet, all you can eat for $11. The overwhelmed staff ran out of sushi at one point and the grill was backed up as the ravenous cyclists pilled their plates high. Later in the evening many teams were spotted at Penn State’s most famous building, that doesn’t have anything to do with football, the Creamery for some unreal ice cream.
Sunday’s racing brought the ECCC to downtown State College for the annual Frat Row Criterium. This 1k, technical 6 corner crit, while flat, not give rider’s legs any break after a tough previous day of racing. The speeds taken through the corners strung out all the fields, with many racers getting pulled from contention. The technical turn 3 and 4 lead to many riders taking home some souvenir road rash. Penn State riders did their best to make their presence felt on the road, as to not disappoint a sizable supportive home crowd. The home crowd was out in force. Some frat bros began their early morning drinking with the D field races. Later grills and more bros lined the course to create an exciting festive atmosphere. In the women’s intro UVM rider Alissa Peterson decimated the field without the use of her big chain ring!
In the women’s A/B field after a Sisyphean effort by Katie Quinn (MIT) to repeatedly ride away from the women’s field she was pulled back with three to go. MIT looked poised to pull the win out in the sprint but Mandy Marquardt (Penn State) decidedly won in the sprint finale. The men’s field set a blistering pace right from the gun. Even some of the strongest men of the ECCC were pulled before the lap cards went up. After numerous attacks to try to break clear by a host of schools. It all came down to a big sprint finish. Last years series winner Wyatt Stoup (Penn State) blasted to victory over Charles Slazer (F&M), sending the PSU supporters home happy.
Black Mo: Queen Stage
As cyclists, we can get a little carried away with trying to make parallels of the world of professional cycling to our racing world. Many times out training we image our roads as ones that the epic battles of cycling history took place. Riding up a steep climb to the summit of a church, a la Mur de Grammont or a wide urban boulevard on an early weekend ride as our Champs-Élysées sprint finish. Luckily there are days when we don’t have to pretend. While it is too early in the pro season to toss around the title Queen Stage, it only is reserved for the most epic race. This past weekends Penn State road race at Black Moshannon state park is the Queen Stage of the ECCC.
When I first began racing last year, everyone I talked to in the Boston area about collegiate cycling said, “you have to go to Penn State.” I was a tad skeptical, due to the very lengthy drive, they would brush the drive time aside and reassure me that it would be a day in the saddle that I would never forget. Last season, life got in the way of making it out to Happy Valley, but this year I was not going to pass the chance up.
Many veteran (and accomplished) racers say simply this is one of the best courses anywhere. Even the guys with pro license who have been to some series races in the US, love this course. To be apart of a race that can be unequivocally singled out and held in such esteem, how could it not inspire nothing short of best effort.
The race began just as it was described to me two years ago in Boston, as a quite but haunting fog hung around the start. Masking all that we were to experience, on our multiple trips to the bottom of the valley and back. It was a cool afternoon, barely fifty degrees with light rain. Had the sun came out, I think would have spoiled the setting of the race. A brutal course, matched with weather that seemed appropriate for the terrain. One of the types of days that makes choosing the proper attire even more tricky.
After the undulating opening miles, there begins a wicked descent that twists you down to the valley floor. All the talk had been on the Black Mo climb, but there was the matter of the many smaller sharp climbs that led the way to the real challenge. Punchy climbs, that were overlooked on the elevation map, but 39×25 gearing nonetheless.
There is no sign that indicates the beginning of Black Mo. There is no signs for really anything, just a farm here, a house there, a lake on your left. Those who raced the course before could not pinpoint the exact start, just anxiously waiting. It just starts. After a short climb and a quick down hill turn you start climbing. The bottom is heavily wooded, mixed in with the heavy fog above, looking up to spot the summit was futile. As we started to go up and up, I watched the pace car fade into the fog and the field slide apart, it was only a quarter of a way of the race, but the real work for the day had just set in.
As we worked our way further up, there was a sparse spectator, here and there. Usually along a switchback, needless to say there were no spectators on bikes, just cars of parents, friends and fellow racers. Some offered words of encouragement, others just snapped photos, but most stood and watched our silent parade of suffering.
Upon reaching the summit, our breath became visible and our bottles welcomely chilled. Riding through the feed zone I was anticipating the normal heckling that is standard in collegiate racing from the racers in the lower categories. But this time, they just gave a nod of respect. This is painful, every field finished in groups of two and three, there was no need for verbal jabs today, they had lived it.
Another lap, repeat the pain without the help of sitting in the peloton. With less focus on watching the other riders, a small group of us working together before reaching the foot of Black Mo. The scenery was easier to enjoy this time. We all knew this is a special place to be on a bicycle. Riding past the farms in the valley one of my teammates later said, “I was so hungry, all I could think about on the second lap was what horse tastes like every time I passed one.” On the second time up, you still could not figure out when it was coming or ending. It was getting cooler out. Half way down the descent as we flirted with 50 mph I began to shiver a bit. Almost, hoping a climb was coming to warm me back up. I crossed the finish good for a top twenty on the day.
Dead tired, all I really wanted was for someone to have handed me a beer right there. All who finished were tired, but rare as it may sound, none of my teammates lamented about losing the break or a missed opportunity in their race. Rather relishing the accomplishment of finishing the Queen Stage. We all were sore but the smiles were there. Black Mo does not have a centuries old history or rather much history outside of the ECCC. But that doesn’t mean it is not a road that I won’t daydream about being back on soon.