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My dog tore out the front door and into a world of white, the fresh snow erasing the boundaries between grass and street, between yes and no. To her, the entire landscape became an immense, unending playground.
The temperature was around 20 degrees Fahrenheit (-7C), and half a foot of snow blanketed the town of Boulder, Colorado. One day prior, members of our cyclocross team sat in the sun on lawn chairs and coolers in short sleeves. Racers with the just-finished post-race cough drowned it out with cold beers. People needed sunscreen.
A few weeks ago, it was 100 degrees (38C) at a bike race, and a dust cloud lingered over the course. “This isn’t real ‘cross weather,” people said, hoping for cooler weather and ugly conditions. The term “grass crit season” was tossed about.
In a few short hours, that season was gone. Valmont Bike Park’s normally fast dirt was a thick, peanut-butter paste, but with the added benefit of ice mixed in. None of this should have been a surprise, since cyclists are obsessed with weather forecasts and we’d all been talking about the storm that was coming for days.
But to open the door and see the newness of the season’s first real storm is always a surprise, met by racers with equal parts awe and dread. Suddenly people who were talking about racing all week had gone missing. The texts started to fly. My dad, who had slept in his van at the venue, was curious if I was in. I asked if he was.
“I asked you first,” he wrote back. I was still in bed.
An hour later he is racing to the start line and tosses me his jacket. An hour after that, he’s got his hands up on the podium, mud on his face and a wide smile. Possibly satisfied with third, but probably not. His spectacles are flecked with mud. He walks away slowly, dragging his iced-over bike, looking smaller and smaller. Lately when we ride together, or when I see him at a race, I feel a porous melancholy. I wonder how long this will last, these days together here, both of us equals on our bikes, feeling the same things. I’ve been so lucky for so long. That thought passes and returns often. The shouts from the course push it away.
I watch as riders of all ages, shapes and sizes race in muddy slow motion. Most of them are smiling, at least when it’s over. It’s beautiful to be out there seeing all this, seeing older men and young kids with mud on their faces and ice on their feet. I see the failed hand ups and laugh as someone falls down reaching for a beer. Days like these, one is only racing the mud and the time it takes for the drive train to ice up. There is something wonderful, something so warming and so textured that people choose to do this together on these days when it’s not easy, and probably not even fun.
I was on the fence about racing, because if you’ve done one of these you know the line between fun and crazy is as thin as a skinsuit. But I think because a part of me still wants to be like my dad, I pull leg warmers on. Socks. Another pair of socks. Gloves. Another pair of gloves.
My wife hands me a flask. I’m in the third row of the single speed race. Pretty sure a shot of Old Grandad isn’t going to be the difference today. We pass it around with 30 seconds to start.
It’s quiet now. In those 10 seconds before the start, the only sound I can hear is my breathing. And someone on the side in a down coat says, “You know, it’s not that cold out here.” Right.
The whistle sounds.
And then we are all hounds like my dog Bird, as we tear away into the white.