The icy cold had been burning into my nostrils on each breathe, sucking out the moisture and replacing it with the desire to stop breathing all together. The outside was telling me to go home and stop. Shut up, stop pedalling, stop exploring the mountains around Boulder. I listened. The winter snap that pushed arctic air across the Front Range of Colorado also signalled the freezing of my racing season. By the middle of December I was done with riding bikes. I had other cables plugged into my attention – drawing current away from riding and towards work, England, and rest. I’ve been on the ‘gas’ since the middle of July, when I stepped up my training from ‘seriously disorganised’ to ‘seriously serious’. I had followed every letter in the small print emails; to my surprise, training hadn’t sucked the love out of my lifeblood. I always ride hard and suffer on the bike. Instead of being restrictive, knowing how and when to train opened up a freedom for me to enjoy riding a little more. Every pedal stroke had a purpose greater than could be expressed wihtin that one ride. My exploring and freedoms to ride didn’t change. They were simply enhanced. It paid off, and I got faster. At least, I felt faster; in a game as mentally dominated as cyclocross that is equally important. For me, knowing how long the batteries had been charging for was enough to line up and race confidently all autumn.
Then the Baltic winds blew -15°C across the town. The motivation shrivelled inside thick jumpers and an extra cup of tea in the morning. Convenient ignoration of those small print emails replaced unwavering dedication. I was done. Unfortunately the season wasn’t. With one race left, the batteries now sat idle and unused, the energy slowly leaching into the sofa as I ate another biscuit. How to pull myself out of the hole in time for Colorado State Championships. With three days before the race, I realised I’d missed the chance for the result to cap my season, but I hadn’t missed the chance for some last minute enjoyment of the thawing Colorado temperatures.
Any normal week, any normal race, I would have turned down a three hour ride the day before a race. This week was different though; I had to put a face to a name. On my travels across the US and Europe, I’d more and more been using Strava as a tool to meet the people that knew the places I wanted to ride. When I landed back on Exmoor last Christmas, it was strava who led me to Rob, and to a new riding friend at home. Again in Innsbruck, Christoph was found through the intimate anonymity of the internet. Together, these two people told me about a third internet celeb’, who I’ve followed along with ever since. Jered Gruber seemed to be going all the same places as me, at different times. We had a brief digital intro, and when I finally saw that our travel plans would no longer repell each other, I jumped at the chance to ride with him in Golden.
I knew from experience that I can’t race without riding a lot in the week leading up to the race. But I hadn’t been riding. My reverse logic said that if I was going to race poorly, I may as well enjoy a good ride the day before. Who knows, maybe the ride could have jump started the batteries; reawakened the underlying charges. I had nothing to loose. With flawed logic and great anticipation, I headed out of the bubble to Golden. Jered, a couple friends and I headed up into Golden Gate state park. We ignored the temperature. We ignored the mass of greying colds sending frigid air off the continental divide. Instead we pedalled up. Roads turned to smaller roads. Fast rolling tarmac finally gave way to the crisp sizzle of gravel under our tyres. We made it to 3000 metres in a winding struggle of ice covered roads and scenery that sucked you forward. We drank syrupy artificial hot chocolate from a road side convenience store, then plummeted rapidly back to the life that is lived on the front range.
My legs hated me. I had spent all day dangling around on the back of the group – never showing motivation which could send the pace higher. I conserved energy. I drank and ate and drafted. But still, I went to sleep with compression tights on, and the knowledge that my ‘jump start’ theory would have been better served by less than 2000 metres of climbing. But I enjoyed it. It was everything I could have wanted in the middle of December. It tingled at the deep buried senses that send me out for long rides in the middle of winter. The desire was drawn out into the cold refreshing air.
Sunday morning rolled around, and Bryan dutifully loaded my bikes on the back of his car for the drive to Castle Rock. We rolled up to the thawing venue – a scarred ribbon of brown mud drawn across the face of the white parkland. My race routine was buried in the mess of clothes I’d stuffed into my bag earlier that morning, and I struggled to put everything together before the race. I was on the start line, in the right gear, eyes burning into the first corner of forward-sapping mud.
I wasn’t awake. The batteries were put in backwards. However you put it, the race was happening in front of me, and I was pedalling around in the unfortunate position to be a spectator. I clawed forwards in the last half of the race, seeing struggling bodies driving through ever larger ruts of Colorado clay mud. I picked off people as my pride prevented me from stopping suffering just yet. The mistakes piled up, hitching a ride to the next corner and jeering ever more loudly as I just scraped through with two wheels still turning. By the time I’d reread the instruction manual and put all the pieces in the right order, the race had already been constructed. I was an extra piece of the puzzle. Not needed to build the podium this time around.
The weight I felt floating off my shoulders after the race was immense, and not something I’ve ever experienced before. The training this year has weighed down onto me; only my motivation has stopped me feeling the load. I’m happy to know I can handle it. I’m happy to know that each little success is like a winch pulling the burden of failure away. I know, now, that each success also increases how much weight I want on my back. I’m going into 2014 with the aim of carrying it all on my back. Bring on Christmas and Minced Pies. Bring on the brandy, but most of all, bring on the big miles, huge skies and burning lungs that make me feel alive.