Wake up. Coffee first. Always. It’s normally tea, but it’s coffee today. Race day. It’s been a while. The routine is still there, but a little fuzzy. A season off from cross racing means that my race morning routine is askew. My kit bag isn’t a kit bag any more. It’s been cleaned. Thankfully. The empty packets of carborocket, safety pins and single dirty socks have been removed. I go through the process. Walking around the house in no particular order until I seem to have all the things I might need. What do I even need for today?
It’s not a normal race, Old Man Winter. It’s different. When else will I be racing for three hours in sub zero weather? I put in all the clothes I’d ride in, then some extras. I won’t wear them all but something forbids me from leaving the house under-prepared. I still forget my heart rate strap.
The start line is a cold place. Josh Kravetz, Race Director, tells us how pumped he is that we’re racing. We chatter our teeth in approval. Thickly gloved hands produce a muffled applause for last year’s winner Bryan Alders. I went with the decision to wear most of the clothes. Thick skullcap, neck gaiter, and thick gloves. I ditched the shoe covers, perhaps a foolhardy decision considering the temperature. With a two-mile run in the middle of the race, I couldn’t stand the thought of all that snow building up on the bottoms of my shoes.
We speed down the highway behind a blacked out Police dodge charger. The discussion in the pack centres around whether the driver has ever motorpaced a cyclist before. We continue to stick our tyres as close to the rear spoiler as we can. The sharp right turn onto dirt happens just like last year; tapping of brakes, short bursts of acceleration, and then the real race is underway. No horses this year, thankfully.
Just like last year, a couple people went to the front to burn some energy and get out the pack. I stayed put, enjoying brief 10-15 second conversations with an array of people I only see at races. There were all kinds of people up there: Mountain Bikers, Roadies, people with beards. The race got going for real when we meandered our way off the flat dirt roads that eastern Boulder County is known for, and up Lefthand Canyon. There were some interesting differences from last year. Gone was the pack racing mentality on smooth tarmac. In its place a narrow and rough dirt road that had been ripped up by road construction, and a mandatory single file rule. I wasn’t impressed when I read that rule, thinking it would be impossible to enforce. I was wrong. The pack spread out and the pace quickened. Gaps opened and splits formed; we were definitely single file.
Rowena is the undoubted crux of Old Man Winter. The two-mile trail is completely shaded, sitting on the north facing side of the canyon. Last year, the snow had been packed hard into a mainly rideable tread. This year was different. A big storm dumped over a foot on the trail the week before the race, and the surface was soft. Too soft to ride, no matter the bike. Muscle memory kicked in and I shouldered my bike smoothly and took some strides into the snow. In a cross race, the absurdity of running with a bike on your shoulder is so short lived that it’s bearable. Not so here. After 5 minutes my shoulder hurt. After 10 minutes the continuous plunging of my feet into the icy snow felt like shards of glass cutting into my legs. After 15 minutes it was all numb. A glimmer of red dirt breaking through the snow had us all leaping onto the bikes. Michael Burleigh, just ahead of me, leapt through my bottle cage, rendering it useless. On the plus side, it made shouldering the bike far easier for the rest of the run.
Never have I been happier to get back on my cross bike that at the top of the trail. We formed a lead group of six. The pace down Sunshine Canyon was intense. I was on Brandon Dwight’s borrowed Focus Mares, with the brakes American style, so I didn’t have too much confidence coming into the turns at 40 mph. I let others do the danger work and I held on for dear life.
The 2015 playbook repeated itself on Linden. Sepp Kuss danced his way up Linden, but this time he towed Burleigh with him. Bryan Alders, Yannick Eckmann and I formed a heavy legged “chase” group. Chase wasn’t really the word though, as none of us made an effort to bridge the gap on the climb. Descending Bow Mountain was a hilariously good time; the road was packed and icy, making the perfect luge run for cross bikes. Foot out, rear brake on and grinning from ear to ear. Sepp crashed somewhere on the downhill, so we ended up getting onto Olde Stage pretty close together. My tactical error of the day happened here: I should have dug deep early on the climb to close the gap to Sepp and Burleigh, but I paced myself, thinking it best not to go too deep, and knowing that any gaps formed here wouldn’t last to Lyons. I was wrong.
I gapped Yannick and Bryan, but didn’t catch on to the leaders. The no-mans land was short lived when Yannick caught me on the descent, and we worked together to start pulling the leaders back. We could see them ahead of us, no more than 30 seconds up and probably less. The idea of drafting was hilarious: is it better to sit behind someone and get a continuous shower of just-thawed mud gravy, or ride in front and burn some energy? Either way, we worked well together, and soon had Sepp in our sights. Burleigh, on the other hand had attacked and gone solo off the front. It’s unfortunate that he lost his Garmin before the finish, as I’d love to know where and how he turned our 30-second deficit into over two minutes at the finish. Despite Yannick pushing me down Nelson road (I was spun out in the 42t chainring), and having Sepp join our rotation, we were powerless to pull the gap back in. We came into Lyons as a trio. I went to the back of the group, and then pre-emptively crossed the road, trying to get a jump through the awkward zigzag turn that Bryan bested me on last year. I managed to pull perhaps 5 metres ahead, but it wasn’t enough, and Yannick just came around me on the line, turning 2nd into 3rd in an instant.
Burleigh had time to compose himself before we even finished, doubling the sting of being beaten so handedly. The combined fatigue of the run and the ride in such cold weather hollowed me from the inside, and I was soon too cold to contemplate being outside any more. I stepped gently to the car. The kind of walk where you can’t feel your legs. I stripped fully naked in the car park, before putting on every assortment of clothes left in the car. Including Christa’s down jacket and scarf.
What a day to be a bike racer. The unpredictability of the race is indescribable. Every race has unknowns, but the Old Man Winter takes it to a new level. You could do the same course with the same people every February for 10 years and come away with a different race each time. I knew it last year, but it’s confirmed now: Boulder has a new classic that will be on the calendar for a long time to come.