Who puts a mountain bike race on in September? That’s just not the way Colorado works. That’s cyclocross season. Everyone knows that. But what happens when you go against the grain, you line up in the hills against the glorious burning backdrop of the turning Aspen trees, and race your friends to the treeline and beyond, then descend through orange hued groves of trees back to town? That would be the Vail Outlier.
If you’d been paying attention in Colorado, you’d have seen a trend arriving. The wet, heavy and underrated spring has been wreaking havoc on the enthusiasm of Mountain Bikers for plenty of years. The incessant hype has pushed races earlier and earlier, until every year is broken with cancelled races, low turnouts, and snowy drives past pristine ski areas on the way to a bike race. The Rumble at 18 Road in Fruita is a prime example: an early April date on fantastic desert trails is so enticing, but the reality of a snowy six hour drive, and heavy clay trails when you arrive has stopped people arriving. Even on the Front Range: the early May “Battle the Bear” cancelled due to the needed and awesome and wholly good spring rain. The Firebird – the earliest anyone dares venture into the Aspens, is just too early to be reliable year in, year out. In a state where the snow drives life – the economy, the environment, and everything in between – it seems perverse for mountain bikers to be praying for dry springs so we can ride our bikes.
And then you focus on the alternative. September. It’s been happening for longer than I’ve been here. Jeff Westcott organising the Fall Classic in Breckenridge is a prime example. The high country is sparkling with glorious colour. The nights have drawn closer and the temperature has plummeted, and the trails are tacky, winding empty ribbons. A highway through beautiful Colorado. It’s perfect. The Vail Outlier needed to happen. But with the Front Range on Cyclocross duty, who would turn up? The waning motivation of the masses is a tide to be fought, to be rowed against. But we did turn up. The normal crew and others. Fitness unknown, to be tested again just as it would with early spring.
A casual line up followed by an iron-tasting sprint from Lions head village in Vail. The leaders were gone. So close, but gone. I could see them shifting, drinking, taking turns on the front of their majestic lead group, but I was afloat behind. With Jay Henry to pull me up the hill, I held on to the top, battling against my bike and my screaming lungs, and then sailing peacefully across the top of Vail Mountain. No one in sight: the leaders far gone, Jay still riding scared ahead, unknown to him that my fight to catch him was being tempered by the huge views of the Sawatch and the Holy Cross Wilderness to the south. Should I be allowed to have this much fun when I race? A few final kickers and then the release of the descent to Vail. Endless. Finger aching and endless. I hit it hard and find the groove of the season-weathered berms as I descended down the mountain. The occasional look up the hill; no one through the trees. I cruised across the line in exhausted satisfaction. In sixth. No fight for the win, but no need for it either after that ride.
This is my plea to you: Don’t race in March. Ski. Or go south – find the Desert, and leave Colorado to its snow. Come back in May, or better yet June. Just as the Aspens get to their darkest green. And then hang around a while. Stay till it gets really good. Till September happens. That’s bike-racing season.