Establishing shot: Cyclist shown from shins down walking up stairs. With each step water squeezes from his booties. The brand is unrecognizable thanks to a mellange of mud and sand. As the camera backs up you see the thick tights and jacket covered in sand too. The bike on his shoulder is covered in grime. The cyclist shivers uncontrollably, drops his keys twice before ramming one into the lock on his apartment. He opens the door, sets the bike down and begins to strip: First the neoprene gloves, then the glasses, helmet, struggles with the jacket zipper and as he staggers, naked, from the foyer, we see a wet, dirty spot on the wall where he leaned while he struggled with his socks.
That’s a memory I have of a succession of springs I spent in New Belgium. I would ride the eight miles to the university to go train with my cycling team, ride some 40 miles with them, then turn off and head back to my apartment. I’d do this two or three days during week while I was a graduate student and the oldest guy on the team.
On phone calls home to my mother she’d ask me about spring. I’d tell her about eight inches of snow, about sand on the shoulders of roads, about stretches of black ice, the ride nicknamed “DMC,” not in honor of a rap star, but rather Jan and Dean’s “Dead Man’s Corner,” how the name was apt, how I couldn’t keep my bike clean, that, in short, spring did not exist in New Belgium.
Then, every year, at some point in May the daily temperatures would rise into the 70s, I’d notice the piles of black snow were gone, and gardens sprouting full of flowers; all this, seemingly overnight. Frankly, sitting thousands of miles away, I can’t remember a single ride I did in the spring that featured 60-degree temperatures and that distinctly “springy” smell: you know, the one that is part rain, part fresh manure, and part pollen. I hated spring in New Belgium. Loved summer, was crazy about the fall, and as a ski instructor, I couldn’t get enough of the winter … but spring … spring was a prison.
Miserable training ride after wet, miserable training ride went by and I’d gradually ride myself into shape. I’d arrive home each day humbled—nay—humiliated by the conditions. I’d stagger into the shower and turn the hot water up gradually until I stopped shivering.
I’ve been away now for nearly 12 years. Or have I? I recently heard the editor of a prominent mountain bike magazine say that Central California was being called “New Belgium” as a result of all the rain that fell during the Amgen Tour of California. New Belgium was meant to refer to a different place, one with snow and maple syrup. But he had a point.
New Belgium is anywhere where the riding is unpleasant. Where 20 miles can be epic. Where the stench on the road is organic, stronger than mustard gas and likely to stain a jersey the color of chocolate. The roads are nastier than a Hollywood attitude and the skies grayer than a battleship.
Here I must take a page from my mentor, James Tate. In his poem “Stella Maris” he concludes a harrowing account of an overwhelming encounter with a “beaten, disheveled” priest with the statement “only now do I look back on my darkest hour with nostalgia.” I relish the New Belgium spring. I treasure the shivering, the frozen roads, the sand, the frost heaves, my shattered, wretched self, a landscape too hard to love outright.
Photo courtesy John Pierce/Photosport International