One by one, they slink by my window on Pacific; in the darkness they seem an amalgamation, part cyclist part animal, part shadow.
I look down, and keep filling my flask with cheap whiskey. It is dark; it is cold. It is cold/dark, and that’s more than either element is by itself.
Everything shimmers, lit by headlight or moonlight. This is what one expects in the middle of February in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains — a crystalline clarity in the air, thinned by deep cold and filtered through a blue haze. This is the color of mid-winter.
I drink the beer in my hand, and open another. The wolves were at the house. They came in, littering the alley outside my tiny miner’s shed with bikes that are more menacing than they are elegant. If you’re not familiar, a snow bike (fatbike, Pugsley, etc.) is an unholy creation designed to take riders over snow, sand and mud, thanks to tires that are four inches wide. If the world were to end tomorrow morning, this is the sort of bicycle you would want; it would be just as at home careening over zombie corpses as dirt or icebergs.
My friends were compelled, always, to tell me it was time. “It’s Time.” I laced up my boots and plunged into the dark. It was a brewery loop night, meaning we would ride the River Trail to the Valley Floor, and out to the Telluride Brewing Company, where we’d walk in, stomping our feet, our cheeks rosy and our throats dry, both from the cold and the anticipation of heavy beer.
Of course, knowing what’s coming and actually going though it are profoundly different things. When one pedals in the winter, there is a different feeling than any other time: progress is slow and it’s noisy. Nothing is efficient; nothing makes sense. The huge tires nestle themselves into the snow, which talks back in a steady rasp. Every inch is earned in the winter, and every breath hurts just a little bit — more so as the temperature drops.
I make a joke about a friend’s new girlfriend, and ask if her kids call him dad yet. He slams on his brakes and I find myself in space, my bike beached in a drift, my body time traveling. I come to a rest face down, having nearly split my face in two on a rock, and laugh, because it’s funny to heckle a man over a woman, and it’s also stellar that I have my front teeth. I’ve already lost one due to the bike, and another is just making me more ugly, minus $1,000. I take a drink from the on-board flask. What else would I do?
We smile, and we laugh. The winter night swallows our words and our noise. It takes every bit of life we give to it and banks it away, somewhere I don’t know. Perhaps it will give it back to us come summer.
We try to race one another. There is a feeling of irreverence because we’re cheating on the seasons, riding bikes in the winter on an impossibly dark night that bevels shapes to mere suggestions. It’s something that’s not supposed to happen, and he we are, riding our zombie-apocalypse machines over the white trail, and, yes, finally right into the brewery. We park the bikes and Fish, the co-owner, tells us he’s been expecting us. Of course he has, because I called him and asked that they stay open late, “in case something happened on the way out.”
We pretend we’ve ridden for the exercise, but really we’ve ridden for the beer. That never seems to change, season to season.
I recount my fall, using my hands in sweeps. Someone says I deserved it. I laugh in the way that only bicycles and IPAs can make me, and I think that no matter how many stupid things I have done in my life that I must have done a few things right to be here, now, with my friends on this winter night.
One more. We always have one more, and maybe even one more after that. We take turns paying, and some people take turns forgetting their credit cards.
We leave, our cheeks heavily rouged and our bellies sloshing. I throw a leg over my Pugs, and we’re off, the beast and I. Some nights, I’m on the front, driving the pace. Other nights I’m a yo-yo on the back, stretching the elastic between gone and not. Sometimes, the beers pull the front tire a bit to left or right, and down one of us goes, face first into a drift.
The magnificence is the lack of ego involved in mid-winter riding: no one is fast, everyone is slow, and everyone looks like an idiot.
Our heads bob up and down, and on some nights I suffer as badly as I ever have, summer or winter. The ski area workers zip past us on their snowmobiles — they must be trained to pretend we don’t exist. That way, if they groom one of us, they can say they were unaware of our shadowed presence. We plod.
By the time we arrive in town, our faces are frozen. Our feet come back to life, setting off the nerves deep in my stomach if it’s cold enough.
We joke about almost falling down, and about actually falling down, and ponder ways to improve our machines with serious tones. Because we may go slow, but we’re always making progress. One pedal stroke, one beer, one tumble at a time.
Editor’s note: This column originally appeared in Telluride Magazine.