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Neither rain nor snow can stop these athletes

Posted: January 2, 2014 - 3:52pm  |  Updated: January 3, 2014 - 9:43am

DURANGO, Colo. (AP) — It was cold — almost freezing, actually. There was snow on top of ice and grass under the mud: Perfect conditions for a Four Corners Cyclocross Series race.

Cyclocross is a growing sport, a blend of road biking, mountain biking and running — all part of the same event. Mixing skills from all three disciplines, the event presents obstacles on a twisting course designed to take down the best, and it’s gaining momentum from big city parks to small mountain towns.

And Fort Lewis College’s campus is fast becoming a hot spot for the sport.

“It’s about the worst conditions possible to ride in,” said race official Garrett Alexander, also a youth cycling coach with Durango Devo. “You’re basically riding in snow and mud, and your bike is somewhat of a road bike with knobby tires. You’re jumping over barriers with your bike and running up stairs.”

As he spoke last Saturday, riders slipped and slid across mucky hillsides and crunched through snowy sections on a course that rolled through Ray Dennison Memorial Field and other athletic fields.

“It’s pretty much a testament of will,” he said.

Cyclocross dates to early 20th century Europe, called “steeple chasing” as cyclists would race from town to town, cutting corners through farm fields and jumping fences off the beaten path — their only bearing the church steeple in the next town over.

Before pedaling out on the course, Chad Cheeney, FLC cycling coach and Devo co-founder, said high intensity and battling the odds is what attracts people to cyclocross.

“It’s a short race with lots of places to make mistakes,” he said.

Hordes of local athletes braved the cold for a morning of great pain and little glory.

Carmen Small is no stranger to the saddle. The born-and-raised Durangoan has cranked miles around the world, road racing with Team Specialized/lululemon, bringing home two world championship medals in 2013. She said she races cyclocross for fun.

“I love supporting the local stuff,” Small said. “I’m gone most of the season, racing with my international team, and I don’t get to be home that often.”

She said once you get going, you forget you’re suffering.

“You’re going so hard, you’re not cold,” she said after five 1.5-mile laps. “Three weeks ago, it was sub-20 degrees, and we all came out. We’re so lucky to have this here.”

Race and FLC cycling team director Dave Hagen said the show goes on - rain, sleet or shine - and some racers prefer to deal with all three elements.

“The course is whatever it is, whatever someone is going to throw at you,” he said. He kept track of racers as they passed, gasping for air. “A few weeks ago it was pouring rain, and we raced. If it was snowing now, we’d still be racing.”

He described the sport as endurance at maximum capacity.

“Look, you can tell by the people going by, they’re cross-eyed,” he said. “Two laps in, and you don’t want to be doing this anymore, and they’re still trying to keep it together in the mud.”

The line up at the starting gate was a mixed bag of die-hards and the fitness-conscious. Collegiate racers shouldered up next to emergency-room doctors. Professional athletes shook hands of local weekend warriors.

Walt Axthelm had to race in the 50-and-older age group because no one else in his class showed. He’s in his seventh year of cyclocross and has a 55-year career of motocross and competitive cycling. Oh, yeah, Axthelm is 80 years old.

He plans to go to cyclocross nationals in Boulder next month.

“It’s a fun game with a great bunch of people,” he said.

After that, he starts training for the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic.

“I can’t seem to get it out of my system,” he said.

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