Inside my head, worlds are exploding. Inside my muscles? Mutiny, chaos, rebellion, fire. I am racing through a snowy wonderland sliced into lanes by temporary fences and bright red tape. There are people behind the tape with little mouths open wide, shouting. Their hands are holding cowbells; their eyes are wide with urgency.

When they look at me, they see a colorful, spandex-clad racer flying precariously over frozen terrain. They see my nostrils flaring, lungs heaving, legs spinning in a frenzied cadence. When I look back I see nothing. My world is a dark tunnel of pain.

I have been waiting for this day all year: USA Cycling Cyclocross Nationals in Bend, Oregon. I will not win a championship today. I will not even podium. When I’m done my boyfriend will find me and wrap me in a warm, puffy down jacket and my season will be over. I will find my racing friends and throw my arms around them. We’ll say, “Congratulations!” and “We’re done!” and then we’ll drink hoppy beers from a local brewery until the edges of our world soften and the bright Central Oregon sky looks just a little bluer. (Don’t miss Cyclocross Nationals this year, Dec. 8-12).

Mine was the first in a long weekend of races that capitulates the season. Three months of racing bicycles through mud, grass, gravel, dirt and sand. Three months of crashes, flat tires, mud-caked gears and long hours in the shop preparing our bikes for short, arduous races. Here at the pinnacle, we are delirious, overwhelmed, amazed and ecstatic.

The next race is well underway, and a drum line is thundering up on a hill above the course. Down in the beer garden the crowd is pulsing against the snow fence. Rosy-cheeked toddlers perched on shoulders are shouting, “HUP! HUP!” There is a pirate playing sax and a man dressed as Santa Claus. Over the loudspeaker the legendary Dave Towle calls the races with the fervor of an auctioneer: “One-to-go-One-to-go-One-to-go-One-to-go-One-to-go-One-to-go-One to go!”

The racers on course enter their final lap, eyes bulging and breath in clouds like charging purebreds. Controlled panic, raw acceleration, intense grace. Spectators are zealots at a revival, running across snowy fields for a glimpse of their favorite racer taking the barriers or navigating an icy hairpin turn. At the finish line, we press into one another and lean, lean, lean over the railing to see who will rip around the final corner first.

It’s a fever pitch. And the pros haven’t even taken a warm-up lap yet.

This is about more than championships. It’s our grand finale. Our big celebration. Bend is a high-desert mountain town surrounded by miles and miles of singletrack and long, sweet road rides. It’s a city full of pros, ex-pros, soon-to-be pros and a whole mass of nonpro enthusiasts. But it’s winter now and the only bikes worth riding are of the cyclocross persuasion. So we’ve taken over. It’s our time.

At night we wander through charming downtown streets filled with cycling-themed art galleries and friendly shopkeepers. We belly up to the bar at local breweries for some of the best beer that Oregon has to offer. We drink heart-stopping coffee from Thump Coffee Roasters; indulge in hearty, creative breakfasts at Chow or The Victorian Café; and then end the night – laughing and maybe a little starry-eyed – listening to veritable cyclocross legend and three-time Tour de France finisher Marcel Russenberger tell us stories about racing Cyclocross Worlds in the ’80s.

Movie premieres, monster parties and small gatherings give us a chance to connect and bond. I’m shoulder to shoulder with pros. Heroes and idols. The fastest in the nation.

On Sunday – the final day of this event – they’ll go head to head for the honor of wearing the USA jersey. But right now? We’re here together – just a bunch of ‘cross racers celebrating our passion in the biggest little bike town in the country.

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