J.R. Thompson remembers when he brought competitive cyclocross to Steamboat Springs.
"I ran a circuit here in 1997," he said Wednesday afternoon, outdoors in downtown Steamboat Springs on a cloudy, miserable day seemingly perfect for the mud season sport. "The cyclocross scene, where it's at now, reminds me of where mountain biking was in the early 1990s. It's still new, fresh and has that feeling going for it."
The Steamboat Cyclocross Circuit proved to be a short-lived endeavor and didn't return for mud season 1998. Now, more than a decade later, the sport is still "catching on" in Steamboat Springs. Those who have adopted it, however, claim to have found the perfect answer to one of a mountain town's biggest problems.
When it's cold and miserable and Mount Werner is more than a month from opening, what is an outdoors enthusiast to do?
Cyclocross is a variation of the same kind of mountain biking so many dedicate summers to.
Instead of long hours on rocky and remote mountain trails, it's usually one intense hour on a comparatively tame in-town course.
Instead of a rugged, thick-wheeled mountain bike, it's a lighter cross between a road bike and a mountain bike.
For its fans, instead of a few unhappy weeks staring out the window from the couch, it's a perfect primer for ski season.
"It's a great thing for fitness," said Dr. Jon Freckleton, an osteopathic physician who practices in Steamboat at Aspire Osteopathy. "It is real intense, gets the heart rate up and hopefully gets people outdoors even when the weather is crappy."
After the bike and the distance, the running segments are the main difference between mountain biking and cyclocross. Where a mountain biker takes pride in rolling up and over anything in the way, cyclocrossers are quick to leap from the saddle, shoulder the bike and hoof it.
"It's going to have a better effect on training for skiing than just riding alone will and probably better than just running would, too," Freckleton said. "For skiing, you have to have that agility and rapid acceleration and deceleration. Cyclocross has a lot of that, plus there's a great fun factor."
Enthusiasts say there are three prime-time places to ride cyclocross in Steamboat Springs, though it doesn't take Walt Disney's imagination to dream up dozens more.
The lower portions of Howelsen Hill played host to Thompson's 1997 circuit races.
"It was the perfect time for something like that over there because there isn't anything else going on," he said. "You have that right mix of pavement and dirt you're looking for. It was a good venue."
Steamboat cyclocross enthusiast Jon Cariveau said great riding also can be had at Whistler Park and near Strawberry Park Middle School.
All three venues offer the trademarks of cyclocross courses.
Rough trail would take a toll on the lighter bikes, and all three areas have more gentle trails.
They also have a healthy mix of pavement and gravel and enough obstacles and elevation change to create a challenge.
Riders at Howelsen, for instance, run up the steps of the concrete rodeo grandstands to simulate some of the hurdles presented in a real cyclocross race.
"You want to look for terrain that will challenge your handling skills and the equipment you're on," Cariveau said. "So look for steep little hills on Howelsen and the stairs. Shoulder the bike and run up those.
"It's really about taking the lighter weight equipment and pushing it to the limits of its usability."
The bikes simply aren't tailored to be light, though. They're often designed to work well on well-maintained dirt roads.
Any such terrain, combined with a few hills and creatively incorporated physical obstacles, can work.
The intensity of a good one- or two-mile course can provide the kind of workout in one hour that summer cyclists might pedal 20 miles to achieve.
With days growing shorter, that's the key.
"For me, the Steamboat cycling season isn't long enough," Cariveau said. "This is a way to extend that season right up until we get really good snow for skiing."
Picking out the right gear for cyclocross doesn't have to be difficult, either.
The bikes are more similar to road bikes than the Steamboat-standard dual suspension mountain bike. They have brakes more similar to mountain bikes, though, and tires that split the difference between the two breeds. They are narrower than most mountain bike tires so as to take advantage of the usually smooth trails, but they still have knobs on the tires to help grip.
"They offer room for fatter, knobbier tires, and they have a little longer wheel base for stability," said Brock Webster, owner of Orange Peel Bicycle Service shop in Steamboat. "Basically they have some of the features of a mountain bike but in a road bike package."
The whole contraption is designed to get riders across everything from smooth, cared-for grass to ugly, muddy potholes.
"It's an off-road sport, but it's done on traditional light equipment because unlike in mountain bike where you try to ride everything, in cyclocross it's often faster to run," Webster said. "You want a light, fast bike you can pick up to sprint up a steep hill, then hop back on for a road section."
Otherwise, the only equipment necessary is typical early or late-season riding gear that will stand up to potentially brisk early mornings or evenings.
Orange Peel and other local bike shops offer plenty of long-sleeved and full-pant options, many complete with a thin fleece lining to help keep the cold out.