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Scene/Seen: USA Cycling Collegiate Nationals Criterium

It is a spring day. A spring day accompanied by overnight frost, with snow falling in counties not unimaginably farther north. A spring day with winds that curl around building corners, with clouds boasting silver and reminding us that they could release rain if they wanted to.

In other words, a fine day for a bike race.

The racers are 500 strong, gathered from colleges from New Hampshire to California, from Minnesota to Texas. They study literature, business, and radiology.

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Today they are riding in circles around a square.

As onlookers clutch coffee cups, the racers circumnavigate the state Capitol building. Around and around, for 45 minutes or an hour, etching the road with slim tires and breath that just-nearly clouds in the chill air. They surround a stately building sculpted of stone with a bronze woman perched atop. Her arm is raised and she tells them, "Forward".

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We watch as they pass us hundreds of times over. Music pulsates from the announcers’ stand. We watch them, and imagine ourselves elbow to elbow, breathless, gears pounding, handlebar tape smooth in our hands. We think, I would jump now. I would surround myself with my teammates and do battle.

The announcers are whipping themselves into a fury. They count down the laps, ring a bell. One to go one to go one to go one to go racers your time is now.

We fidget as the racers disappear from view on the back side of the course, wondering if they are still there on the dark side of the moon. Two minutes stretches. We crowd next to barriers made of plywood and metal. We pound on them in time with the music. A school mascot wanders about, surreal, a giant blue fur-clad bird. Two cycling fans run through the crowd, wearing little but green and yellow body paint.

A motorcycle emerges around the corner.

We hold our breath, then yell. Go go go go go go. The racers are a school of fish, darting, weaving, surging. They have eyes only for the finish. Go go go go go go go.

Their wind whips past us, a final exhalation. The announcer screams, oooohhhhh, and we throw our hands up in the air as if we are ourselves triumphant.

The racers unwind, taking another lap or two, like a child’s top spinning down. Teammates rush to find each other, with tears and embraces. They talk to us and to each other, re-living the race, telling us their stories.

We smile, and clap each other on the back. Then glance up at the clouds. And start to disperse.

Within minutes, the square is deserted. The cyclists must prepare for another stage tomorrow, when they will race against the wind in a team time trial across rural roads. But for now, we savor the images of the day, the clean lines of metal and wheels on gray asphalt reflecting silver skies.

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Check out the gallery for more photos from the Collegiate National Criterium, and feel free to share your race story in the comments.  If you are not already a fan of the Focal Flame Facebook page, or follow us on Twitter, it's time to jump in with both feet!