The ride always aligned with the first week of school. As much as I missed my Dad all week long, the
Monday of the ride could only be described as “the coolest day ever”. The Colorado 500 donates money to each school in the towns the riders travel through. And whenever possible, a donation presentation is made where riders and students get to meet, or at least see one another. Basalt Middle School had a dirt track around their football field, and most years the 500 had so many riders the local police would give them an escort from the Dallenbach Ranch down into Basalt, to the school for the ceremony and then up the highway to Aspen where they could finally get their tires on dirt and begin their hundred plus mile day on the best singletrack on their way to Crested Butte.
The fence to the dirt track would open up and the hundreds of riders would come through and line their bikes up, facing the bleachers. Each grade from Basalt Elementary and Basalt Middle School was let out of class and brought up to the field and placed in their specific areas in the bleachers. There it was; the coolest possible thing to witness - hundreds of men on dirt bikes, facing hundreds of elementary and middle school students. (As stewards of the sport, this was an incredible tradition, because students who didn’t ride got to see the good that dirt bikers do for their community and school. For the riders, it’s incredibly meaningful to meet the staff, and teachers who use the funds donated, and see the students who will benefit from the donations. It allows for a new perspective, to see riding as something that is so much bigger than just the rider we see in the mirror. And bigger than the riding community itself, it’s meaningful for communities and kids across the state, whether they ride or not. In my mind, it’s a way that the riding community expands far beyond just riders, and that is a world I want to live in! )
The first day of school is always an early day, one I would prep for far in advance. My ‘first day of school’ outfit was picked out, and laid out, most of my lunch snacks were packed and in my lunchbox, I had my new class schedule and during orientation I was given a new locker and had my lock combo written inside my fresh new planner, since I knew I would be too nervous to remember it on the first day.
The first day of school for me and my siblings wasn't too far off what my Dad experienced on his first day of the Colorado 500. I remember a few years ago he told me “I always get nervous before the first day, and especially that first morning. Doesn’t matter how many years I’ve done it, I still get those butterflies”. He had his riding gear laid out for day one, his riding pack set up with water, trail snacks and all the tools and necessities he would need for a long day in the backcountry. He had his itinerary for the week, and had lined up which team or group he would be breaking off to ride with, along with what their route would be for the day. While I was navigating hallways and new classes, he was navigating maps and trails in the backcountry with some veteran riders, and some riders he hadn’t met before. He had old riding buddies, but met new ones every year, kind of like I did in school.
The Fitzpatrick house on the first day of school and the first day of the ride, was filled with so much nervous and excited energy! At least an hour before I caught the bus, my dad took off in his green gmc pickup truck, with his luggage bag in the back he was heading to the Dallenbach ranch for the Lions Club pancake breakfast and then to meet with his team and make their plan, calm any nerves and make any last minute adjustments to gear or the bike. Then, it was time for the ride he and hundreds of others waited for all year, THE Colorado 500.
At school, the minute our teacher told us to line up, get our jackets and prepare to go outside to the football field, I remember my heart racing! I was so excited because I would get to say bye to my Dad and see him ride off on his motorcycle with hundreds of other riders! Of course as we lined up, in elementary school many students would have endless questions on where we were going and why, and I know I couldn’t contain myself as I said “the Colorado 500 is doing a donation presentation” and then continued to explain what i knew… which likely went something like “my dad is one of the riders, and there are hundreds and it's one of the hardest dirt bike rides ever in the entire world and history of the universe and my dad is the best at it because he is like a hero and can fix anything and ride all the things, especially the hard things that sometimes other riders fall on, so they have him there because he is the coolest and best and fastest rider ever, like ever.”
By the time we were in Middle School, most of the students remembered what the assembly was for, so my explanations weren’t as necessary, yet still probably given. Nothing can get bleachers full of young kids excited like a huge group of dirt bikers! No matter what grade I was in, the walk from the classroom to the bleachers outside was the longest. We had to go down the hallways, among other classes, then outside on the sidewalks, and up many sets of stairs, (and for the elementary kids - they had to cross a parking lot and walk around the outside of the entire middle school before arriving at the fence for the football field). And while I wanted to make a good impression with my teachers, and had a great inclination towards following rules - that swiftly went out the window the second I could hear a dirt bike or had a glimpse at a rider who I thought could be my dad. (Still true to this day) I would walk out of the line to try to see him - he was 6’6” which made it much easier, but being one of the shortest girls in my grade it was hard to see over my classmates, so I would stray further out of line to get a better look. After what felt like a very very long and slow walk, we were finally seated in the bleachers, and some years I remember my teachers making sure I was seated closest to the aisle, those were obviously my favorite teachers. No matter how the rest of the semester went, give me a front row seat to see my hero and role model? You get an A+ in my book.
After the donation ceremony was made, the riders would all get on their bikes and with as much order as can be had, they rode out of the dirt track and back onto the road behind the flashing lights of the police escort. Most riders would do extra laps around the track, and there would be more wheelies than anyone had ever seen in one place before! It was like watching an action movie, in person!
Like a dog being allowed off leash, as soon as the teacher would let me or as soon as my Dad walked towards the bleachers, I would run down the metal steps and give him the biggest hug I could. I was a shy kid, but the second that dirt bikes or my dad were around, the rest of the world disappeared and I didn’t even realize the whole school was watching as this tiny girl ran down stairs and across isles to give the giant guy in moto gear a hug.
I remember it all so vividly, it was the most fun moment! Pure joy, for me and from my
Dad as well. In that hug, I felt like I was hugging a big tall guy in motorcycle gear and pads, but at the same time I was getting a hug from the little kid inside of him - who gets to go play on bikes in the mountains with his friends for a week. The little kid in him felt like the nicest and most wonderful of all the kids I met on the first day of school.
When it was finally the last moment possible and he had to leave, I would let go of my bear hug and say good luck, I remember him saying he would ‘call the house tonight and tell you all about it’ then he mouthed the words ‘love you’ and I smiled and said “I love you too dad”. I didn’t move or take my eye off him; he went back to his bike, the other riders who were left were clearly the group he was riding with that day. He got on his bike, gave it a kick and it revved up, I could hear it separately from the other bikes (that were warmed up and had been waiting.) Then in the coolest way a dad could ever ride off - he did a wheelie and held it for forever, before bringing the front tire back down and putting his hand up in the air to wave goodbye. And they were off. The Colorado 500 was headed towards the mountain and I would have to wait 6 long days to see my dad again.