An uphill battle: Riding the Iron Horse

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I get it now. You’re supposed to beat the train, which is impossible, at least for me. And by the way, nine months of training won’t help.

Ironhorse ridersAfter watching and reading about the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic for 15 years, a friend and I finally participated, and what a wild ride it’s been. My goal: finish and don’t come in last.

But it’s not enough to just enter the popular citizens race, an informal 50- mile mountain road tour from Durango to Silverton. The real game is to overcome the historic Durango-Silverton locomotive using only your legs. It’s man versus machine, Terminator vs. John Conner, Big Blue vs. Kasparov (for chess brainiacs), iron and coal against muscle and lung power. I lost.

Coal-fired steam chugs the behemoth train up the Animas Valley in 3 1/2 hours. By comparison, Tom Danielson, Fort Lewis College alum turned cycling pro, holds the amazing record of 2 hours and 1 minute, and this year’s race was won by Michael Carter, age 42, in 2 hours and 18 minutes.

So my weak 4 1/2-hour time was way off the mark, unacceptable for a guy who is 36 and thought he was in good shape. Mmmm, humble pie tastes so good!

Summing it up, as my wife waited along the race route to take photos, she quipped, “I started to get worried about you guys when I saw these grandpas riding by but hadn’t seen you yet.” Nice. Another helping? Oh, yes, please.

That is the reality of the cycling world: It is very competitive and age doesn’t matter.

My Iron Horse experience started last August when I picked up my first road bike, a 1988 Trek 400 for $75 from Kokopelli Bike Shop in Cortez. After sinking another $150 into parts and labor, I had a smooth-running ride and the fun began.

Mostly the excuse that “I have to train today” rather than toil on this project or that kept me cruising along very nicely the last nine months. I rode on local roads rather lazily, logging 50- 100 miles a week. Signing up for the race somehow gave heading out on, say, a Tuesday morning, to ski, run, mountain-bike, and road-ride endlessly a bit more purpose, however fleeting.

On race day, however all the riding and exercising seemed for nil as I was quickly out of breath just pedaling out of Durango. All around me were a throng of fit cyclists wearing bright bike clothing, spinning their legs and wheels with unnerving casual confidence. The whizzing and whirring of the 1,100 tour cyclists all bunched together was a pleasant sound that echoed in the valley.

Quickly I learned the beauty of drafting, a technique that involves tailgating other bikers in a group to cut down on wind resistance. The feeling of being pulled along at 20-plus miles per hour while hardly pedaling was exhilarating, and helped cut my time to 20 minutes for the 10 miles to Hermosa. After that it’s hell-on-wheels uphill torture for many hours.

The race gains 5,500 feet as it travels Highway 550 to Purgatory and then over Coalbank and Molas passes to Silverton. Of the 50 miles there are only nine downhill, and the steep passes at well over 10,000 feet leave one gasping for air.

The first climb is Shalona Hill to Purgatory, where my optimism reigned briefly after beating the train to the Hermosa crossing and then a little later to the highway underpass (by about one minute).

Ten miles later the train whistle blew mockingly somewhere off in the hills, out of sight and apparently gaining fast.

My mark was 2 hours and 15 minutes at the beginning of the steep six miles to Coalbank Pass, the crux of the ride. Here is where any training will pay off, albeit not in the way we dreamers might imagine.

Pedaling out of the saddle on the hill climb may make you feel like cycling heroes Lance Armstrong , Greg Lemond or Eddy Merckx, but in reality some guy your dad’s age is kicking your ass way up ahead. But your competitive nature takes over, and you set your sights on someone ahead, trying to gain, as dozens of boys and girls and grandmas and grandpas pass you by.

Well, not to worry. I took a look around. The highway was blessedly closed to traffic so there was not a vehicle in sight. Along the road, spectators drinking beer cheered me on, one offering me chocolate cake, another lemonade. “He’s smiling. That’s what it’s all about,” one called to me.

“Actually, it’s more of a grimace,” I muttered back. In chalk on the road were various messages to race riders long passed: Climb Hard Ben and Viva Colombia!

One disappointment was the litter these bikers leave! A new, rather bitter energy product called “goo” comes in little silvery packages that were strewn everywhere. Sad. How hard is it to put it back in your pocket? Other items included bagels, half-eaten candy bars and countless empty water bottles. One lady tossed a Gatorade bottle over her head and yelled out, “Sorry!” Strange behavior to say the least, and not just a little lame.

Since the State Patrol informed bikers they must obey all traffic laws during the race, I think the $500 fines for littering the highway should have been enforced.

Deciding to go all out, I sucked on some water and a chalky power bar and tried to concentrate. Surprisingly, I began to pass others, especially satisfying if they had a shiny new bike and that kinda silly-looking neon Lycra wear. (I’ll never wear crotch-hugging stretch pants or use clipless pedals the same way I’ll never use On-Star instead of a map or take a cell phone on a hike.)

One sweaty hour later I topped the pass and happily zipped by the aid station for a three-mile thrill ride downhill. I hit 37 mph; the winners hit speeds reaching 60 mph. Molas Pass was not as steep and in no time I was on the six-mile descent into Silverton.

Fueling my fantasy, I charged for the finish line, Tour de France style, and noticed over my shoulder some girl trying to beat me to it. She luckily didn’t and we both cracked a smile.

A little later we were both humbled when a guy on a specialized hand cycle powered by arms the size of tree trunks crossed the finish to huge cheers.

A t-shirt and two beers later, it sunk in. I accomplished my goal to not finish dead last, but it won’t do. I won’t let pride take over until I beat that train . . . . next year. Ride on.

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From June 2005.