Iron Horse Bicycle Classic exciting for everyone involved
The Iron Horse Bicycle Classic is a festival of cycling over the Memorial Day weekend in Durango. There are fun activities for everyone including spectators, roadies, dirt chasers, townies and kids. You can race, ride, or get dressed up in cool costumes. And there are no shortages of places to cool off with a frosty beverage.
The marquis event however, remains the Iron Horse ride itself from Durango to Silverton. It is 50 miles with 6,650 feet of vertical climbing and two passes more than 10,500 feet above sea level.
The race originally was started by Tom and Jim Mayer. Jim was an engineer on the old steam-powered railroad (Iron Horse) that ran from Durango to Silverton, and his younger brother Jim was a cyclist. One day, Jim challenged Tom to a race: He would ride his bike while Tom drove the train. When the train arrived at the station in Silverton, Jim was waiting for his brother.
The first official event was held in 1972 with 36 riders. This year, 3,950 registered entrants from 42 states and four countries descended on Durango to ride bikes.
At 8 a.m., my wife, Mandie, and I loaded our children on the train and waited with more than 1,000 citizen riders for the train whistle to blow. We were having our own family race with the parents against the kids. This was not going to be an easy task. The train usually takes about 3 1/2 hours, which meant we needed to average just over 14 mph.
There essentially are four distinct sections to the Iron Horse: the flat section along the Animas River, followed by three climbs to Purgatory, Coal Bank Pass and Molas Pass.
I knew that to beat the train, we needed to be fast on the flats, the rollers and the descents, and we would need to climb at a hard but steady pace.
We got great luck with a strong tailwind at the start. This pushed the pace of the peloton, and at times we were cruising at more than 30 mph. This pace was a bit too fast, and we began to drift toward the back.
We settled in with a group of about 20 riders, and I rode at the front at a fast and steady tempo. At around mile 15 we hit the base of the first climb to Purgatory. We had 35 miles to go, of which 28 were uphill.
The first climb is on a wide, open road with a steep grade. We settled into a nice rhythm and were ahead of schedule to beat the train.
As we neared Durango Mountain Resort we heard the ominous whistle of a steam train in the distance. This motivated us to slightly pick up the pace as the climb turned to rollers. On one of these rollers we caught 8-year-old Ivan Sippy.
He was out of his saddle and passing dozens of riders. As I rode up to him I mentioned that he had a smooth cadence like a seasoned pro. He got a huge grin on his face and then picked up the pace and dropped his mother.
As we approached the resort we passed a sign that read, “24 miles to Silverton.” Half the distance was over, but we still had both Coal Bank and Molas passes to climb. My watch read 90 minutes, which meant we had just about two hours left to beat the train.
At this point in the ride, the road is closed to traffic, but it is still important to stay right of the yellow line in case an emergency vehicle is heading back toward Durango.
The road took a sharp U-turn at the bottom of Coal Bank Pass, and I knew we had more than five miles and about 2,700 feet of climbing to the top. The only sounds were the rush of the spring runoff and the heavy breathing of the suffering riders. Coal Bank Pass is steep, and the altitude begins to wear on the body.
After climbing for about 30 minutes, a sign indicated an elevation of 10,000 feet. We still had more than a mile, and the effects of the altitude became noticeable. Many people were walking their bikes, and we continued at a steady grind.
We began to hear music emanating from the woods; with each pedal stroke it became louder. As we rounded a bend, we rode past a group of eight to 10 people throwing a party. They were playing loud music, drinking beers and cheering each rider. It was a fun distraction, and it also meant we were close to the top.
We finally crested the pass and started the descent. Under normal circumstances it would be fun, but with the strong winds we had to be cautious.
Molas Pass was the final hurdle in our quest to Silverton. It is very high and offers little protection from the wind, and it really began to howl. Around each bend it would switch from a welcoming tail wind to a punishing head wind. At one point I was struggling to maintain control of the bike, and a woman in front of me was blown off the road. We stopped to help her up, and fortunately she was uninjured. We continued to push up the climb. The grade is not steep, but after three-plus hours of riding and an altitude above 10,000 feet, it is tough.
We finally crested the pass and had an enjoyable descent into Silverton. The streets in Silverton are lined with people clapping, ringing bells and encouraging each rider. We had failed in our efforts to beat the train by about 20 minutes. But we had grins on our faces as we crossed the finish line.
The Iron Horse is a great example of how broad community support, consistency and a diverse product can be a great economic boon to a community. I am sure it is a lot of work for the organizers, but for the cycling fan and participant, it is as much fun as one can have on a bike. I hope to be back for the 42nd edition next year. And maybe this time, my wife and I will be waiting for our kids.