A 46-Year Colorado Tradition Has Cyclists Racing a Steam Train Over 3 Mountain Passes
The Iron Horse Bicycle Classic (IHBC), which began 46 years ago, is a challenging and exciting bicycle race from Durango to Silverton, Colorado. Bicyclists race over three mountain passes against the classic steam powered locomotive deep into the Rocky Mountains surrounded by majestic scenery.
Both races start on the same day at an elevation of 6,525 feet in Durango. The Quarter Horse climbs the 27 mile route to the Purgatory Ski Resort finish line at 9,200 feet. The Iron Horse race continues as the bicyclists push their limits and climb Coal Bank Pass at 10,660 feet, and Molas Pass at 10,905 feet before descending to a mere 9,305 into the old mining town of Silverton, Colorado (for a total of 51 miles) and a 5,351-feet elevation gain. Organizers set up aid stations along the race route, with cheerful volunteers and locals dotting the roadside, waving American flags for support.
The IHBC started when Durango resident and bicyclist Tom Mayer challenged his brother Jim, a train brakeman, to a race. The first person to arrive in Silverton won the coveted prize of a scrumptious Baby Ruth candy bar. Silverton had become a famous mining town when gold was discovered there in 1870, which brought the railway to the area. Since the train track was five miles shorter than the road, and it only takes the train three hours and thirty minutes between the towns of Durango and Silverton, Jim thought it was a sure bet. Adding in the fact that Tom was riding a steel Schwinn Paramount, Jim felt confident that the candy bar was his.
Tom’s training paid off. He beat Jim and the train to Silverton. When Jim pulled in, Tom was there to collect on his bet, with a smile of course. Jim’s brotherly love and humor kicked in and he asked Tom,” Ok Tom, whose truck bed did you ride in to get here?” Tom responded saying, “None really, I just got here. I beat you guys.”
In Durango, the Mountain Bike Specialist store generously gives racers a free copy of “A Day in May…the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic” DVD, which describes the race itself. The shop walls are lined with championship bicycle jerseys, like a hall of fame for the race. The staff was very friendly and helpful, and the store was well stocked with all the bicycle necessities.
The day after the IHBC, my wife and I rode the Iron Horse train all the way to Silverton. It was fueled by large lumps of coal, and it peacefully chugged and swayed its way up through the mountain passes, next to sheer cliffs that tracked the Animas River, a favorite for white water kayakers who we saw on our journey.
As we arrived in Silverton on the Iron Horse, I developed a true appreciation for the full IHBC because we climbed over the two mountain passes near the tree line, passing through sparse rock fields layered with snow on the way. It was reminiscent of Mount Ventoux, like you see on television during the Tour de France.
To prepare for this challenging ride, you must train in altitude. You should also layer clothes, because the weather can change from sunny to harsh in minutes. The entry fee was only $55.00 for the Quarter Horse. Also, plan a ride down the mountain back to your hotel (or in our case a motorhome campground next to the meandering green banks of the Animas River). You can take a bus or have a friend meet you at the top. Of course, some even turned it into a century by riding their bikes back down. My lovely wife Kim, and our mini-Aussie Reilly, provided me race day support and a van ride back to the campsite.
So, how did a San Diego resident learn about this wonderful ride? Two years earlier, I visited Jim, P. my former client, who lives in Durango (no relation to Jim Mayer). I traveled there to see him and to help me gain a deeper understanding of his life, in order to effectively present his wrongful death case. He and his family had tragically lost his charming wife ‘Rose’ to a careless motorist. Through this traumatic ordeal, Jim P., his family, and I became life-long friends.
This year, Jim P. invited me to Durango to ride, and to celebrate Rose’s life. Jim P. successfully completed the ride to Silverton in honor of Rose, who was an avid cyclist. In 2014, Rose rode the IHBC course from Durango to Purgatory on her hand cycle.
After the ride, we gathered to celebrate. We had a toast in honor of “Rose”, their life and family. Jim P. said he was honored to be included in this article.
I am so grateful to be able to use my passion for bicycling and the law to develop meaningful relationships, like mine with Jim P. and his family in the Rockies. May 27th, 2017 was a fine day
Credit to The Durango Herald for background facts. See “The True Story of a Challenge Between Brothers” May 26, 2017 by John Livingston.
©Richard L. Duquette, Esq. All rights reserved
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