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Iron Horse: The tale of a classic bike race

The Iron Horse Bicycle Classic, now in its 40th year, will attract thousands of cycling enthusiasts to Durango over Memorial Day weekend. These crowds of cyclists will test their strength, willpower and endurance in a ride that covers nearly 50 miles and over 5,700 feet of climbing over two passes that are more than 10,000 feet above sea level — an uphill battle that pits muscle against metal. This uphill journey is not to compete against each other, but against the massive power of the locomotive.

Durango is the perfect setting for a race of this nature. Founded in 1880 by the Denver and Rio Grand Railway, Durango became a terminus of the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad (D&SNGRR).

The D&SNGRR was laid over a course of nine months in 1881-1882 to link Durango and the mining boom town of Silverton for the transport of gold, silver and other precious metals out of the San Juan Mountains. But the panic of 1893 caused the collapse of the silver market and led to a slowdown in mining operations, and three years later two mines in Silverton tapped out. Over the next several decades, a series of events which included government control of the railroad during World War I, the flu pandemic of 1918 and more mine closings — all forced the railroad to close temporarily.

But the 55 miles of track running through the mountains near the Animas River boasts some of the most scenic beauty in the west. This asset became the saving grace for both Durango and the D&SNGRR. Tourism replaces mining as the railroad’s purpose for living. Today, it’s estimated that more than 200,000 visitors ride the train annually. No doubt some of these visitors are drawn by the fame Hollywood imparted to this railroad which was featured in Oscar-winning Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

The history of how the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic started with a bit of sibling rivalry between two brothers is a charming bit of local lore. For Tom Mayer, not only did the train run by his home, but his older brother, Jim, was also its brakeman. Add in Tom’s passion for mountain biking and a little sibling rivalry, and before long the two cooked up a bet: whether or not Tom could beat the train to Silverton on his bike. One day in 1971, as the train left Durango and passed the Mayer home, the whistle blew and Tom began pedaling his steel-framed 10-speed to Silverton in a race that would cover nearly 50 arduous miles. When the train pulled into Silverton, Jim found his younger brother waiting for him. And the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic was born.

The first official race was in 1972 and for 39 years cyclists have descended on Durango with one goal: to beat the train. The Iron Horse Bicycle Classic began as a professional event, but as the top-flight cyclists edge out the train with little difficulty, a separate event for amateurs was added to the mix. Today, the Citizen Tour has caught up and surpassed the 47-mile pro race in both participation and course length. The weekend warriors will line up at the Durango train station to race against a circa 1925, coal-fired locomotive. Beating the train means pedaling for 50 grueling miles, with oxygen deprivation and a huge chunk of three- to six-mile-long steep climbs. In 2007 the organizers capped the field limit for the Citizen’s tour at 2,500 to ensure the quality of the racing event and to make the logistical details more manageable for local and state agencies involved. Today, there are more cyclists hoping to ride than there are spots for. When registration opens and you want to participate, remember: if you snooze ... you lose.

The locomotive averages over 14 mph and the trip from Durango to Silverton takes 3.5 hours. On Saturday, May 28, a sizeable group of Pagosans will straddle their bikes at the start line on the flat valley floor and gaze at the towering peaks on the horizon. When the whistle blows, the fun begins. Though both the train and the riders start in Durango and end in Silverton, and roughly parallel each other, their routes are vastly different. Bikers have to climb up and over a couple passes, including the 10,910 foot Molas pass. The train tracks, meanwhile, wind through the Animas River canyon and is hidden from sight for the most part of the route. Riders will have to use their imagination as they grind away against a chugging — but invisible — locomotive.

If you aren’t registered for the Iron Horse this year, sorry, the tour is already sold out. However, you can register now ( for another exciting southwest Colorado high mountain bicycle race and tour starting right here in Pagosa Springs. The Wolf Creek Pass Race and Citizen ride are part of GECKO’s Four Corners Bike Fest scheduled for Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 24 and 25. Both feature a “double” crossing of the infamous 10,857-foot Wolf Creek Pass.? Start training now!

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