The last time I raced the Iron Horse was Memorial Day weekend in 2005. I would add, “…and lost by an hour and thirty-five minutes.” here, but for most of us cyclists, losing is definitely part of the deal when you’re up against the Durango to Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad train. It really is what makes this event exciting, keeps us coming back each year and, for me, intently focused on my training plan week after week.

Since July, 1882, the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad was promoted as a scenic route for passenger service although the line was constructed primarily to haul mine ores, both gold and silver, from the San Juan Mountains. It is estimated that over $300 million in precious metals has been transported over this route. Presently, for $85, a passenger can be hauled up and over this same route while being delighted to some of the most beautiful scenery in the Rocky Mountains. During summer months, the train rolls out at 8am, consistently arriving in Silverton 3 hours and 30 minutes later.

The Iron Horse Bicycle Classic was the brainchild of Tom Mayer and his older brother Jim. Jim worked as a brakeman on the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad which had run the steam powered locomotive between Durango and Silverton since the early 1880’s. Tom was a young bicycle enthusiast who grew up alongside the tracks leading to Silverton. Tom challenged Jim to a race to Silverton. As the train came by the house, the steam whistle screamed and Tom climbed on his trusty steel framed 10 speed and pedaled up over the rim of the old volcano and descended into the caldera to the mining town of Silverton. The train takes a shorter and easier route, but with limited speed, so it is truly a race between man and machine. When Tom became strong enough to win, the bragging rights were his, and the whole town knew it.

In 1972 a group of 36 riders had decided to celebrate the first Springtime run of the train by accepting the challenge. Since then, the Iron Horse has become one of the classic bicycle events in the West. Durango is centrally located between Denver, Albuquerque, Phoenix, and Salt Lake City. The Iron Horse Bicycle Classic is an ideal early summer meeting of the riders from each of these cycling centers as they attempt to bring home awards and personal glory. In recent years the participants have come from every state, and many foreign countries, to ride the famed Iron Horse Bicycle Classic course. Each year hundreds of riders will feel the thrill of descending into Silverton and looking to see if the train has arrived before them. And familiar faces will be there, as many people come back year after year to the “best race we have around.

Simply jumping on a bike and pedaling doesn’t necessarily beat the Horse of Iron. My most recent hour and thirty-five minute deficit proved that! In fact, given the 50 mile distance, the 6400 feet of vertical ascending and two steep 10,000 foot Rocky Mountain passes, a very specific and focused training plan is required. Week after week of gradually increasing intensity of distance, climbing and altitude along with various flat/hill intervals culminated in a trial run from the County Line restaurant to Sandia Crest two weekends before the actual race. I wanted to closely simulate 80% of the profile of the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic in order to test my performance and extrapolate a predicted time. 35 miles, 5400 feet and one 10,000 foot mountain pass later, I had my results: 3 hours and 30 minutes which included, to my surprise, a whopping 20 minutes of idle time. Although, I had (I thought) carefully limited my three refueling times, it had added up.

It wasn’t hard to take this information, along with predictions for the various segment times, and estimate my overall time against the Horse. There is a 16 mile warmup/flat segment from Durango to Shalona Hill, 9 miles at 4% grade to Purgatory, another flat segment of 6 miles, followed by the first mountain climb over Coal Bank Pass of 6 mile, then 3 miles of downhill, and the second climb over Molas Pass of 3 miles and finally 7 miles of rapid descent into Silverton.

In the end, with a little bit of chicken scratching on the back of my profile sheet, I wrote:

(Anyone got an extra 28 minutes lying around?)

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