The sky above, a striking powder blue, capped the valleys spreading below surrounding Molas Pass. I didn’t need to look at the annoyingly accurate GPS clock on my handlebar to know that it would say, 11:30am, reinforcing the fact that the train had just pulled into the station seven miles below…

Precisely, three and a half hours earlier, the day was shaping up to be one of those ‘good to ride’ days… the kind you earn on the ‘pay-it-forward’ days. A gentle north breeze was blowing in my face and the 45 degree temperature had already started warming to its predicted high of 75 under clear skies.

I forfeited a place close to the start line in favor of an opportunity to get a picture taken with my competition and by the time I returned, was barely able to squeeze in with my back tire just touching one of the narrow gauge rails. Precious minutes were lost to those who were forced to start on the other side of the tracks waiting for the train to clear the starting area after the ‘early’ riders merged onto the course upon the sound of the start signal.

I knew it would be easy to find an appropriate pace line for the first stretch of 14 miles out of town, but stayed alert as several riders seemed to forget about the orange pylons spaced periodically between us and the cars, dodging them left and right at the last minute. The ‘feeding frenzy’ at the start of these kinds of rides takes its toll and this one was no different as a rider went down hard just ahead of me taking several more with him. I signalled to slow and quickly moved to the right just in time to clear a back wheel on the ground.

Several miles later, with the help of various pacelines, I was deposited at the base of the first pitch to start my work. Years earlier, it was here that the train caught me, but this time around, it was nowhere to be found, not even the sound of its whistle. I settled into a moderate climbing pace and blew passed the first rest stop like the majority of the group clearing the section a few minutes ahead of schedule.

By the time I reached the Durango Mountain Resort (Purgatory), one of my two planned stops, I was ready to force down a rice cake and refill my water bottles.

Total time on the ground: 3 minutes.

The climb to Coal Bank Pass brought the hurt on. Although, I was steadily passing and working my way up through a growing stream of tiring riders and early starters, it was this section that could easily be called the hardest. Neverending false summits and unrelenting 8% pitches prevented any hope for a rest or change of pace even if just to catch my breath. By the time I reached the pass, I was starting to lose my sense of pace and confusion on the remaining profile. Not sure if it was the altitude, the mounting fatigue, or both, but the clock on my handlebar began to make little sense. Although it said 10:40am, I couldn’t resolve that to a required pace, profile or distance to the finish anymore.

I wolfed another rice cake, and washed it with water: Total time on the ground: 3 minutes.

I blasted the descent off Coal Bank Pass, swinging wide to pass various riders as most restricted themselves to the ‘legal’ lane. I had been warned of the nasty vortex of wind on the sweeping corner below the pass and slowed only to be buffeted moderately over a very clean road surface confident of my ability to lean hard into the corners.

I braced myself for another hard, but shorter climb toward Molas Pass, only to be pleasantly surprised at its ease. I was shocked to see the sign indicating the pass well before it seemed to be ‘time’. Approaching the pass, I was startled by a rider from behind and to my right, “I FINALLY caught you!!”, he said. Blood was dripping from his mouth, down his chin, onto his shirt… and yet he was smiling! “It’s Walter!”, he said, and I put thoughts of the zombie apocalypse aside momentarily. “Did you crash again, Walter?”, I asked quizzically. “No, what do you mean?”, he said, adding to my confusion. “Uh.. well, there’s blood all over your mouth”. “Oh, that. Must be chapped lips”, he assured me. “Did you want to stop”, I said, hoping the answer was no. “Yeah, let me put my leggings on”, and I traded a few more precious minutes against the train for an opportunity to ride together, the remaining descent into Silverton. I knew the train was just pulling into the station below and now was just trying to establish a decent time for next year.

22 minutes later, we were crossing the finish line though a growing funnel of excited bystanders, fans and early finishers.

Train: 3 hours and 30 minutes Russ: 3 hours and 52 minutes.