The first year we showed up in Durango (2001), we just saw the signs for a bike race downtown. “Come Race the Train from Durango to Silverton.” So, being the young (and slightly dumb) men we were, we looked at each other and said, It can’t be that hard…Let’s DO IT!
The signs detailed a ride from Durango (12 Miles), to Hermosa (16 miles uphill) , up to Durango Mountain, climbing the Coal Bank Pass,(12 miles up hill over 10K ft) down through Molas Pass, and ending in Silverton Colorado. All in all, the Iron Horse is a 50 mile bike ride through some of the most beautiful parts of Colorado and this year was the 44th annual.
For 15 years, I’ve lined up at the starting line of this race, and made some incredible memories with my compadres in crime out here at Camp KIVU. I’ll never forget the infamous crash of 2006 where most of our bikers were strewn across the highway. Or, I’ll never stop telling the story of the counselor that didn’t want to ride the race but dressed up like Lance Armstrong to pretend he was a biker.
I’ll never forget crossing the finish line in Silverton to 120 KIVU staff who were cheering every one of the 2500 riders through the finish.
I’ll never forget the talks I’ve had on the long ride up that awesome hill.
Well, this year, I lined up for the 15th time with some of the greatest guys on earth. Luke Parrott and Brandon Lee have been with me since the beginning of our project out here in Colorado, and we decided to ride the hills together with 9 other KIVU staff members. Un-known to them, i hadn’t really trained that much this year, so the ride up the hills was going to be a long slog, but they were willing to ride with me, for which I’m VERY THANKFUL.
The Ride In the Valley
We took off through the Animas Valley up toward the infamous Shalona Hill, and all was right with the world. The sky was blue, the grass was green, the smell of the pine trees and cottonwoods were potent on the nose. There’s nothing quite like riding with buddies through the valleys. It’s the easy part. Just get in line, draft off the bike in front of you, and hold on till it’s your turn to pull.
About halfway through the valley, we ran up on a girl named Sally. Mind if I join you? she asked.
Of course…We’d love to have more folks in the train. And for the next 20-30 minutes, we just keep sweeping up more and more riders until our train of drafters was about 35 people long.
Now, If you’ve never been biking before, 35 people in a line is just exhilarating. It’s so fun to talk, hang out, crank, ride hard, and then relax. Like I said, the Valley is the fun and easy part. Kind of like life, you know? Riding the flats is easy, but it takes the hills to see the beauty.
The Beginning of the Suffering
As we approached the Shalona section from Hermosa Colorado to Durango Mountain, the hills start to rise and the road grade gets a little more intense.
Our lucky 35 turned into about 12 before halfway up the hill, as many riders just fell off the back unable to keep up.
I was hanging on the back of my buddy Brandon’s wheel for all I was worth. Determined not to get dropped, I was just climbing as hard as I could while just barely holding on to the pace.
Again, for those of you who know biking, this isn’t a good thing. Not even halfway through the ride, and my legs are starting to show signs of being out of shape, or maybe just getting old. Either way, not a good thing to be “hanging on” halfway through a ride I know so well.
I thought to myself This is going to hurt when we turn the corner.
And hurt is an understatement.
Climbing the Big Mountains
Somewhere up the steep sides of Coal Bank Pass, I just drifted into that place only endurance athletes know about. (By the way, I’m no endurance athlete) but I do know that dark place where you just focus on moving forward. The pain in my legs started with cramping, but then it just made its way through my body, into my back, and I could feel the pressure banging away through my veins. I knew it was going to take a while so I looked over at Brandon and said, Go on, I’ll meet you at the top. To which he replied I didn’t drive all the way over here to ride by myself he answered without even panting.
We finally made our way to the top and then screamed down to the bottom of the next big pass, and that’s where it hit. The lactic acid in my legs just exploded, and I felt my legs starting to lock up. with 4 miles to the top of a beautiful snowy mountain, I was about to see all my muscles seize and the race was going to be over.
Somewhere in my dark black sub conscious mind, I felt a hand on the small of my back and a voice say, come on man…I got ya. And for a moment I looked over to see Brandon on one side and Luke on the other.
For the next 4 miles they rode alternating their hands on my back and making sure I stayed in a mental place where I could keep on pedaling forward.
For any normal cyclist, this has to be the most embarrassing moment. Nobody wants help up a hill. After all cyclists are people who love pain, endure pain, and desire to push through for the greater story of suffering.
But for me…this was one of those magical times in my life I’ll never forget.
I don’t know if I’ve ever had friends like Brandon and Luke.
I mean, I know a lot of people. But I don’t know many people who have ever sacrificed what they sacrificed for me a few weeks ago. With the ever small touch of a hand on my back, and the encouraging words of true friends who were sincerely pushing me along; I can’t tell you how that made me feel.
We got to the top of Molas Pass at 10K + ft of elevation, and I just stood over my bike washed in the gratitude of friendship. I leaned over to Brandon, I don’t know if I would have ever made it without you….THANKS SO MUCH! We gave each other a “man hug” and then…well……we screamed down the hill into Silverton topping out at 54 Mph.
Few times in my life, I’ve felt like this. Maybe it’s because I keep people at an arm’s length. Or maybe I’ve just never allowed myself to be as vulnerable as an old man on a bicycle who had no business riding this race for the 15th time. I’ve got a lot of friends, a few close confidants, and on that day; I had two guys willing to ride alongside me.
Whatever it was….I’m honestly….I’m humbly….I’m forever thankful for friends like you guys.
It’s all gonna be ok, when you ride with the best!!