Route of the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic, following the Animas River (with the exception of the passes), from Durango to Silverton. Approximately 5,800 ft of climbing (according to my GPS.)
The 2010 edition of the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic can be summed up as follows: lots of steep climbing and fantabulous weather.
I know that climbing mountains on a bicycle is not everyone’s cup of tea, but if it is for you, the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic is a good challenge to add to your cycling palmares. This classic event is held every Memorial Day in Durango, Colorado. In its 39th year, this event started in 1972 with a group of 36 cyclists, who raced the historic Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge railroad train, which runs along the Animas River valley from Durango to Silverton.
The bicycle route also follows the Animas River – along U.S. Highway 550 – except where the highway doesn’t follow the river – ha ha. And where it doesn’t, Hwy 550 goes up … and up … and more up – over two major mountain passes, with about 5,800 ft of climbing, (that’s what my GPS said anyway). Of the approximately 50 miles the route takes, about 30 of them involve climbing.
And these are no baby climbs.
Coal Bank Pass, at 10,640 ft in elevation, is 20 miles in length. Starting 14 miles north of Durango, this pass ramps up to a plateau of sorts after 10 miles of 3-6% grades. The plateau isn’t really flat, but consists of a series of rollers that last about 5 miles, all the way to the Durango Mountain Resort. The road goes down for a while after that, but the nice descent doesn’t last. Coming up next are 5-1/2 miles of serious effort. Billed with an average gradient of 6.5%, according to my GPS (which uses satellite and barometer readings for accuracy), the predominant grade up this long, long climb is 7%, and there are plenty of 8-10% grades too, in case 7% isn’t enough for you.
Molas Pass tops out at 10,910 ft, the high point of the route. This pass is roughly 4 miles long, and it’s grades aren’t quite as steep as Coal Bank, billed to have an average gradient of 4.9%. But don’t be fooled, there are still big chunks of 7% steepness lurking in those switchbacks.
Along with about 3,000 other cyclists, I attended the 2010 edition of this classic event on Saturday, May 29. There were multiple events taking place simultaneously: A sanctioned USA Cycling race, with all the various categories of riders, from Pro/Cat 1 down to Cat V, and a “Citizen’s Tour” for those of us not riding for time. Also, there were criteriums and a time trial taking place during the weekend in downtown Durango.
The riders on the sanctioned USA Cycling race don’t actually race the train, leaving about an hour before the 8:15 train departs. But to keep the spirit of the event, the Citizen’s Tour does race the train, or at least, it begins at the whistle of the 8:15 train. Also offered is an “early bird” start time, about an hour before the train. This was for those riders who wanted/needed extra time to complete the journey.
Hey wait a minute. I fit that description!
The train takes 3-1/2 hours to complete the journey to Silverton. Due to all the climbing, it would take a miracle for me to make it under that time. But given a “handicap” of another hour? Who knows?
Actually, I wasn’t concerned about my ride time. My goal was to simply enjoy being out in the mountains. My only concern, time-wise, was to make the 12:40 pm cutoff at the top of Molas Pass, and to make the 2:45 pm train for the journey back. (Our bikes are trucked back to Durango, while us cyclists take the train, or bus, or whatever.)
It’s riding time again
At 7:00 am, I’m ready to head out. The Iron Horse Classic has a reputation of being a cold one – at least from stories I’ve heard, from friends I know who have done this race. And from having lived in Colorado in the past, I know that in the high elevations, any kind of weather is possible, even if there are no clouds in the sky in morning. The forecast called for temps in Durango to be in the low to mid-30s, and highs in the mid 70s. I knew up high it would be colder than that. So I was prepared for cold. I wore a full length base layer and a full length jersey, and had a rain jacket, booties, and extra glove liners tucked into a CamelBak.
When I step outside of the hotel, I’m pleasantly surprised. Although chilly, it’s not bone-chilly. The sun is shining, with not a cloud in the sky. No need for the jacket even in the early morning. I take it with me anyway.
I make my way down to the early bird start, just a few blocks from the hotel. And wouldn’t ya know, I happen to run into some other cyclists from the Phoenix area.
Me at the early bird start line (7:15 am).
Fellow Arizonans Abby and Tom ready to roll.
I estimate around 100 riders take advantage of the early-bird start (at least, that’s what I see anyway). The group rolls out – slowly at first – along Highway 550, following the Animas River. The grades are gentle, but trending upwards. Rollers come by from time to time to allow a brief respite, before the climbing begins anew. Somewhere along this stretch, the first of the Pro/Cat 1 racers zoom by, hauling $ss up the mountain. They are probably going twice as fast as we are. I see them tackle a hill like it’s nothing – nothing at all. They must be from a different planet.
After 10 miles, the grade begins to kick up, gradually at first, and by the 14 mile mark, my GPS is showing 4-6% grades, and sometimes a few 10% pitches. I’m not riding all that hard (though my legs might not agree with that assessment). I keep my heart rate in Zones 2 and 3 – survival instinct on my part, from all the ultra-distance events I’ve done. All sorts of people pass me by.
While huffing and puffing up the first 10 mile ramp of Coal Bank Pass, not only am I not cold, I’m overheating. My sunglasses steam over, and I regret wearing that base layer. I consider stopping to take it off. I certainly don’t need it now. But will I need it later? Being an Arizona kinda guy, I’d rather be hot than cold. I keep the base layer on. This is partly out of laziness. I don’t want to bother stopping.
According to the official ride information, the first rest stop is supposed to be at the 16 mile mark. But I see no signs of it until the 19 mile mark, confirming something I had been fearing. The top is supposedly around the 30-31 mile mark. On the way up, I have a sneaking suspicion it’s going to be further than that – by as many as 3 miles in fact (19-16).
Not needing fuel or water at the first rest stop, I opt not to pull in. I keep on cruising – well, I’m not sure you can say 6-11 mph up the climbs is exactly “cruising.” These lower grades, which I know are the “mild” part of the first pass, are kicking my butt.
After the 23 mile mark, the road levels off, at least it looks that way on the route profile. Much to my chagrin, it’s not flat, but is instead a series of rollers. Some of those rollers are in the 7-10% range. Those little bumps on the elevation profile? They really do mean something. Why I don’t ever learn this, I’ll never know.
9:20 am: Durango Mountain Resort
The second rest stop is supposed to be at the 24 mile mark, but I have a feeling it’s going to be three miles further. And I’m right. At the 26 mile mark, we begin a nice sweet downhill that lasts for a mile or so until the Durango Mountain Resort comes into view. Along with it comes the second rest stop, at the 27 mile mark.
Why the 3 miles difference? It dawns on me. The Citizens Tour started in downtown Durango, near the train station. The racing start line, however, was located at a high school 3 miles up the road. So the mileage and route information we were given was for those racing the event. Kinda wish they would have clued us in on that.
My newly confirmed knowledge means that, instead of 4 more miles to the summit, there are at least 7 miles on tap. Yeah baby! Bring it on!
As one of my bottles is now empty, I decide to pull over at the Durango Mountain Resort rest stop. Could be my legs have something to say about that as well. Yes, could be.
It’s now 9:20 am. My average speed to this point? 12.1 mph. Man I’m a speed demon.
Scene from the Durango Mountain Resort rest stop (27 miles).
Is there more climbing? You can (coal) bank on that!
After leaving the second rest stop, there is a bit more downhill (funny how those downhill miles go so much quicker than a person would like), and then we round a switchback, where the climbing fun begins in earnest. Now we have 7% grades. Relentless 7% grades.
Riders tackling 7% grades up Coal Bank Pass.
I’ve been on many long steep climbs – the never-ending 20 mile climb of Grand Mesa, near Grand Junction, CO comes to mind, but Coal Bank ranks right up there as a worthy beast. I thought I’d never reach the top. As I am climbing, the steep grades leave me with a sore lower back and sore upper glutes. I pull over a few times to rest these weary muscles. Some riders are walking their bikes. There were times where I might as well have. Every now and then, my speed dips down to a breathtaking 3.5 mph. Jeebus.
Have power? Apparently not.
Every time I try to kick up the speed, standing up out of the saddle and dancing on the pedals, I’m soon gasping for oxygen. This is the only clue that I’m riding at altitude (at this point, above 10,000 ft) – well, that and the incredible views.
As far as the weather is concerned, it’s fantabulous! There is significant wind, but it’s coming out of the south, meaning a tail wind for us. The temps are chilly, but it’s a pleasant chill – perfect for cycling. The intense sun of the high altitude provides plenty of warmth.
As it would turn out, I would never need my jacket, even down the descents later on.
10:45 am: Coal Bank Pass
I reach the summit of Coal Bank Pass at 10:45 am. My average speed along this portion? A paltry 5.8 mph.
Cyclists coming in at the top of Coal Bank Pass (10,640 ft).
A big pack fuels up at the top of Coal Bank after 34.4 miles and 4,500 ft of climbing.
My bike gets a rest, illustrating what I’d like to be doing about now! Ha!
Memories of twilight
Soon, I begin the descent down Coal Bank Pass. As the road curves around a switchback, that tail wind out of the south turns into a mean, gusty cross wind. But it’s a warm “chinook” wind. As the wind rushes down the mountain, it gets compressed and warms up as a result.
I enjoy that warm wind and round another corner, where a familiar sight comes into view. My wife and I have visited this area many times on photography trips. I’ve taken lots of photographs of the peak now to my right: Twilight Peak.
View of Twilight Peak (13,158 ft) coming down Coal Bank Pass.
What Twilight Peak looks like in its proper setting. (After sunset, and further down the pass).
Photo taken by me, in the fall of 2003.
A fast descent down Coal Bank Pass along smooth pavement is the reward for all that climbing. Around the corner is where the sunset photo of Twilight Peak was taken, back in 2003.
Cruising down Coal Bank Pass is very pleasant. Not only is the temperature warm, the road is wide and smooth. Oh, and I forgot to mention earlier: a good chunk of the registration price for this ride goes into having the last 30 miles of the route completely closed to car traffic. So we have the road to ourselves, (although emergency and support vehicles use the left lane.) You can cruise along with plenty of room to pass (and be passed by) other riders. I keep my speed in check, mostly 25-35 mph. I’m not into fast descents.
Alas, the short 3 mile downhill comes to an end sooner than I like. My bike slows to a crawl, and next thing I know, I’m back to 5-6 mph pedaling. But I’m in great spirits, for I know there is only a few more miles of climbing – to the top of final summit of the day: Molas Pass.
Oh-oh, what happened to the downhill? Ah well, I guess the fun downhill can’t last forever. I pause for this photo before tackling Molas Pass. Off to the right is a switchback where our nice tailwind turns into a mean headwind. The temps here are quite pleasant.
Sign confirming only 4 miles of climbing left!
11:40 am: Molas Pass
With 1.5 miles to go to the summit, one of the prettier views of the San Juan mountains comes into view. Off to our right, down below, is Molas Lake.
First glimpses of Molas Lake. It’s not far to the summit now, and what a view!
Soon, the grade levels off – all the way to 6%. Woo hoo! Now I can pedal at 7 – even 8 mph! And to top that off, literally, there is the top, just a few yards further. I roll in around 11:40 am. My average speed along this stretch? 8.6 mph. I’m getting faster. I can feel it! Soon, I’ll turn pro! Ha ha.
Now, that 11:40 time has important ramifications. The cutoff time for this pass is 12:40 pm. That’s so they can clear the roadway of bikes, for a planned reopening of the route to cars at 1:00 pm. It is here I realize I’m glad I took the early bird start. If I’d had left an hour later, with the 8:15 mass start, I would have just barely made the 12:40 cutoff.
Just so you don’t think I’m a completely pathetic rider, I did stop for a lot of pictures along the way. At least, that’s my excuse, and I’m sticking to it.
I’m all smiles at the top of Molas Pass (41.5 miles.) No more climbing! Yay!
My GPS shows the elevation to be 10,906 ft. Guess it’s pretty accurate.
The Iron Horse Classic is well supported with police escort and emergency personnel.
After 5,800 ft of climbing, maybe a helicopter ride to the hospital (or the mental ward?) is what this cyclist is contemplating.
Warning: potholes ahead!
I begin my descent at 11:51 am. It’s 7.4 miles to the bottom and the final destination – the town of Silverton. The descent down Molas Pass is steep, with lots of 9% grade. And unlike the smooth roads up this point, this section is gnarly, filled with cracks and potholes. Some of those cracks run length-wise – meaning it would be easy to get your tires caught in them. The ride organizers had most of the major potholes and cracks marked with blue paint. (Um, a brighter color would have been helpful. Kind of hard to see those blue circles quick enough when you are zooming down the hill at 40+ mph.)
And some of the potholes and cracks weren’t marked – as I found out a few times.
The descent down Molas Pass was fun – if your idea of fun is dodging potholes and cracks at 40 mph!
Molas Lake looking ever beautiful. And what to say of the weather? Fantastic!
About a mile from the town of Silverton, I round the last switchback with a few other riders – straight into a fierce head/cross wind. There’s no need to apply the brakes to slow down for the final corner into town. The wind is so strong my bike almost comes to a screeching halt all on its own. I hear a pop – like a gunshot. The rider next to me has blown a tire. Guess if you are going to blow a tire, why not a mile from the finish? And why not here on the flats, instead of earlier on those steep descents? Good timing on his part!
At 12:15 pm, I roll through the town of Silverton, to a smattering of “applause.” My on the bike speed was 4 hrs and 39 mins, with an average speed of 10.5 mph.
The top finisher came in at 2 hrs and 12 minutes, more than twice as fast as me – meaning he averaged around 21 mph –- after nearly 6,000 ft of climbing.
From another planet indeed, those in the upper echelons of the semi-pro cycling ranks.
At the finish line, I hand my bike off to volunteers, who are loading bikes onto trucks for transport back to Durango. We’d have to find our own way back. Fortunately, I had reserved a seat on one of the return trains.
The weather in Silverton is sunny and warm. Thousands of cyclists are draped out on the lawns near the finish, including some fellow riders from Arizona that I run into:
Fellow Arizona cyclists at the finish line in Silverton. Left to right: Abby, Roy, John, and me.
Oh by the way. You are probably wondering. Did I beat the train? Even though the train was late getting in, (it was supposed to arrive at 11:45 but got in around noon), I still missed it by 15 minutes. And that’s after being spotted an extra hour.
Oh well. It makes no difference. I hold no delusions of grandeur. For me, the whole point of this ride was simply to enjoy a day of cycling in the mountains. And that was accomplished, in spades.
My wife had ridden the 8:15 am train to Silverton, and I rode back with her on the 2:45 pm train. Here are some photos of the train ride, both coming and going.
The 2:45 pm train out of Silverton is ready for boarding.
I’m ready for the 3-1/2 hr journey back to Durango. The train ride would prove almost as tiring as riding my bike up the passes. Ha!
For Leslie it was a 7 hr roundtrip train ride. Whew! Or is that Woo woo!
The train rounds a scenic curve near Rockwood. This was taken on the 8:15 am train on its way to Silverton. Photo by Leslie.
The morning train blowing off a little steam. Photo by Leslie.
Peaks in the Needles area of the San Juans. (Morning train.) Photo by Leslie.
The train follows the Animas River the entire way. (Morning train.) Photo by Leslie.
Train, river, and mountains. What else could you ask for? (2:45 pm train.) Photo by Bry.
The conductor hanging out the side of the train, breaking all sorts of rules. Shall we tell on him? Photo by Leslie.
Rafters on the Animas River, near Durango. I’ll bet that water is c-o-l-d! Photo by Leslie.
6:15 pm: Back in Durango
Our train arrived on time back in Durango at 6:15 pm. It’s a good thing. We had to scramble a few blocks to the Jeep so I could drive over to the high school where they were storing the bikes for pickup. They kept saying we had to pick them up by 7 pm, or else. But they never said what the “or else” part was. I didn’t want to find out, and fortunately, didn’t have to, as I made it to the school by 6:30.
I hafta say, they should have really provided more time to pick up bikes, for if the 2:45 pm train had been late getting in, it would have been a mad scramble to find the truck and make the drive over to the school.
See ya Durango. Till next time.
All in all, this was a great trip, and one I hope to repeat in the future. And I promise – I promise I tell you, that I’ll be in better shape next time.
Isn’t that what we all say to ourselves?