THE IRON HORSE by William Roberts

It sat on its parallel tracks, this Iron Horse. With thick black smoke rising from its stack and white clouds of steam–the energy that drives it forward–escaping from pipes attached to the sides of its huge boiler. It’s in amazingly good shape for something that is over a hundred years old, I think. I unlimber my pony–my ride–that is comprised of aluminum and carbon fiber. Like the steam engine that is building up its strength for the long pull of passenger cars through the Needles Mountain range to the north, I’m stretching out my legs, warming them up.

The sun is just climbing out from behind the mesas of black coal and granite east of Durango, Colorado. Its brilliant rays reflect off the snow-covered peaks of the LaPlata Mountains further to the west. Though it is the end of May, a time of warm summer breezes and hints of the summer to come back East, it is only a few degrees above freezing here, a mile and a half higher in elevation. What a brilliant blue sky, I note. A sky I truly love. Not a trace of clouds.

I inspect my ride for any mechanical flaws or failings. The three ranges of gears–chain links as called by the cycling world–up front, the chain, the two derailleurs–the devices that move the chain from one gear to the next while at the same time keeping tension on it–and the eight gears on the rear axle are well lubricated. Nothing out of place, I decide.
I throw my leg over the seat of my black and silver-colored Bianchi road bike, lock the special riding shoe to the right pedal and push down, propelling the bicycle forward. Quickly I position my left shoe over its pedal and lock it in with a snap. Slowly, I circle the empty parking lot of the city’s post office.

Boy are my legs stiff, I tell myself, but I am ready for this, I assure myself, I think. It is my first time riding this tour, and I lack the confidence of the more experienced riders waiting at the start point a block away. I have spent the past two months riding and climbing the high hills of the local roads, getting my heart, lungs and legs ready for this. The thinner air at this altitude makes riding very difficult for the newcomer, but I’ve been here a year now and am well used to that.

“Are you ready for this, Doug?” Deb looks out from the window of the driver’s side of our van.

“As ready as I’m ever going to be,” I reply making one more lap of the lot. Stopping next to the van, I lean down and kiss her. “You’d better be going if you’re going to get past the roadblocks before they close it.”

“Be careful.”

“It’s just a tour, not a race. What could possibly happen?” I know better though. Four years earlier I had been in a race where I’d crashed and badly broken my pelvis. Whenever one rides with a mass of other riders, anything can happen. If one wants to dance, I repeat to myself as I have many times before, one must sometimes pay the piper.

“Yes, I know, but be careful anyway.”

“Yes, dear.”

I leave the lot and hear the van drive off. It’s a 50 mile drive to the finish line in Silverton via Highway 550. A short distance away is where the first group of tour riders are massing for their start on what promises to be a grueling ride. There are already about 50 riders on College Street in front of the town’s McDonald’s. That’s appropriate, I decide, since they are sponsoring this part of the event.

The Iron Horse Classic is not just a race to see who can ride the route the fastest, but a series of different events: the race, the Citizen’s tour, a time trial and a mountain bike trail race. I am doing the tour, which is where the participants just ride the route–no time record, no racing, at least not officially. There are groups that will keep their own times, but they are racing against past times–a personal best contest.

The group has now grown to nearly 300. The first of the eventual 2,500 others.

Nearby, I can see the dark cloud of coal smoke and white steam getting thicker. It is a unique mix of contrasting colors. The Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge Engine will pull passenger cars full of tourists up the rail that follows the Animas River to Silverton through the flats north of town full of cattle and elk ranches and the set of canyons carved by the river through the eastern part of the Needles Mountains. The unique and high-pitched whistle blows at exactly seven o’clock. Our goal isn’t to beat each other, but to beat this first Iron Horse–the name the Native Americans gave such beasts–of the day to Silverton.

Durango sits at 6,500 feet above sea level.

All through town spectators line the route. The raucous clanging of their small cow bells serves to encourage us as we pass.

There is a slight hill as we leave the town limits. It’s only a warm-up. The highway for the next 11 miles is straight, with a mild climbing grade.

The riders around me are in good spirits and there is a lot of chatter. There are groups of friends and family mixed amongst the individual riders. Others have only met at this precise moment. It is amazing how camaraderie instantly develops. I know none of their names, but am instantly connected. At the start I had stood next to a gentleman who is riding this as a present to himself on his 60th birthday. I’m not sure if he’ll still consider it a good present once we truly start climbing.

The long line of riders is very colorful. Each of us is wearing riding gear of Spandex shorts and light weight jerseys. The jerseys are brightly colored and bear many different patterns, pictures, or emblems. Sometimes the shorts match the color scheme of the jersey, but most often they are just black. Though right now it is covered by cool weather gear, my jersey sports a brownish-yellow background, with a large, similarly colored, five-pointed star on a black background. The words U.S. Army is beneath it. I am a retired member of that military branch.

I begin to pass someone wearing a jersey with the symbol and colors of one of the other military branches. “Come on, Air Force,” I say as I pass him. “Let’s fly.” He chuckles, but I never see him again.

Though it looks flat, I remind myself as I look at the road ahead, I know we’re already starting to climb.

We enter the town of Hermosa. Commuter community, I identify it by the style of housing. On the other side of this town begins the first true climb.

Hermosa is at 6,644 feet above sea level. I have climbed 144 feet of elevation, and traveled 11 miles.

A passing motor-cop announces the racers are coming and to “hold our line” so as not to interfere. They started 45 minutes after us and we knew they would overtake us quickly. The majority of these riders are professionals, as the Iron Horse is part of a tour to determine who is the best in the nation. We can hear the sound of tires on the road as the 100 or so riders come up from the rear and pass by. “There they go,” I say to another cyclist as I pass her. “The peleton is already climbing Shalona.” Her look of ignorance tells me that she doesn’t know mwhat “peleton” means. I know what it is, I say to myself. It’s where a large group of cyclists are all clumped together with no more that six inches between them. It would be nice to be in one, I cluck my tongue against my teeth. Drafting a bunch of other riders would make the ride easier. Ah well. I was in that when one of the other participants cut me off, sending me crashing to the pavement, breaking my pelvis when the ball at the upper end of my femur was driven through the hip socket. I shudder at that memory. The last of the peleton disappears around the corner at the top of the first terrace of upcoming climbs on the way to the Durango Mountain Ski Resort.
Here it comes, I think as I start climbing, and I feel the first of what is going to be a familiar burn of acetic acid in my muscles. Though not as steep as the climbs after the resort, it is over ten miles long, and constant. In no time I’m shifted down into the lowest gear. This will separate the prepared from the otherwise, I know, especially if they haven’t been riding on roads at this elevation. Sure enough riders begin to slow and fall behind. I pass many quickly. I’m just riding this for the fun of it, I remember, so passing others really means nothing. Deb would lock me up in a dark room if I even think about racing again, I tell myself. That time period after the accident had been worse for her, I remember, especially when she had to go through the news that I had almost died on the operating table after one of the razor-sharp bone chips cut a major artery inside my pelvis.

I still haven’t been passed by the first Iron Horse whose whistle had started my ride. It makes good time on the section of rail between Durango and Hermosa, but when it hits this hill it slows to a chugging crawl. Even I can make time against it.

Along the route spectators are cheering us on with shouts and cow bells. This really does help one keep going when the leg and shoulder muscles are crying to stop.

“Shoulders?” I’ve been asked on many occasions by non-cyclists.

“Oh, yeah,” I’ve answered. “Your posture on the bike has you leaning forward on your hands and arms. You’re doing a static push up the whole ride.”

At the top of Shalona is a rest stop with water, outhouses and an Emergency Medical Technician, with the accompanying ambulance. I pay no attention to a professional photographer, with a camera and a long fancy lens. The medical personnel were something they didn’t have at my accident, I remember. I thank the Lord that the artery wasn’t cut during the crash. But then, I decide, it wouldn’t have mattered as I would have bled out in less than five minutes.

I shift down and immediately hear the clatter of my chain against the front derailleur. The cable has slipped a bit and the only gear I can use is the second one in the low range. After I reset it, I can change out of the cooler weather gear into just my shorts, long sleeve under armor shirt, and jersey.

The long, black riding pants, long sleeved jersey and windbreaker come off. Opening my repair kit, containing an Allen wrench set, Phillips screwdriver, spare inner tube and a kit to quickly fix a flat, I pull out the Allen wrench. Flipping the bike upside down, I make the adjustment and test what I’ve done by turning the crank and shifting through the gears. No more clattering, it’s ready again.

The Durango area is considered a high desert because of its low humidity. In order to stay hydrated I have to constantly drink from the water bottles that are carried in holders on the bike’s frame. Walking my bike over to a set of thermoses, I refill them, get back on the bike and reenter the line of riders.

There is a line of tall cliffs marching along the left side of the road, and the first of the Needle Mountains, with their snow-capped, brilliantly white peaks, high into the air on our right.

I pass a couple riding next to each other. “And just think,” I shout cheerfully, “we paid someone to let us do this to ourselves.” They chuckle as I leave them behind.

From this point we have more hills to climb, but just as many downhill glides. Though the right side lane is closed for the riders, the inner lanes still have car traffic on them. We come to the Durango Mountain Ski Resort, the half-way point at about twenty-five miles. State Trooper cars block any further car traffic and the riders have the whole road, now only two lanes, to ourselves. We are all conditioned to hugging the right side of the road so this is kind of wasted.

The ski resort is at 8,879 feet above sea level. I have climbed two thousand and seventy-nine feet so far. As impressive as that sounds, it is only the start. The climb to the Coal Bank Pass is soon to start.

There is a downhill glide to where there is a swank condominium in a groove cut by a creek fed by the snow melt high above. There is a single spectator ringing his bell, congratulating us in our effort and then gleefully telling us that the work was about to start.

The next climb starts. Time to get both some long-lasting and quick energy into my ‘engine’–my legs, I decide as I pull off to the shoulder to refuel. Reaching into one of the special pockets on the lower area on the back of my jersey, I pull out a zip-lock that has sugar cubes, granola bars and a free sample of energy paste. As I send three cubes, a granola bar and the paste to my stomach, I catch my breath and let my muscles recover. Five minutes later I join the long line of riders in their climb to the first high mountain pass on the course.

Looking at my speedometer, I see that I’m at six miles per hour. Still, I slowly but surely pass quite a few others. Looking ahead, I see a long double line of riders winding up the road like a colorful serpent. It’s just like the line of gold seekers that dragged everything they had up to the Klondike gold fields.

It’s a long, arduous climb, and I never get above six miles per hour. After an hour of this, I hear cheering up ahead as the slope starts to flatten. Finally, the top of Coal Bank Pass. I come around a corner and see a flat section of road with the same mix of support personnel as was at the last rest stop.

I hear riders coming into the stop, cheering and telling each other how the worst is over. I stop with them and take a break, letting my leg muscles relax. I’ve driven this route before and I can’t believe they think this is the worst of it. It is about to get worse.

Coal Bank Pass is at 10,640 feet above sea level. I’ve now climbed a total of 6,005 feet and am 35 miles along the route. My legs are starting to turn to Jello.
From Coal Bank we have a downhill scream to below the 10,000 mark. The road goes into a gully that seems to be made of sand as it bottoms out and starts to climb again. There is no vegetation here. Damn! My legs are already burning and I’m exhausted. Yet there is this next climb to the Molas Divide. With a determination that I’ve only seldom been able to muster, I start climbing in the lowest gear again.

Two thirds of the way up, I note that I’ve dropped below five miles per hour and my legs just won’t give me any more. I pull off to the side of the road. There is another rider who follows my example. As I’m popping another three sugar cubes and a granola bar into my mouth, I look at him as I catch my breath. “All we’re getting from this is a T-shirt,” I say with a slight smile on my face. “It’s not worth killing ourselves for it.” He nods his head and starts to intake energy of his own choice. When we put our feet back into our pedal clips, I pass him and never see him again.

I once again hear cheering up ahead and know I’m nearing the top. This is truly the end of the climb, I tell myself. From here, it’s all downhill to Silverton and the finish line.

As I pull to the top, there is another professional photographer. Though I feel like crap, and my legs are on fire, I give him a smile.

I’m above the snow line, but the sun is warm and the temps are comfortable, I note after all the work. I stop to give my legs a last break.

Molas Divide is at 10,899 feet above sea level. It is the highest point of the ride. I have climbed a total of 6,644 feet and am 40 miles along the road from the start. There is still nearly three feet of snow on the countryside all around me. The nearby peaks are brilliantly white in comparison to the deep blue sky behind them. Ten more miles to go and it’s all downhill.

As with the other stops there is water and an ambulance with a team of EMTs in attendance. Here, I think, is where they are critical because here is where a rider that has bitten off more than they can chew is going to collapse. Nearby is a bus and a small freight truck. There is a time limit to for how long they can close the road, and a cut off time, after which, the officials will require you to leave the course and be taken down to Silverton on the bus. I look at my watch and murmur, “Good. I’m well ahead of that.” Echoing out of the Animas River canyon below, I hear the Iron Horse’s whistle and smile. I’m still ahead of it.

Pulling out my cellphone, I text Deb. All along she has been sending me encouragement this way. “I’m on top of Molas and will be down shortly.” She sends a smiley face in response.

Nearby there are riders pulling out the cool weather gear they started with and putting it back on. There is a lot of residual metabolic heat within me after all the climbing I’ve done. It doesn’t seem that cool up here, I think. I hop onto my bike, click my shoes into the clips and start the glide down to the finish line.

I haven’t gone far before the snow-covered shoulder seems to be zipping by. I am exhilarated by the feeling of speed after the hour after hour of slow climbing. “Forty miles per hour?” I whisper, looking at the speedometer. Just like any other time since my crash, this excitement quickly turns to concern. What if I get a flat tire, I ask myself. The tires on my bike are the typical thinness of a road bike. They have 100 pounds per square inch of air inside the inner tube. If the tire blows out, you are immediately riding on the aluminum rims, with very little control. Up ahead will be a section of road that winds in and out of the ravines that have been carved by the creeks from higher up. There is a cliff straight up on the left and a cliff straight down on the right. The highway is literally carved out of the side of the mountain. Not a good place to lose control, I decide, and I sit up straight, stick my knees out from the normal tuck close to the frame and try to catch as much air as I can. It’s called “air brakes” by the cycling crowd. I also start pumping my brakes.

Despite all these precautions, I still find that I can’t keep my speed under 45 miles per hour. Even so, there are many other riders that are passing me as if I am standing still. They must be going at least 55 miles per hour, I estimate with a shudder.

As worrisome as this kind of speed is on a bicycle, it is still fun leaning into the turns, feeling the wind on your face. My fears disappear. I am quickly reaching the bottom of the extreme downhill portion and the relatively flat, straight main street into Silverton is visible below. I note a speed limit sign. It tells me I shouldn’t be going over 25 miles per hour. “I wonder if there’s going to be a police officer at the bottom handing out speeding tickets,” I say to one of my fellow tour riders as I pass her. She chuckles.

I slow down as I approach the last switchback. The road levels off and I have to start pedaling again. Right away I find out why the others had put warm clothes on. My legs feel like they’re about to cramp, I think as the pain radiates upward. They have cooled off too quickly. Just keep on pedaling. Keep the muscles moving or you won’t finish the ride. I can see the finish line.

Silverton sits at 9,500 feet above sea level. I have ridden fifty miles. A half century to those that ride road bikes.

All along the street are spectators and riders that have already finished, ringing the cow bells and cheering me on. Despite the pain of near cramps in my legs, I am very pleased with myself. I see Deb with the video camera and wave as I ride by. A big smile is on my face as I see another of the professional photographers up ahead. I raise my hand and do a thumbs up as he snaps the picture. Later, when I look at the picture, I will see that he snapped it before I got that far.
I cross the finish line. It has taken me 4 hours and 33 minutes. The winner of the race did it two hours faster. My slowest speed was 5 miles per hour and my fastest was 48. Coming to a stop, I realize that I’ve been sitting on the bike for so long that I had to force my legs to straighten out so I wouldn’t just fall over.

Walking my bike to a nearby booth, I collect the T-shirt I have so arduously earned. Along with it, they hand me a medal indicating that I’m actually a finisher and not just a rider. Those that are brought in on the bus don’t receive it.

Deb meets me with a hug and kiss and, just a little less importantly, a couple of granola bars and sugar cubes. The ride has depleted all my blood sugar and with the dissipation of the adrenaline that the excitement has created, I’m now experiencing the normal let down. Still, like a runner who actually finishes the Boston Marathon, I am proud of the fact that I finished the ride.

I hear the loud whistle of the Iron Horse. Looking toward the mouth of the canyon the Animas River flows down into, I see a huge cloud of gray coal smoke mixed with white steam rising above the locomotive as it enters the city limits. I raise my hand above my head in a sign of victory. “I beat it! Me and my aluminum and carbon fiber pony beat the Iron Horse to Silverton!”