Fear and loathing on the road to Silverton

(Disclaimer: Correct application of the following five cycling maxims is guaranteed to beat the train to Silverton and even successfully generate race times in the neighborhood of three hours. Results vary depending on the cyclist’s threshold for pain, tolerance for alcoholic beverages and length of leg and body hair.)

1-Suffering. Any road rider worth his/her salt knows that tolerance for pain is the Holy Grail of cycling. Riding does offer a few, lucid moments – descents that create the sensation of flying, ascents where the ass isn’t completely dragging – but they are only the punctuation marks. All the letters in between are tied directly to suffering. Truth is, pulling your body up steep inclines at high altitudes requires superhuman effort, and even Lance Armstrong and company occasionally feel like the chub in the Dunkin Donuts commercial. Bottom of Alpe d’Huez – “Time to make the donuts.” First day in the Pyrenees – “Time to make the donuts.” (Interesting side note: With carbon fiber tubing, Italian componentry and the perfect cocktail of energy powders, gels and pellets, the Dunkin Donuts guy can also feel like Armstrong. Be warned. The sensation is brief and then it’s a big fall back to the deep-fat fryers.) So whether or not you’ve worked at Dunkin Donuts, experimented with the product or have something resembling a donut around your waist, you should know that the 48 miles of asphalt between Durango and Silverton provide the perfect theater to explore the art of suffering. Think the Spanish Inquisition only charged with technological marvels like high-voltage electricity and psychotropic truth serum.

2-Training. For many lovers of the two-wheeled trade, this is a dirty word. However, the key to surviving and even enjoying the aforementioned session with the Grand Inquisitor is ample time in the saddle. Legend holds that racers in some of Belgium’s cobbled classics have posted diameter and density records for their saddle sores. For those who have not experienced the saddle-sore phenomenon, see No. 1 (These little babies are no joke. Overly dedicated riders have been known to undergo surgical removal of the painful polyps). Those of us still living as host organisms for our little friends need to put a serious polish on them, and take it from me, Carhartt canvas atop a bony bike seat is not the answer. In the immortal words of cycling god Eddy Merckx, “Ride lots.” Start by pedaling a bunch of miles. When you finish, ride more, lance your sores and start over again. Tired of riding, keep going. If you’re lucky, you and your riding buddy might score the two-for-one deal on the aforementioned surgery. Once the little devils have been removed and sent off to the lab for testing, consider a taper program. I can tell you first-hand that a week-long river trip, complete with high-dollar tequila, cans of imported beer, late-night Volkswagen-sized fireballs and morning-after Bloody Marys will accomplish this goal admirably. Just don’t be too attached to that fabled podium spot. Finishing the race is your new goal.

3-The course. There are three words that strike abject fear and terror into the heart of Durango cyclists. (No, they’re not “brand-new recumbent,” “blind bus driver” or “dull razor blade.”) “Coal Bank Pass” is the Hillary Step of the ride to Silverton. The Hors Catégorie of local road riding, it’s long (8 miles by my count), steep (I know it’s not 10 percent, but let’s skip the humiliation) and loaded with peril (potholes and rabid fans at the bottom, large puddles of slightly digested Cytomax and GU at the top). Coal Bank is also one of the few places in the greater Milky Way where linear time ceases to exist. Your ascent may take 40 minutes, but years of being plied with thumbscrews, water drips and lashes actually pass. Great spoked heroes have gone on to careers in insurance following defeat on Coal Bank, and young riders have voluntarily entered berths at Sunshine Gardens West after cresting the nearly 11,000-foot pass. With these factors in mind, a support crew can help fill this desperate place with a few rays of hope. Strategically place a handful of friends along the lead-up to the pass, and remember, words of encouragement are for pansies. Have them shout something like, “Way to go Willard!” or “Pick it up Wilbur, the gray hairs are right behind you.” Above all, these little jabs will motivate your sorry ass up the hill. They’ll also make you especially grateful for the stranger near the top of Molas Pass – the guy clutching a religious text and looking at you with tears in his eyes, who says, “Come on buddy, dig deep. Just hang on for 100 more yards. The medical tent is right on the other side of the hill.”

4-The fellow rider. Let’s face it, road riders are a strange breed. And the bizarre is always amplified by close contact. The same guys who refuse to wave to you on the road prior to the race become very communicative the day of. Huddled together in a tight pack, the chummy interplay is constant. “Get back! You just bumped my wheel,” “Hey slug! Your turn to take a pull,” and “Who in the hell is wearing cologne?!” are just a few of the friendly repartees that can be heard en route to Silverton. If you tire of lively conversation, I suggest going it alone. Jumping from group to group, a rider can successfully navigate the entire racecourse and score ample drafting. There is one piece of advice to consider, however. Given the Iron Horse’s two faces – people racing the clock and people racing the train – there are quite a few decoys littering the road. Some people are so determined to arrive in Silverton before the coal smoke that they climb in the saddle at 5 a.m. Others have been known to turn the Iron Horse into a two-day jaunt, setting camp at Cascade Creek and partying the night away with the Marzocchi girls while the rest of us lay awake, tossing, turning and applying ointment to the little devils mentioned in No. 2. As a result, that yellow jersey you’ve been using to pace yourself for the last half hour may be deceiving. I personally followed such a jersey at a close distance for nearly a mile last year. After watching a dozen wheels jet pass, I reconsidered and made a move. What I found was not a svelte rider with podium aspirations but a cheery, old St. Nick wearing flip-flops and riding a Dahon folding bike complete with a luggage rack. The biggest, unexpected challenge of my day was actually passing that Dahon and the six large cans of Murphy’s Irish Stout riding on said rack.

5-The finish line. There’s a good reason there’s not a big rager in Silverton following the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic. Sitting around with 2,000 other dazed people and collectively staring out into space only flies at select all-day festivals and the Rainbow Gathering. Unless you’re planning on waiting for the six-pack of Murphys to arrive, make other plans or head for an establishment in Silverton that serves suds and meat. I chose to plan ahead, and the vision of my wife and daughter waiting at the finish line equipped with cold IPA and a tenderloin sandwich may have been the most memorable of my recent journey to higher ground. While others pounded recovery drinks and snorted protein powder, I had a big hit of Vitamin B2 – beef and barley – and lived the marriage vow of “in sickness and in health.” Yep, my medals in Silverton came in the form of a crystal chalice filled with bubbling elixir and a large medallion of USDA Prime, and the suffering, the training, Coal Bank Pass and the close company were all well worth it. Unfortunately, time atop my personal podium was pretty short-lived. After taking down the final gulp and swallow of each, I glanced into the rear-view. Staring back at me was that little mustached guy of early 1980s television fame.

“I gotta go,” I said to my wife as I got out of the car and climbed back on the bike. “I can’t believe it, but it’s already time to make the donuts again.”

– Will Sands