Four decades on the Horse
IHBC grows from upstart to ‘classic’

SideStory: Fattening up the Iron Horse: Mountain bike race return

The pack works its way up Shalona Hill during the Iron Horse in 1977. The first official running of the race went off in 1972 and included just 36 racers. This Saturday, 2,500 riders will make the trek between Durango and Silverton. /Courtesy photo

by Will Sands

Every Durangoan knows a version of the local legend.

The most popular tale goes something like this: It was back in 1971 and two brothers – avid cyclist Tom and his older brother Jim – squared off in a most unusual duel. Tom challenged his older sibling, a brakeman on what was then the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad, to a race from Durango to Silverton. In the end, man won out over machine, Tom enjoyed his winnings (a candy bar) and the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic was born.

“That story has been repeated so often that it’s now assumed as fact,” said Tom Mayer, a 62-year-old scientist living in Albuquerque. “What most people don’t know is the real reason we started the race.”

According to Mayer, he and Jim did duel along the highway between Durango and Silverton and he did win that contest between bicycle and locomotive. However, there’s also more to the story.

“Back in 1971, I was doing a century (100-mile ride) nearly every week, and I loved riding the road between my house at Honeyville and Silverton,” Mayer said. “The scenery and challenge are unbeatable, but for some reason I could never get anyone to join me on those rides. I figured the best way to share that incredible ride was to start a race.”

So Mayer started going through the channels and trying to organize a bike race. Unfortunately, he hit a major roadblock right out of the gate. “I went to the Colorado State Patrol and asked what it would take to run a race between Durango and Silverton,” he said. “They immediately told me ‘no way.’ The state patrol didn’t believe people could actually ride over the passes and make it into Silverton on bicycles.”

At that desperate moment, Mayer picked up help from a familiar source. Ed Zink, longtime cycling advocate and now the owner of Mountain Bike Specialists, took the race under his wing.

“Ed knew how to sell it and got the state patrol to sign off on it,” Mayer said. “If it hadn’t been for Ed’s help, the Iron Horse would have never happened."

Approvals in place, the inaugural Iron Horse was set for the spring of 1972. In the weeks before the race, Mayer went door-to-door in Silverton and asked merchants to donate prizes (Donations from Durango merchants were less than forthcoming).

“The only prize that was even remotely related to cycling was a metal sculpture of a penny farthing from a shop up in Silverton,” Mayer said. “It became our first prize trophy, and I bet Mike Elliott’s still got it somewhere in his house.”

Elliott, a longtime Durangoan and three-time Olympian, was one of just 36 riders to race in that first year. Only five of those starters beat the train to Silverton in what was not one of the smoother editions of the race.

Riders slip ahead of the train during one of the race’s early editions./Courtesy photo

“A mud slide shut down the road for an hour that year, and as racers, we had to just sit and wait,” Mayer said. “But the train had trouble as well. Someone went out and greased the tracks at the bottom of Shalona hill the night before, and the train had to make a second run at it.”

Four decades later, Tom and Jim Mayer are also going to make a second run at it. In honor of the 40th anniversary, the brothers will again race from Durango to Silverton this Saturday, Jim inside the locomotive and Tom atop the same Schwinn Paramount that he rode and won the original challenge on back in 1971.

“It’s no longer a 10-speed; my knees can’t do that any more,” Mayer said. “But I thought it would only be appropriate to ride the original frame in tribute.”

Looking back to the time when that Paramount was nearly new, Mayer would have never imagined that he’d be joining 2,500 other riders in the 40th annual edition of the race he helped to start. However, the Iron Horse’s success is undeniable. The Citizens Race now sells out in a matter of weeks, and last fall the crew at Outside Magazine added the race to its annual Life List. “Beat the Train” cracked the “bucket list” of 51 “dream trips and daring quests” at No. 33 alongside accomplishments like climbing the Grand Teton and riding l’Alpe d’Huez.

Numerous factors have contributed to the Iron Horse’s success and longevity, according to Gaige Sippy, director of the IHBC. However, much of it comes back to that first race between a bicycle and a locomotive.

“Everyone likes the idea of riding between Durango and Silverton,” he said. “But I don’t think the race would have endured if we didn’t have a train to race. It’s a big motivator for the citizen racers, and they are far and away this race’s bread and butter.”

Outstanding community support and a willingness to change and adapt with the times have been two of the race’s other strong suits, according to Sippy. “The Iron Horse has always adjusted to where we’re at with cycling,” he said. “The criterium has come and gone. The mountain bike race went away and is back this year. And believe it or not, bike polo was an Iron Horse fixture back in the 1970s.”

Like Mayer, Sippy was a regular rider of the Iron Horse before he assumed its helm in 2006. While he misses suiting up, running such an ambitious bike race year in and out is gratifying enough.

“I did sneak in and ride it last year,” Sippy confessed. “But it’s been great for a guy who’s raced bicycles for 20 years to see the other side of it. And pulling off a successful Iron Horse is always a big reward.”

Mayer also plans on pulling off a successful Iron Horse this year. Though his legs are 40 years older and he does nearly all of his riding on a mountain bike these days, he plans on beating the train and his brother to Silverton on Saturday.

“I’ve had a few injuries this year and my legs aren’t quite where they should be, but I’m not worried about the distance,” Mayer said. “I’ve also told Jim that we should make it fair this time. I’ll ride from Durango to Silverton. He can sign on with the train as a fireman and shovel coal into the train’s firebox the entire way.” •

Courtesy photo



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