The road to destiny

It’s that time of year: the hills are turning green, and the illusive white stuff is slipping off the looming mountains, perhaps not to return until next fall. Colorado springtimes are notoriously flirtatious, playing hot and cold every other weekend, but many people are praying against snow (or for it, depending on how your training is going) on May 26.

Hopefully you have this marked on your calendar, because it’s a day that affects all Durangotangs – even if you aren’t wearing a number or spandex, or if are using the next two weeks as an excuse to carbo-load and take rest days. This is the day of the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic’s road race. The epitome of Durango. It’s not crowd pleasing like the criterium nor glamorous like the mountain bike race, but the road race has the glory, the views and, some years, the snow.

As a wee Durango gal, I thought that everyone raced in the Iron Horse. My parents did, as did their friends, and all us kids would get to hang out in Silverton for the day. We inevitably demanded undivided attention from our beleaguered parents who had just summited two mountain passes, because by the time they finally showed up, we were bored.

One of my most vivid memories is accompanying my aunt to Silverton to meet my father and uncle with clothes, food and a ride home. My uncle, who traveled from the East Coast, didn’t make it to the passes before the blizzard hit, and he was turned around. My father was one of the last lucky few to make it through. Lucky enough to be shaking with hypothermia by the time he reached the finish line.

He is tough as nails, and I don’t know if I’ve ever seen him as helpless as on that snowy day in Silverton trying to push his bike to the car, fumbling with frozen fingers at his helmet strap, trying to chew a soft Power Bar that to him could have been cement. He had chosen to race, had wanted to finish, and yet he was in pain.

Not every year is as challenging as that one, but in every race, for every rider, there exists the fight against the pain, against yourself, your better judgment. Inevitably, whether on a tedious three-hour training ride or 2 miles into the 6-mile long Coal Bank Pass on race day, you wonder: Why do I do this?

Everyone has a different reason, a different mountain to climb—though, yes, literally, all riders climb the same mountain. Figuratively speaking, no person can answer for another. When I was 15, not old enough to drive, I hopped off the couch and on my bike and rode the tour to Silverton. That year, I rode because my dad encouraged me, for pride, because I knew of no other girls my age riding. I didn’t train, but carried my fitness from my cross-country ski season. There’s not much I remember about that day; that it hurt, I guess, but also how it felt to finish.

The year following, I ran in the Narrow Gauge 10-mile run and swore that even though riding to Silverton took three times as long, it was a far superior feeling to pounding the pavement for an hour and a half. So the next year I raced to Silverton, trained with mediocre enthusiasm, PRed, and had trouble walking the next day. The last time I raced, four years later, I had a different reason—I was less fit, more determined, and grateful to be a part of the event. Four years in Montana had made me lonely for Durango and for the Iron Horse weekend.

Durango and the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic are synonymous to me, more than a metaphor, a unity that belongs to star-crossed lovers and Oedipal prophesies: one cannot exist without the other. Its history stems back to sibling rivalry and a biker-cowboy’s contempt for technology. And as Durango’s own mountain sub-culture existed and thrived even before Patagonia was trendy, the Iron Horse became a race for such local legends as Mike Elliott and Ned Overend to stretch their legs. It was not because Lance Armstrong made the Tour de France cool, nor because Lycra-loving sports surged in popularity, but because it was a part of Durango that the Iron Horse succeed.

Whether your training gets interrupted by the construction on CR 250, or you’re honking at athletes because they’re in your way; whether this is your first or 10th race, tour or Quarter Horse; or whether you’re going to put a sneaker to your kickstand Saturday morning, mount up in cargo shorts and cotton, and ride until the authorities tell you to turn around (thank God because Coal Bank doesn’t look so steep from a car), you are a part of the weekend, and the weekend is a part of home.

And although the cowboy hat-wearing city slickers storm Main Avenue in the summertime, locals know that our identity lies with Chaco sandals and Specialized mountain bikes, not Western boots and horses. The Iron Horse might not have enjoyed so much success in another town, and Durango wouldn’t be the same without its annual race of truth.

Here’s to a weekend in Durango of bikes, beer and, hopefully, mid-thigh sunburn.

– Maggie Casey