DURANGO, Colo. — Can you imagine racing your bicycle against a train?
Improbable as it may seem, that's exactly what some of the best bicycle racers from around the country do when they converge here every Memorial Day weekend to compete against the Iron Horse, otherwise known as the Durango-to-Silverton train.
Even more improbable is that, since the earliest days of the race in 1972, the best bike riders have consistently beaten the 3 1/2-hour pace of the lumbering, coal-fired Iron Horse.
Pure competition is the lure for some, while a chance to gain United States Cycling Assn. points, which determine pros' national rankings, draws others. Some even take home a few bucks.
The Iron Horse Bicycle Classic has come a long way since it began 16 years ago with 35 racers. Today nearly 1,000 riders are split into seven categories in a staggered start. The race is considered by many bikers to be one of the two premier hill climbs in the United States.
"Mt. Evans (also in Colorado) is the other one," says Iron Horse referee Dean Crandall, "but it's only 29 miles."
Cover 50 Miles
Iron Horse competitors cover 50 miles, starting in Durango at 6,523 feet and ending in Silverton at 9,032 feet, climbing over two 10,000-foot passes along the way.
The objective is to finish with a faster time than the train, a 100-year-old steam model, one of the last of its type.
When it's not racing bike riders, the narrow gauge ferries tourists through ruggedly beautiful terrain.
The Iron Horse race touches off a three-day weekend featuring six bicycling events that attracted 1,650 riders last year.
It signals the return of summer to this southwestern Colorado town that is quickly becoming a mecca for competitive and recreational bike riders.
Durango already is the off-road biking capital of the United States, with the National Off-Road Biking Assn. championships held here every September.
Now, with the Iron Horse race established and attracting top riders including members of the U.S. Olympic team, Durango's eminence in the cycling world is assured.
It's tricky watching the 50-mile road race unless you play leapfrog in a car. Pass a pack of riders on the narrow mountain road when possible, drive ahead, get out to watch the bikes spin past, then drive after them again.
There is also plenty to see at the predawn race headquarters in the parking lot of Durango's Iron Horse Motel.
There the first wave of about 150 riders prep for their 7 a.m. start. You can focus on all these skinny bike racers in sleek nylon outfits who look at this early hour like so many helmeted extraterrestrials with abnormally large leg muscles.
Riders fidget with exotic equipment, take bikes down from car-top roof racks, pump tires, test tension chains or toe clips, zip on elf-like waterproof booties and ride around in tight little circles for practice.
Plenty of Pasta
Others perform stretch exercises in the back of open station wagons or hunt for bananas to stash in waist packs. One of the pre-race traditions is a carbohydrate-loading, all-you-can-eat pasta dinner the night before the race.
It is hard to believe that these skeletal creatures are the same you saw shoveling down overflowing platefuls of spaghetti a scant 12 hours earlier.
This is not a crowd of gum-chewing preteens on choppers in tennis shoes. These men and women are lean and serious.
Out-of-state license plates come from neighbors Utah, Arizona and New Mexico, and from farther away California, Nevada, Oregon, Minnesota, Michigan and Texas.
"They know they can't win it," Crandall says, "but the long hills and high passes are a real challenge. The first pass is tough. The second is a killer, peaking six miles from the finish, with a six-mile downhill run from there at 55 to 60 m.p.h. A lot of racers sprint to the finish."
Although the first 18 miles are relatively flat, some steep grades precede the approach to 10,640-foot Coal Bank Pass at mile 36. Mile 44 is reached at the top of 10,900-foot Molas Pass, before a rapid, serpentine downhill into the tiny mining town of Silverton.
The ceremonial starting time of the race is actually 1 1/2 hours after the early rising racers push off. Men and women pros start with the 8:30 a.m. train from a parking lot next to the Victorian railway station.
Looking into a sea of bicycles mounted by riders in colorful race clothing, the air around the racers is expectant and serious, with little chatter and few smiling faces. This is in contrast to the train passengers, who wave out the windows, hooting and laughing.
The orange-and-black train cars are decked out with banners, and flags decorate the ancient engine as it snorts smoke and cinders, lurching to life with crunching squeaks and the gnashing of metal wheels on the downtown tracks.
Several thousand viewers line the opening parade route as hundreds of racers are led slowly down a main thoroughfare by an official pace car as the train picks up speed on a parallel course, half a block away.
Converge at Intersection