It all started with a bike, a train, two brothers and a candy bar.
Versions of the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic origin story have evolved over the years, like all great folklore. Facts get exaggerated and those involved become almost mythical as their stories are passed around. In 46 years, the story of the IHBC’s beginning has been orated numerous ways, but the founders haven’t forgotten the unpretentious idea that blossomed into a worldwide attraction.
The tale is of young Tom Mayer challenging his brother, Jim Mayer, to a race between Tom and his bicycle and Jim’s steam-powered locomotive on the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad line from Durango to Silverton. A bet was made between the sons of Joe and Mercedes Mayer as to who could make it to Silverton first. Tom won the bet.
It was that challenge that sparked the first IHBC a year later, as 36 cyclists set out for a race against the train in an event coordinated by Ed Zink, the longtime race director of the event. Tom rode in the first race, which was won by Olympic cross-country ski racer Mike Elliott.
The details of that initial challenge between the brothers have become the subject of great storytelling. But they remember it as a light-hearted moment. Sometime in the summer of 1971 – they don’t recall the exact date – Tom rode up to Jim’s house and told him he was going to Silverton the next day and that he would wave to Jim and see him in Silverton. Jim asked if he was going to try to beat the train, and Tom said he was. Jim, knowing the steep grades of Coal Bank and Molas passes and knowing the train tracks were 5 miles shorter than the road, told Tom he couldn’t beat the train. Tom was confident, and Jim asked what he wanted to bet on it, and Tom said a candy bar.
“I teased him and said, ‘Sure ya are, Tom,’” Jim said. “I got to Silverton, and by golly, there he was standing there up by where the engine pulls up by the arcade. I teased him again and said, “OK, Tom, whose truck did you ride in the back of. He said, ‘No, really, I just got here. I beat you guys.’ It was pretty neat, and I got him a Baby Ruth.”
Even then, the train run between the towns was about 3 hours, 30 minutes, as it is today.
“I keep seeing all these stories that say, ‘Oh, I went up every day and finally beat the train,’” Tom said. “No, that wasn’t it. I went up a few times and just loved that ride.”
‘One of my favorite rides’Tom didn’t bet Jim on a whim. He was cycling 100-mile rides on a regular basis in the late 1960s. Before his challenge to Jim, who was a brakeman on the train, Tom had completed a ride from Durango to Denver with a friend, and then back to Durango. Tom said he made the return trip in three days, and did the final 160 miles from Saguache to Jim’s house in Durango in one day, racing a storm from Del Norte over Wolf Creek Pass. The storm caught him and he got clobbered with rain, but he made it to Pagosa Springs by 3:30 p.m. He decided it was too early to quit and finished the ride back home. He did it on the same Schwinn bike he used to ride to Silverton. He still owns that bike and rode it in the 40th anniversary of the IHBC in 2011, and he will ride it again Saturday at the 46th IHBC.
“One thing that annoys me on the stories that have been created over the years,” Tom said, “is that it sounds like I’m just some kid who got on an old steel bike and rode to Silverton. That was a 1968 Schwinn Paramount, and I’m still riding that bike this year. I’ve given up a few of the original things like the Brooks Pro saddle to save some weight, but the bike still looks great and rides like a dream. I’ve done close to 100,000 miles on the road, and most of those miles are on that bike.”
Tom, now 68, was obsessed with bikes as a young man. Before he graduated Durango High School in 1967, he was constantly tinkering with bikes. He began riding dirt trails in 1963 and developed his own version of a mountain bike well before its invention. He had a slew of bike frames his father, Joe, brought back from a bike shop in California operated by Tom and Jim’s older brother, Bill, who now lives in Durango.
Tom developed his own 120-speed bike on a Western Auto Bicycle frame and said he once got it over 65 mph coming down old Shalona Hill. He recalls wearing blue jeans and hiking boots and no shirt and eventually doing cartwheels down the hill when the bike couldn’t handle the speed. He was 15.
“Going to Silverton was one of my favorite rides,” Tom said. “When it came to trying to beat the train, I had been putting together average speeds, I had been running in training rides and calculating that out the whole way to Silverton. I knew I would have to work a little harder than I wanted to, but I thought I could beat it.
“When Jim’s train came by our place at Honeyville, I waved to him and took off. I got into Silverton about 10 minutes before they got in there, and Jim came walking up the street and told me he owed me that candy bar.”
By 1972, the first year of the IHBC, Tom had moved to Albuquerque. But he made sure to be in Durango for the first official IHBC race, when he finally did the ride to Silverton with a group of people. By 1977, Tom totally turned his attention to dirt trails and mountain biking and said he preferred to avoid the big crowds the IHBC quickly began to draw. He’s ridden more than 100,000 miles on dirt, too, and has spent a good deal of his life mapping trails on his website, abundantadventures.com. Tom, who was always fascinated by science, took a job in Albuquerque working at Sandia Labs developing satellites.
Jim continued to work the train.
‘It turned out to be a career’Jim, now 71, started working on the train when he was 18 after graduating Durango High in 1963. The railroad was becoming more popular with tourists, and at the time, there was only one train running from Durango to Silverton. The railroad decided to start a second train and hired a second crew. Jim heard about the opportunity and was hired as brakeman.
“It turned out to be a career,” he said.
Jim worked the line from 1963 to 1983, even after it was sold March 25, 1981. The train didn’t run in the winter then, and Jim was working in management. The new owner asked him to hire a crew and run the train, and he did that until 1983, when he moved to Denver. Jim retired with Union Pacific a couple of years ago.
Jim was never much of a cyclist. He remembers getting a bike when he was a kid and giving it to Tom. He’s never raced.
Jim has had a laugh or two about the story of the IHBC and his role in the matter.
“In some early years, they had me portrayed as Casey Jones and that I was riding the engine,” Jim said. “I really got quite a billing. In reality, I was on the train that day taking care of the people.”
Though he says he played a small part, he admires what his brother’s idea has created. This year, as he did in 2011, Jim will again ride the train to Silverton while Tom tries to beat him there. Also racing the train will be Jim’s daughter, Melissa, her husband, Chris Wherry, and Jim’s grandson, Nathaniel.
“It’s an incredible story because of one person’s quest for being really good at something,” Jim said. “Bicycle riding was Tom’s forte as well as other scientific things. He moved to Albuquerque and worked in the labs on lunar modules and robotic machines that have gone to the moon and Mars. It started with his tinkering with bikes. It’s something he’s done all his life.
“In the ’60s, there wasn’t a movement like this. When you fast-forward and see what’s happened in areas like Durango and Moab and other places where all the bicyclists continue to race and ride, it’s incredible. I never would’ve thought his challenge to me would result in something this big. It’s an incredible legend.”