Fifty miles. Thousands of feet of elevation. One race and one train.
Cyclists from all over the world will descend on Southwest Colorado this weekend to race in the 48th annual Iron Horse Bicycle Classic. Hundreds of riders are planning to put their feet on bicycle pedals Saturday morning. They’ll push off from the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad depot at the whistle of a locomotive as it chugs down the tracks. Some will race the train, some will race each other, some will be happy just to make it to Silverton.
Some have been training for months, others do it to overcome life challenges. Whatever the reason, it takes endurance, willpower and guts to complete the Iron Horse.
Benjamin and Bruce Andrea Needham Elementary School third grader Benjamin Andrea, 9, will be riding his first Iron Horse Bicycle Classic on Saturday, right behind his dad – on a tandem bike.
Benjamin plans to go all the way.
No pressure, dad.
“I just really want to beat the train,” Benjamin said.
Benjamin was inspired to compete after watching riders cross the finish line last year in Silverton, said his father, Bruce Andrea. Benjamin also loves cycling in general.
“I mostly like the fact that it’s exercise and you can go really fast. ... (I) also like the fact that it’s environmentally safe,” Benjamin said.
The father and son duo considered riding in the Quarter Horse. But Benjamin saw it was the same price to ride all the way to Silverton, so he made the argument for Silverton, Bruce said.
The two have been training together on long rides. Bruce said he is confident they will make it.
But Bruce will have to manage serious challenges, including controlling the momentum of the bike down steep descents, he said.
The two are riding for Mercy Health Foundation’s Heart and Vascular Campaign to improve cardiac diagnostics and treatments. As the son of a cardiologist, Benjamin appreciates heart health.
“Being active in general is good for your heart, and it keeps blood pumping and raises your heart beat,” he said.
Timi Jo Sachs
Over four years, Timi Jo Sachs’ mom, dad, brother, sister-in-law, two close friends and her daughter’s stepmother all died. Cycling helped her cope with the loss and taught her skills she will put to the test Saturday in the 50-mile ride from Durango to Silverton.
Last year, Sachs learned one of her friends intended to ride across the country, and at first, Sachs thought her friend was crazy. But then, she couldn’t get the idea out of her head. She learned from her counselor that it’s a common desire to take a pilgrimage after a great loss, but that most people don’t go, she said.
“I decided I wasn’t going to be most people,” she said.
On April 22, she finished a 52-day trek across the country in St. Augustine, Florida. It was a tough journey, in horrible weather. But she found the more physical pain she endured, the more emotional pain she released.
“I remember riding up a hill in the rain in freezing temperatures just kind of screaming and shouting, ‘Why!’ and crying,” she said. At other moments, she could feel the presence of those she lost.
While she now considers herself a cyclist, she is nervous about the IHBC because of the weather and the elevation gain. She has often thought people riding down the mountain into Silverton are crazy, but now she’s going to be among them, she said.
“I’m freaked out,” she said.
Some people might think Joe Williams is crazy. How can a man with movement in just half his body complete the grueling IHBC? Well, if you ask him, it’s all because of Richie Fletcher.
Williams has Parkinson’s disease, a central nervous system disorder that restricts movement and gets worse over time. But Williams said he wouldn’t let his condition hinder his ability and sought training. That’s where Fletcher comes in.
Fletcher helped Williams build the physical toughness required to complete the IHBC by empowering him with the mental fortitude needed to push himself to the limit, Williams said. The two met about six years ago when Williams first committed to racing the D&SNG from Durango to Silverton.
Williams and Fletcher now ride thousands of miles together each year. They are part of a team called “Go Joe Go,” and Williams was featured on CNN two years ago for the work they do to raise money through their ride to benefit the Davis Phinney Foundation and its work to ensure people with Parkinson’s disease live healthy lives.
Kay Levesque, a human resource specialist at Mercy Regional Medical Center, said this year will be her first attempt at the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic. But it’s not her first rodeo racing bikes.
Levesque said she used to compete in mountain and road bike races, as well as cyclocross. But now, those days are behind her, and she likes to think of herself as an “aging expert” when it comes to getting ready for competitions.
“I have to lower my expectations,” she said. “I’m not as fast as I once was.”
Levesque said she’s gone on some long rides this year to prepare for the Iron Horse, including two trips up to Coal Bank Pass. She’s not looking to beat the D&SNG to Silverton, she said. Instead, she’d like to make the 50-mile trip over two mountain passes in 4½ hours, and in the best case scenario, closer to 4 hours.
While she may not be looking forward to the chilly temperatures early Saturday, Levesque said she wants to ride the Iron Horse this year to help raise money for Mercy Health Foundation’s Heart and Vascular Campaign.
“It’s just a really good cause,” she said. “And I just really appreciate the opportunity to do a big event like this and have the road closed, and to promote cycling.”
Dan Bittle, 30, took up road cycling three years ago, about the same time his daughter, Ada, was born.
Ada arrived two months early. Her mother, Hannah Bittle, and father had to take a Flight for Life trip from Durango to Denver for the delivery. She was born May 4, 2016, and is now a healthy 3-year-old who also rides a bike.
“She’s awesome,” Dan Bittle said. “She’s just like every other 3-year-old – runs, plays, talks. I would say there are no side-effects.”
This year, Bittle will ride with the Durango Derailers, a group of about 42 riders who raised $300 each to ride in this year’s IHBC from Durango to Silverton. The money will be used to help families who have pediatric emergencies and reoccurring trips to Children’s Hospital in Denver pay for gas, food and lodging.
“For me, it’s very passionate to help the Derailers,” Bittle said. “There are a lot of families out there who are not as lucky who have to have reoccurring trips to Denver. I can only image the stress.”
Bittle is relatively new to cycling, but he loves it.
“I think it’s something about being out there on the trails or the open roads. When you’re riding with people, everyone shares a passion for knowing numbers, knowing your data, knowing your speed and pushing yourself to that next level that only you can push yourself to.
“I enjoy the solitude. I love the challenge that it presents, climbing over passes.”