Saturday May 26 I rode the Iron Horse from Durango to Silverton Colorado… This was my first big race on the uni and I wanted to give myself plenty of time to finish ahead of the cutoffs. The organizers, along with the Colorado State Patrol, for the first time adhered to strict cutoffs at the top of the two big passes, 12:00 and 12:40 for the Coal Bank and Molas Passes. For those unfamiliar with the Iron Horse, check previous postings (Aspen Mike and Tom Miller) but briefly it is a 50 mile cycle race (2,500 bikes this year!) that allows unicycles. It climbs two high passes for nearly 6,000 feet of elevation gain over its course.
I picked up my first uni from craig’s list for $40 in September, 2006. I had heard that uni is great for core strengthening and low impact athleticism. I was always a trail runner and mountain-biker but I injured my back and kept re-injuring it. There was a time not long ago when I wouldn’t walk my 2 year-old around the block because I wasn’t sure I would make it! I had spinal surgery in the spring of 2005 to repair a blown disk and clean up bone fragments stuck in my nerve. Using alpine ski poles at first, I took to unicycling fast and quickly graduated to the big wheel. Bill Manning, formerly of Durango, helped me to set up my coker initially and I have been riding every chance I can get, commuting the 20 miles to and from work and training on the 1,800 ft Lookout Mountain in our town. I am also an enthusiastic but novice muni rider.
On the day of the race I left around 6:45 from a friend’s house who lives in downtown Durango. There were several bike riders, my wife and other friends who saw me off after I stuffed my face with French toast drained lots of coffee. I hopped up on the uni, I did one quick circle around the street and was off. The first 12 miles of the race are nearly flat. Thanks to PDC I have these great adjustable KOOKA cranks that allowed me to pedal on 125s for this section. However, I was frustrated by a strong headwind and what seemed like a fairly significant road wane to the right. The highway was to close about 25 miles into the race, but for the first 10 miles there was considerable traffic and I stuck to the right shoulder which spilled toward the river to my right. For the first ten miles I was cramping from too much French toast, my back was tweaking from trying to right the road wane and the head wind was really getting me down. Bikes passed me fairly regularly and I don’t recall catching a single one on the flats. I wasn’t feeling too confident at this point. However, there were lots of supportive honks from cars and Durangoites clanging horse bells and cheering me on. My wife drove by and took some picture pictures on her way to Silverton.
I cleared the first ten miles in nearly an hour. That was disappointing because I was hoping to ride quite a bit faster on the flats. I put my head down and focused on increasing my cadence. The wind had died down considerably and it felt like I was going faster, when suddenly the road swung to the left and there was the first hill. The bikes had slowed down and for the first time I was able to catch one, then several. The hill had come upon me so fast I hadn’t time to think about when to change my crank settings. I prefer climbing and descending steeps on long 170 mm cranks, but the 125s were still feeling pretty good. I was psyched to finally be climbing! I rode the short cranks as fast as I could until I started to ache on the top of my thighs. After about a mile I could see that the hill was not ending any time soon and was just getting steeper. I jumped over the guardrail and changed my cranks out. All the people I had passed now were passing me for a 2nd time. I wrenched down the pedals and lowered my seat height as fast as I could. 3 minutes later I was ready to go. I had to jump up perpendicular to the mountain because of the steepness. I wobbled out into the highway trying to adjust to the new crank length. Finally I pulled it together and settled into the shoulder again. The road wane was gone as the road climbed the slope. The 170s felt fast and I settled into a rhythm as I gained some momentum.
I began passing the same bikes again and several comments, mostly encouraging, came from the other cyclists. Several lamented the fact that “the unicycle” was passing them again. The next 15 miles were a series of climbs and flats. The scrub pine and sage of Durango turned to ponderosa, fir and aspen trees. The chill of the morning turned warm as the sun rose higher. The landscape widened and the snow-capped peaks of the San Juan’s became visible. Horses frolicked in pastures beside the highway. The beauty took my mind off the anxiety of the race.
The valley opened up at Durango Mountian Resort, formerly the Purgatory ski area, around mile 28. I passed by the first aid station and kept sipping some energy drink from my hydropack. I could see the roadblock ahead and I was eager to have no traffic. I was feeling some strain in my legs but still I was eager to climb. I past the State Patrol beside wooden barriers and the road took a sharp hairpin turn to the right. The infamous Coal Bank Pass came into view. For the first mile of the climb I scouted out a good place to pee. I jumped off and shook my legs out for the second time. I was definitely feeling some strain but I was ready to get back on. Coal Bank is 7 miles of fairly consistent grade. I knew it was the hardest part of the race. I wobbled to another uphill free mount and began to focus on passing bike after bike. Every so often packs of racers would stream by, but I mostly passed by the bikes, often for the 5th or 6th time that day. Many made comments like, “the unicycle is going to beat us…I won’t tell if you won’t” and “fucking shit, dude.” Thankfully there were only a couple “lost wheel” jokes.
My goal on Coal Bank was simply not to stop. I kept telling myself that maybe I won’t finish the whole race but I wasn’t going to stop on this pass. Soon I passed the “Coal Bank Summit 4 miles” sign. I kept pushing. Finally the landscape flattened out and I could see the top of the pass. I put my head down and kicked it into overdrive. I finally knew I would make it and that gave me a boost of energy.
After some Gatorade, ½ a banana and a quick breather I was off again. Three miles of screaming downhill seemed a great break from climbing. I don’t use a break but I have found recently that if I clamp hard on my seat handle I can spin a lot faster. The 170 mm give me lots of control on the steeps. I camped out on the far left so bikes could have the whole right lane and them some. They were hitting crazy speeds whizzing by while I was spinning as fast as possible but crawling in comparison. I was, however, having was a blast. The sky was that bright Colorado blue, no wind to speak of and the recent snows sparkled off the peaks in every direction. I was finally confident of success. The first looming climb of Molas Pass came into view. My legs ached initially as I transitioned again into climbing mode, but soon I fell into that familiar momentum. Up I went. Soon I came to a couple encouraging riders with “only one more mile of climbing.” I knew I was almost there.
Molas Pass is ridiculously scenic. There is a clear blue lake surrounded by a circle of 13 & 14,000 foot peaks. There were a few people at the top cheering. I was elated and I kept on pedaling. The remaining 6 miles were down hill. I cruised through what almost felt like a victory lap. Soon I could see the small mining town of Silverton in the distance. I pedaled furiously trying to make it down as fast as possible. Right before the entrance to Silverton my next-door neighbors caught me on their bikes. The timing was perfect as we entered the main drag of Silverton together. The streets were lined with hundreds of people and they were cheering wildly. I came in at 4 hours and 40 minutes. I felt great. Later in the crowd Tom Miller of Dolores found me and introduced himself. He had completed the race on a Uni in 2006. He suggested we get a crew of people together for next year. I say great. It was an awesome day and a great ride! I am looking into the Mount Evan’s climb in July…anybody else??