The ride to hell and back


Whoever said the road to hell is paved with good intentions was clearly a participant in Durango’s Quarter Horse bicycle race.

Every Memorial Day weekend, Durango hosts its annual series of cycling events, most notably the Iron Horse challenge, a 50 mile road race over two monstrous mountain passes pitting cyclists against a steam engine locomotive. The Quarter Horse is an “easier” challenge, taking riders halfway along the route for 25 miles to Durango Mountain Resort (also known as “Purgatory,” and for good reason).

The man-friend (who is a psycho cyclist) has been wanting to do the Iron Horse. I only recently got into cycling, having purchased a road bike for my birthday in November and maybe taking in a short ride every few weekends. But I like to challenge torment myself, so I signed up for the ride thinking it would be no big deal.

In hindsight, it wasn’t all that bad. Especially considering it was my first cycling event ever. But if you had asked me how I was feeling during the event, I would’ve probably given you a wicked side eye and maybe thrown my helmet at you.

Both rides start in Downtown Durango at the Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad Station…

//Side note: the Iron Horse is really neat because hundreds of bike riders are lined up at the train station waiting for the train’s whistle to sound off the start of the race. If you’re ever in town during Memorial Day weekend and aren’t much of a bike-nut, you can even purchase tickets to ride the train and “race” the cyclists all the way to Silverton. On any given day the train ride is a must and I highly recommend it.//

… Originally, the plan was to check out of the resort (we stayed overnight at Purgatory) early in the morning, drive into town and have a light yet energizing breakfast before the races. That didn’t exactly work out. The detour into town took a lot longer than expected, so we resorted to a quick cup of coffee (which I didn’t get to finish) about five minutes before the start. If you know me, you know I have a tendency to get hangry, which is made even worse when I don’t have enough coffee at the start of my day.

To make the day even more interesting, I got a late start to my ride because I had to make an ATM run across town to get cash for transportation from the finish line back to my car so that I could pick up SO in Silverton. I made the mistake of asking a mother cyclist who was tending to her child cyclist who was throwing some kind of fit whether or not the race had started. I guessed she hadn’t had her fill of coffee that morning either.

In an effort to catch up with the pack, I sped off behind an escort police vehicle, hoping that he wouldn’t a) slam on his brakes and 2) ticket me for tailgating a cop. Luckily, I caught up no problem. I just couldn’t tell you where I fell in the order of riders.

GAV_1513 copyEverything was going smoothly. In fact, a little too smoothly. I even passed up on the first aid station because I was so confident I had this ride in the bag. Then my pride was shattered when I began the climb.

For the next two hours, I would be pedaling up 2,300 feet to the finish line. It’s not a steep climb, just a steady and long one. Halfway up the first hill, I was ready to die. My speed was reduced to a snail’s pace as I pressed all my weight on each of my legs, burning in places I never knew existed. Surely, this is what hell is like, I thought to myself between desperate gasps for the thin air around me. And there’s nothing more humbling than seeing the 10 year olds and grandmas you passed a quarter mile ago pressing ahead of you without breaking a sweat.

There were two aid stations on my ride and seeing as how I mistakenly passed up on fuel the first time around, my body was not going to let me skip this one. Mother Nature was even telling me to take a break because as soon as I pulled over and stumbled off my bike, the wind picked up and clouds began to pellet hail at me as I rushed under the tent. Because I’m a smart one, I left my jacket in the car and left my bare arms and ears exposed to the chilling elements. I didn’t want to waste too much time and downed nearly a row of lemon cookies and four bananas before muffling a charming “thunphk oo” to the volunteers as I rode off.

With only six miles left and some filling in my stomach, I was invigorated and determined to press on. I climbed a few more miles before taking on a wonderfully exhilarating decent. Normally I get nervous going downhill and gaining speed, but the break from climbing was eagerly welcomed.

I’m not sure if it was the cold wind whipping my face or if I was just that happy, but I felt tears well up in my eyes once I saw the gates of hell. Is it weird to shout “Oh, praise the Lord!” before entering Purgatory?

Not soon after I zoomed into the resort did I realize that this was only the beginning of the end, and also why they call it “Purgatory.” The last half mile to the finish line is a very steep and winding climb. So steep that some riders gave up and walked their bikes to the finish line. Me being a proud and stubborn fool, I pressed on riding my bike. Each rotation more agonizing than the long climb I had endured leading up to this moment. This is the type of torture they should use to extract information from enemies.

But as they also say, “no pain, no gain” and nothing is sweeter than overcoming obstacles to reach victory.

I had the biggest, dumbest smile plastered on my face when they announced my name as I rode over the finish line. When I came to a stop, I couldn’t do anything else but stand in the middle of the road, straddling my bike. The feeling of accomplishment had me in humbled and in awe.

At the top, I was greeted with a picture perfect view of the sun breaking through the gloomy clouds above the San Juan mountains. All my suffering had been purged and now I was welcomed at the gates of heaven.



I would tell you that the feeling of accomplishment has left me satisfied, but that’s not true. In fact, I’m looking at more ways to torture myself in upcoming races. There are two races I’m eyeing right now: Montrose’s Grin and Barrett, a 50-miler in July, and Ridgway’s Axel Project, a 50-miler halfway to Telluride in September. I’m just hoping the weather will clear up so I can get more riding in this time.

As for comments on the Iron Horse events, I wasn’t really impressed. Of course, the races and rides were phenomenal, but the organization left me and several other riders I spoke with a bit frustrated. My biggest irritation was the transportation back to town following the ride. I understand it’s limited, but frequent updates would have been nice. The only reason I had a late start to the race was because I thought I needed cash to get a ride back to my car, when in fact the shuttles were booked. I also asked at least five different people about shuttle details and everyone gave me conflicting information. I ended up bumming a ride back with an older gentleman (shout out to Mr. Vince from Minnesota).

I know it’s not a really exciting event compared to the Iron Horse, but I would also have liked more photo ops for Quarter Horse riders. I’m sure a lot of us are new to the races and would have happily paid for someone to capture us in our sweaty glory. And maybe I’m being a little bratty now, but can we get jerseys specifically for Quarter Horse riders? The t-shirt is cool and I’m really happy with it, but I would have liked to have earned my first jersey with the ride.

Overall, I had a lot of fun and my complaints are mostly nitpicking. I’m not sure I’ll sign up and pay for the Quarter Horse again next year, but I will definitely ride that same route again someday.


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