The mission was simple: cram my Subaru with enough bikes, tubes, wheels and chamois to outfit Astana, and drive 360 rugged miles from Boulder to the other end of Colorado. Spend three days surfing couches, mooching beer and otherwise freeloading my way around Durango’s cycling community. Have some laughs, see some old friends and — how could I forget — pin on a race number for the 38th annual Iron Horse Bicycle Classic.
Do it all without breaking the bank — or getting dropped.
For Colorado cyclists, Iron Horse is a perfect excuse to road trip. The classic Memorial Day weekend event centers on the iconic 47-mile road race from Durango to Silverton. There’s also a crit, a time trial, a freakish cruiser race, concerts and plenty of party time.
A quick email into the Boulder cycling community netted me some traveling companions to split gas. Local pros Amy Dombroski and Mara Abbott needed a ride, as did visiting Aussie Tiffany Cromwell. We took a gear tally. Between the four of us we had seven bikes, a gaggle of wheels, helmets and bags of clothing. I even toted several hundred issues of VeloNews to pass out at the race.
It was going to be tight.
After a half-hour game of car Tetris we managed to cram everything in. Wheels created spokey barriers between us in the car’s cabin. The trunk was overflowing with bags. Six bikes were on top. Luckily, my female companions were all pint-sized. Dombroski cowered in the back seat beneath a twisted set of handlebars.
Before jumping in I snapped a mental photo. My Subaru looked like the world’s unhappiest team car.
My car looked (and sounded) even less happy on the climb up Wolf Creek Pass. I was that guy creeping along at 30 mph in the right lane, with a steady stream of buses and semi trucks speeding past.
I got dropped, and it wouldn’t be the last time.
Most of us are familiar with the ins and outs of the low-budget bicycle race road trip. Long before last year’s economic meltdown forced aristocratic golfers to trade in the Ritz for the Super 8, we bike racers — pros and weekend warriors alike — learned how to travel on the cheap.
I was taught the drill while on the UC Santa Cruz collegiate team. We kept the gasoline bill low by smashing people, bikes and bags into (and onto) a van. Everyone piled into one hotel room, or we mooched bed, couch or floor space. Amenities such as showers and personal space were always up for sacrifice.
My goal for the Durango trip was to find a happy medium between cost cutting and living large, so I spent the weekend searching for tradeoffs. The gas bill was split into four. The three-race entry fee was $135, but a Mexican dinner at Zia Taqueria was only eight bucks. Breakfast cost some cash, but I crashed TT winner Ben Kneller’s barbecue for free (thanks!). Five-dollar Burger night at Old Tymer’s helped the budget; so did $2 pint night.
Housing presented another cost to cut. On the eve of my trek I Facebooked everyone I knew in Durango (including Todd Wells’ dog, Winston) asking for a free couch. Matt Shriver said I could share his couch with some other bike racer, and Rick Crawford had space at his homestead 20 miles out of town.
Troy Wells came through with the best offer. He was in Quebec racing a Canada Cup and said he didn’t mind me crashing in his bed, so long as I kept any extracurricular activities to a minimum. I agreed. I showed up to find Wells’ roommate, Jesse Dekrey, getting his own race rig ready.
“Just don’t blow up too soon,” Dekrey said. “Or it’ll be a long way to the finish.”
The advice didn’t quite ease my pre-race jitters. At registration I glanced at the list of Cat III riders, only to see the name Yannick Eckmann near the top. The name might sound familiar to VeloNews readers, as my compatriot Neal Rogers profiled him in an issue last year. Eckmann is the scourge of the Colorado Cat III field. He’s only 15, so he has to ride on junior 52X14 gears.
But he’s damned fast.
How fast? Local cyclocross organizers regularly send Eckmann off two minutes behind the Cat III men’s field, and on more than one occasion he has caught and dropped the entire bunch.
Pre-race showers had everyone in Durango fearing a repeat of 2008, when a freak snowstorm canceled the event. Clouds hung low and temperatures were chilly for the 7:23 rollout, but we were bound for Silverton.
I chatted up Eckmann as we sped toward the day’s first obstacle, the false flat climb to Shaloma Lake. It turns out he’s caught between a rock and a hard place at the moment. Eckmann rides on the Felt-Holowesko-Garmin development squad, but he is still a German citizen. He knows he’s stronger than everyone in the Cat III field, but he’s too young to race in the elite class. He’d like to compete in big international races, but he can’t race for the United States, and since he doesn’t live in Germany he will never qualify for that country’s worlds team.
Hopefully the dilemma won’t create a huge hole in his development, because the kid obviously has the talent to be put on a fast-track to the ProTour. His hope is to wait until 2012 when he can become an official American, and then tear the legs off the other 18-year-olds.
Eckmann wasted little time and drew 12 of us out going up Coal Bank pass, the first 10,000-foot-plus ascent. I recall my thoughts on the climb: this kid is setting a mean tempo. Is there any more oxygen? My ass sure feels heavy.
Eventually I went the way of my Subaru.
I got dropped, again.
A word of advice to any prospective Iron Horse racers: be sure to pack clothing for the finish line in Silverton. The road back to Durango is closed until 1pm, so everyone has to hang out in town. You might find yourself, as I did, racking up some serious unnecessary-chamois time.
I waddled over to a café in my cycling shoes and took up a chair at a table with Crawford, Ned Overend, Michael Engleman and a few other Durango locals. The pro race was the conversation topic of choice. After a few near misses, Durango’s hometown climber Anthony Colby had finally won. Mara Abbott won the women’s race, giving the Subaru road trip crew some bragging rights. She later told me she thought she was going to die near the top of Molas.
Overend turned the conversation onto the recent passing of Steve Larsen, a guy everyone at the table had either raced against or watched compete. Overend is going to be 54 this year. Like a lot of our sport’s super-fit elders, he sees Larsen’s death, and the tragic 2007 passing of 40-year-old Vail endurance racer Mike Janelle of heart failure, as a sign that extreme fitness doesn’t always guarantee longevity.
Crawford agreed. Like Overend, Crawford is super fit, but heart disease runs in his family.
“It just seems like when it’s your time to go, there’s not much you can do about it,” Crawford said.
Mountain biking is religion in Durango, and the trail network sprouting from town is world class. I knew I needed to sample the local dirt. So when Troy Wells came back from the Canada Cup (he finished seventh) on Sunday, we made plans for some off-road time.
Our dirt adventure of choice ended up being a sliver of Colorado trail running just south of town. Cromwell and I borrowed bikes, while Dombroski finally got the chance to ride the rig she had hauled down from Boulder.
Now, when mountain biking with pint-sized girls, it is sometimes better to let them lead on the downhills, as their small size helps them navigate twisty descents. I found this rule out the hard way. With Dombroski hot on my heels, I flew down a twisting section of trail, for fear of getting “girled.” I wound up washing out my front tire in a corner.
I planted a fat kiss on a pine tree.
I escaped with a few scrapes and a wounded ego, but the injuries were quickly forgotten as we climbed to an opening in the trees. Before us stretched a pristine view of the hulking Engineer Mountain and the towering San Juan range in the distance.
Tuesday’s drive back to Boulder felt especially long, perhaps because of the previous day’s time trial, off-road adventure and downed pints of ale. My companions konked out, so I attempted to mentally calculate the weekend’s total bill. The mooching had paid off, and my tally was less than $250.
Not bad for a three-day weekend of fun.
It’s no secret that the current economic downturn has all of us cutting expenses, pinching pennies and asking ourselves the all-important question: do I really want to pay for that? However I am adamant that we can still race our bikes and not break the bank. Sure, race registration stings the wallet, and so do those pesky license fees. My advice is to get creative and see how many bikes you can stash in a car. Pride be damned — mooching is OK. Sleeping on a couch (or in your car) isn’t just for college kids.
We are bike racers, after all. Freeloading is our genetic disposition.
Of course, don’t be surprised when a few months down the road, some needy bike racer shows up at your door looking for a couch to sleep on, a mountain bike to ride or some free suds.
I know I won’t.
And to my Durango friends, mi casa, su casa.