TELLURIDE, Colorado (VN) — I told everyone I came home for a wedding. For love and for cake. But really, I came home for a bike race that coincided with a wedding. Sorry.
This is not any bike race. This is the heralded Ophir Hill Climb, an event held rain or shine or snow every year sometime in early October. I’ve made it four of the past five years — I really punked out a few years ago and made pancakes instead of racing in 16 inches of snow, and I regret it — and I couldn’t imagine something as pesky as moving from Telluride to Boulder getting in the way of my rightful place at the start line among cyclists, runners and pregnant moms.
The bike race is the excuse for getting everyone together in an old mining town high above Telluride and drinking beer in the sun afterward (pregnant moms excluded, I think). There just happens to be racing.
The Ophir Hill Climb race flyer is a photocopied, whited-out version of last year’s race flyer, every year. The registration tent is a mid-’80s Toyota pickup, blasting reggae music into the frigid morning. The truck is also the race’s official timing and pace vehicle. A bonus: It hauls coats to the top of the pass. The importance of a down sweater at some 12,000 feet in October cannot be overstated.
Pete Dahle, a Telluride local and the event’s steward for the past 15 years, takes names and numbers by hand. He also takes 10 bucks cash, of course, to cover the expenses — a keg and tacos from the Mexican restaurant in town, La Cocina de Luz.
No one is actually sure how old the race is. It’s been happening, mostly, for the past 25 years.
“It’s so old that we don’t even know,” Dahle said. “There may have been an incarnation as early as ’87, or ’88. I know I’ve probably put 15 of them on, I bet.” He’s won most of those he’s put on, and is sitting this one out, because we’re all sick of him winning, as he honestly points out.
Legend has it that a guy founded the event as a benefit for the Ophir Search & Rescue crew. Legend also has it that he was the first guy in Telluride to have a road bike — a “sick” Klein, according to Dahle. That was before there was pavement in Telluride.
But enough of these niceties. There was a race to be raced. Or, in my case, survived, in bursts of marginal power and mediocre walking. I knew it was bad when the runners began to pass me. I knew it was getting worse when I understood that I was moving slow enough to watch a globe of sweat fall from my face and explode on the dusty double track beneath my feet.
But when I looked down, I caught sight of a 24-ounce PBR can in my bottle cage. My ace in the hole. I struggled mightily to turn the pedals of my single speed. As fate and grade would have it, a 32×22 gear ratio only means one will pedal squares up to the top of the 11,700-foot pass. The rabbit was out front, by minutes, and had I been carrying a rifle, I couldn’t have shot him.
The vitals of the climb are daunting. Just four miles and 2,231 feet in elevation, reaching an astonishing 11,700 feet. I averaged 4.5 miles per hour, or relatively the speed of a dying turtle. I finished a humble eighth place, at 51:51, some 10 minutes off my best, very unofficial time. The winner, Ricky Willis, came in at 39 minutes, five minutes or so off the record, which is held (unofficially, of course) by Bryan Miller.
“I’ve been wanting to do it for years, but other things fell on the same date. I felt like this was my shot at it,” winner Willis said. He was out by himself in the bike division, but was beaten by a runner this year, local Mike Munno. Can you imagine? A runner, winning a bike race because it’s actually more efficient to, um, run? A guy on a horse has won it before, but we weren’t sure if we should count that or not.
“It’s such a unique course. Where could you ever have a race where runners and cyclists have the same starting line and the same finish line? It’s heads or tails who’s going to win,” Dahle said.
“We’ve had a pregnant-mom division. We have a dog division. We’ve had a guy pulling his son. It’s a community event. We do so much shit around here in Telluride. … It’s nice to have a truly local event. There’s not a bunch of money, there’s not a bunch of hype. It’s about the community. It’s about the people. It’s about the mountains.”
Yeah, what he said.
Dahle mentioned the various divisions — the dog division is one I took an interest in once, thinking I could at least win something. Well, “we,” I guess. The fastest dog to the top is named the winner, and since I thought I would at least be in the top five overall that, by default, the dog would probably be the first across the line.
I brought my crazed black Lab, Anabelle. We’re winners, I thought. The plan was for Belle to stay with me as I rode, as we used to do together when she was younger. I lost her amid the start-line shuffle of bikes, runners and 30 dogs. I went on to get third, but Belle was nowhere to be seen.
When I came down, it was explained to me that someone found Anabelle in a house, belly deep in a bag of dog food. When I caught up with her, she was sunning herself amid children on the basketball court, not to be bothered. Ah, Belle.
In case you’re wondering, a dog named Osa won this year, followed by Daisy and Nellie. Those results were never posted online, and the competitors were never tested.
The hill climb also has what’s called a trailer division, meaning a human being pulls another human being (or beings) up the mountain. Travis Julia, another Telluride local, always wins because he’s the only one entered.
His quest is as insane as it is noble; every year, he hauls his young son Hudson up the jeep road to the sky, little Hud bouncing along as dad puts out watts. This year, he added his little daughter to the mix because no one likes to be left out. Hudson was on a bike hooked to his father’s, and sweet Vivian was on a trailer hooked to the back of Hudson’s bike.
All told, pops was pulling 150 extra pounds of extra weight up the pass. He finished in one hour and 33 minutes. When asked what he was thinking, Julia replied: “You wanna know about my Venezuelan veterinarian trainer?” Not really. I’m tired of reporting about those guys.
“I thought it would be fun,” he said. “If I’m going to bring one, might as well bring two. And it hurt.”
He stuffed his trailer with down coats and kids’ books, and off they went. Hudson bonked at one point out of sheer boredom.
“It’s an opportunity for me to get on my bike,” Julia said. “I like anything that has a 15-year-old Xeroxed flyer … that gets copied and copied every year. It says ‘Bike Race,” 10 dollars. And there’s beer afterward. That’s real.”
Up at the top of the pass, the Toyota is still on the reggae, and we mill about, pretending we’re not freezing. I crack the PBR and my shivering hands pour half of it down my face. I run alongside friends finishing, and we all wait, every year, for the last-place finisher to arrive to take the group photo atop the pass.
This is real to us. This is bike racing and being in the mountains with one another, content not to win but only to be together on our bikes before the snow shuts us down. At the moment, our sport is out of heroes, and it’s best to just look inside ourselves and our friends for inspiration, because it’s hard to believe what one sees. The guy pulling two kids up the old dirt road? Hero status, instant. Local Himay Palmer, riding his downhill bike up? Hero.
“It’s this inclusive thing. It’s not about ‘I’m Mr. Badass and I’m going to win and you shouldn’t even show up’ … let’s put all that shit behind and just honor what we’re doing here,” Dahle said.
“I hope the Ophir Hill Climb goes on forever. I hope as long as we’re here we’re going to have enough respect for our community, respect for our mountains, and respect for ourselves to be fit enough to get out of bed, even if it’s snowing or raining in October to be like, ‘Man, even if I get last place … I’m going to show up.”
And with that, we proceeded to drink beer and soak up the sun. The snow wasn’t far off, and the bikes were doomed to the darkness of closets, garages and tarps. I took a sip and thought it cruel that Dahle should saddle us with dark beer after a bike race. And then someone told me we were drinking out of the wrong keg, one that had been “around” the town hall for a while, and left outside.
I finished that beer. It was only par for the course at the Ophir Hill Climb. I’d mark my calendar for next year, but I have no idea when the race is scheduled. Sometime in early October. Hope to see you all there.