The Fit Nation special with all 8 races will air on Saturday, Nov. 19 at 2:30 p.m. ET.
The Iron Horse Bicycle Classic has pitted bike against train since 1972
The course is a spectacular climb along a mountainous highway, going from 6,500 feet to 11,000
The bicycle was invented nearly 200 years ago. History credits Baron Karl von Drais of southern Germany for his 1817 laufmaschine (“running machine”).
Steam trains were invented only 14 years earlier, with credit going to Robert Trevithick of Wales, who built the first one in 1803.
Both machines went on to change the world and how we move in it. In a few races around the globe, these two modes of transportation are still battling for supremacy of speed.
As for popularity, the bicycle pulled ahead a long time ago. Bikes and bike culture are thriving today, arguably at a level not seen since mass production and organized races took Europe by storm in the late 1800s, with bikes even having outsold cars in the U.S. and Europe in recent years.
These efficient, healthy “running machines” have been popular with every generation in every country for the past two centuries. The bicycle is our buddy and workout partner, regardless of whether you’re 5 or 95 years old.
And unlike the steam train, bicycles continue to evolve. They’ve become increasingly safer, materials have gotten lighter, and they are more comfortable than ever. This makes them more fun, especially on endurance races over varying terrain.
Today, there are bike races every day of the year all over the world, professional and non. One in Colorado, which pits the bike against its old train rival, is a favorite of both categories of rider.
Sibling rivalry meets a train
Two brothers, Jim and Tom Mayer, grew up by the train tracks in Durango, Colorado. The narrow-gauge train, which Jim worked on, once carried coal, goods and supplies every day to the mines of Silverton, 50 miles away. But today, it carries tourists.
On one spring weekend in the late 1960s, Tom boasted to his brother that he could beat the train by biking along Highway 550, over the snowy mountains that separate the two towns. To Jim’s surprise, Tom did it.
They invited others to join them, but few were interested. They went on to a local bike shop owner, Ed Zink, to see whether he wanted to organize a proper race, and he passed.
But in 1972, town organizers wanted event ideas to kick off the summer tourist season, and Zink suggested the bike-vs.-train idea. They loved it, and with just 36 cyclists that first year, the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic was born.
Fit Nation: Iron Horse Classic
Today, the town is a hub of bike culture in America. Durango’s sidewalks have dismount reminders, metal bike designs are on parking meters, and people move there just to be part of the culture. Registration for the race takes place in early December and is first-come, first-served.
As for the race, held every Memorial Day weekend, the course is a spectacularly beautiful, but grueling, climb along the mountainous highway. There are two peaks, and from Durango’s 6,500 feet above sea level, it climbs as high as 11,000. Weather at the top is unpredictable, and the race has been shortened a handful of times – and canceled twice – due to snow. Some riders this year were hit with a brief hailstorm.
While most riders leave at the same time as the train, about 30 minutes into the race, their paths diverge. Riders then take the hard way up, and the train stays down in the Animas River gorge. They don’t reunite until Silverton.
Every year, the professionals beat the train, which takes 3½ hours to reach Silverton.
This year, 2,500 bicyclists came from 43 states and six countries. That number is the maximum allowed for safety reasons (in case they need to be evacuated for extreme weather). Forty riders were professional-level racers and the rest seasoned amateurs.
The 2016 winner, Payson McElveen, made the run in 2½ hours. As for the rest, only about 30% are faster than the train.
Although it is open to amateurs, the race is not for beginners. The endurance is the equivalent of a marathon and takes almost the same amount of time and exertion. The race is 50 miles but requires the endurance of a 100-mile race (called a “century”) because of the elevation. Riders need to pace themselves during the first 15 miles before going straight uphill, and they need to be dressed for heat, cold and unpredictable weather.
Once a qualifying race for the Olympics, the Iron Horse Classic has become more popular than professional. First place pays only $700, and some riders are on tandem bikes with kids. One racer even did the course on a large unicycle.
But Iron Horse riders aren’t motivated by money; they come for the prestige and the unique history of the race. It’s a life experience for the bucket list, highlighted by Outside magazine putting Iron Horse on its 2010 “Life List.” For the racers, “this is one of the most exciting days of their life,” said Zink, who was the race’s chairman for its first 43 years.
Training to beat the train
Unless you have ridden similar mountain races, you would be wise to get a professional trainer for Iron Horse.
Biking is one thing. Biking uphill is another.
Locals can take a cycling and strength training class offered by the city of Durango’s Parks and Recreation department, but anyone seeking professional help for mountain racing should probably give themselves three to six months of proper training, depending on the level of fitness they’re are starting from.
Competing in the Iron Horse means being in good enough physical condition to exert yourself for up to five straight hours, with particular strength needed in your core mid-section and back. And, course, with an uphill climb, the less you weigh, the easier it will be, so that’s more motivation to get trim.
It’s difficult to say conclusively, but biking may be better fitness than running. According to a fitness expert who compared the two for CNN, running outdoors burned 970 calories an hour, while biking was only 570 calories. But biking uphill burns a lot more depending on percent grade and headwind; you can say it’s anywhere from two to four times the number of calories than on a flat surface.
Biking is also better for your knees, as many runners turn to the sport after an injury, and engages all the major leg muscles from your rear to your ankles: glutes, quadriceps, hamstrings and calf muscles.
The Iron Horse has made the town of Durango a lot more fit than it used to be, according to Zink, as many locals take part. One mother told Zink “you all saved my son’s life” after he lost 75 pounds for the race.
Join the conversation
Local racer Joe Williams credits his bike training for the slowdown of his symptoms of Parkinson’s and now races in Iron Horse with a team to raise awareness. “Biking seems to decrease tremors and the need for medication for several hours after each ride,” explained CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta. “The theory is that cycling temporarily activates the brain the same way a medication does.”
As for the train, it can be a motivator. Even if you can’t see it, you know its time, and that 3½-hour time can push you forward.
Giving yourself a goal drives you to beat it; just ask Tom Mayer.