The Iron Horse Bicycle Classic has been happening for 46 years. That’s 46 consecutive years of crazy people riding bicycles up mountains, haughtily disregarding Henry Ford’s Promethean gift of motorized vehicular travel. Riding in the Iron Horse is a noble feat. Yet I have to admit that my enthusiasm for the ride lost its tread this year.
That’s because, in my five years participating, nothing has changed to make the event more challenging. The mountain passes are no higher than ever before. The road from Durango to Silverton grows no longer, and I am increasingly capable of not bothering to clean my bike’s chain.
The only thing that changes are the bicycles themselves. These road bikes lose ounces every year, to the point where a fully outfitted machine weighs as much as my threadbare underwear and a half a pair of socks. The idea here is that a lighter bicycle improves performance: less mass in the carbon frame decreases the time it takes for people to amass excessive debt.
My bike, however, does not change. It remains intact every year. Works for me, because having a reliable bicycle is the first necessity for riding the Iron Horse, along with bike shorts, bike shoes, bike cleats, bike gloves, bike jersey, bike helmet, bike sunglasses, chamois butter, and nothing better to do.
I have all those things in hand. Even so, I considered putting this year’s Iron Horse out to pasture, except that I had already registered, and I couldn’t use my commemorative water bottle in public if I did not ride for realsies on the big day.
The ride itself was not going to up the ante for me. I needed to switch things up myself. I needed some vigor in my regimen. Some enthusiasm. Some fresh perspectives, guaranteed to benefit me with wisdom, experience, and compulsory participation. So I entrusted my training to a pack of college kids.
Now it is probably unfair of me to call them “kids.” After all, these college students are burgeoning adults, old enough to have survived Y2K even if they weren’t allowed to stay up til midnight for it. They’re old enough to remember wondering what a VHS is, and to call Pearl Jam “classic rock,” and to reminisce about getting their first iPhones in fifth grade. They are absolutely, unquestionably, barely qualified to give their elders exercise advice.
But I accepted their assistance gladly, not only because working in close proximity with college coeds would make Studs McGuffin more envious than beating him across the finish line, but also because it would be different than accepting my own advice for the fifth year in a row.
Here’s how it happened: I agreed to work with a team of Exercise Testing and Prescription students at Fort Lewis College, wherein one student would do all the work and the other four would sign their names to it. I volunteered my time and my body when the program was pitched with phrases like “taking into consideration your own personal goals” and “time commitment of about 2-6 hours.”
Even I, with my bald-tired enthusiasm, could commit to 2-6 hours of Iron Horse training. Especially when one of those hours was utilized intensely by filling out paperwork.
These students had all kinds of questions for me. What was my fitness goal this semester? (Finish the Iron Horse in a respectable time with minimal effort.) What health considerations should they take into account? (They better not ask me to change my diet if they value their own health considerations.) How active was I currently? (At the moment, vigorously completing paperwork.)
The students then collected my answers and said they would prepare a training regimen for me. I was ready for anything. But I was not ready when they told me I should aim to ride for eight hours – EVERY WEEK.
The students explained to me that the two-to-six range was for actual in-person meetings, where they would measure my height and pinch my armpit fat and count how many pullups I could do in a minute, even when it was very quickly evident that number would be zero. In order to meet my fitness goals, I needed to put in plenty of unsupervised hours.
I knew, in my heart, that they were right. Anything worth accomplishing is worth putting in time and effort and Gatorade. So I sucked it up. For the good of Education, and to show these younglings what we old farts are made of, I lied about my riding schedule.
Hey, I had to! I don’t have eight spare hours a week. But I did ride, every week, at least once. And as the snow melted, my enthusiasm started to sprout alongside the aspen trees. I rekindled the pure joy of riding a bike, breathing the fresh mountain air, watching crows and hawks circle the skies. This is why I ride the Iron Horse. Because these blissful moments never change from year to year. As William Wallace said in 1995, “Every man dies; not every man really lives.” Forget my ride times and my dirty chain. I was really living.
And then I really cried, because even Braveheart is now older than college kids.
This Fool’s Gold originally appeared in The Durango Telegraph.