Iron Horse Bicycle Classic: Golden Memories of Dad

Racing a train through memories

The early 1970s; our VW pop-up camper; the Western U.S.; no air-conditioning:  I have so many fond memories of our family’s summer adventures. 

It was a different time back then, for sure. With no electronic gadgets, my brother and I often entertained ourselves for hours by playing Chinese Checkers or waving at the monstrous Peterbilts and Winnebagos that zipped by. Our little camper and its 65-horse power engine wasn’t fast but it was able to somehow inch up Pike’s Peak on our summer family road trip to Colorado. It’s hard to believe, but back then, even visiting the Coors Brewery in Golden was a must-do. Getting a case to take back to your home state made it precious cargo, and we kept it on ice all the way back to Missouri.
Iron Horse Start
A stop that we were all looking forward to on our first trip to Colorado was Durango and the Narrow Gauge Railroad with its 1880s-era steam engine puffing up the mountains to the mining town of Silverton. What could be more exciting to a 9-year-old boy? The only person maybe more excited was my dad. We actually had a model railroad room at home where Dad (with a little help from my brother and me) had created a landscape complete with buildings, grass, roads, cars, and mountains. It was kind of a miniature version of what we were about to experience. The trip and that model train became cool memories for a child of the 1970s to cherish.

Fast-forward nearly 40 years. In the fall of 2012, my wife (bless her heart) and two of the most devout Catholics I know (our moms) embarked on a Blessed Virgin Mary pilgrimage to Europe—a once in a lifetime experience for sure. Meanwhile, my brother and I decided to take Dad back to Colorado. Besides trains, my dad’s other life-long passion is cycling, and we were able to arrange a day of morning cycling that ended with a return trip home on the famed steam train we’d ridden in the seventies. It was a perfect day: equal parts exercise, nostalgia, and just plain fun. That day, we learned about the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic, an event (concocted ironically in the early 1970s) during which cyclists race the steam train up the mountain every Memorial Day weekend. It’s a 50-mile ride with nearly 7,000 feet of climbing. Without hesitancy, Dad said that it sounded like something that was right up my alley. I agreed.

Shawn and Carrie at Coal Bank PassSo on May 25, 2013, my wife Carrie and I lined up on a beautiful, brisk morning next to the whistling train with 2,000 other eager cyclists. The gun fired, the crowd cheered, and the train whistle blew as it departed for Silverton. Because of the altitude, I think we were huffing and puffing more than that old steam engine as we ventured upward and over two mountain passes.

I had a particularly heavy heart that morning. I was racing for my own sake but also in my Dad’s memory. You see, after reaching such a happy place on our boys’ trip last September, our family was jolted as Dad succumbed to a massive stroke just four weeks later. He was, ironically, riding his bicycle with four of his friends at the time. Dad and I were riding buddies for so many years, having done the MS150 from Houston to Austin four times as well as countless other rides (the Tour de Gruene, with a beer afterward, was our favorite). That Saturday in Colorado, I felt he was riding along with me as I took on the first major climb to Coal Bank Pass at nearly 11,000 feet. It is hard to adequately prepare in Texas for such unrelenting climbs. The beautiful surroundings, as well as the cool, crisp air, were nice distractions; this was Colorado, after all. After a fast descent, Molas Pass was next. My legs and lungs were shot but my mind was in a good place. I could feel Dad’s encouragement and support, and I could also sense myself succumbing to the emotions of this day and all it represented. And, yes, we did have a beer and make a toast when we made it to Silverton. I didn’t beat the train—it wasn’t even close—but once again, it was a memory of Colorado and my dad that I will cherish forever.

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