It was shortly after 7:00 am and the morning dew had not yet disappeared when the first cyclists passed the Alpen Rose RV Park, two miles north of the Durango (CO) city limits.
We had arrived the afternoon before the 39th Iron Horse Bicycle Classic and learned that the race passed in front of the RV Park.
The 50-mile section of Highway 550 between Durango and Silverton is closed to traffic from 8:00 am to 1:00 pm for the race.
Individuals and small groups of recreational cyclists leave Durango according to their own schedule anytime after 7:00 am. This year about 1400 recreational cyclists rode the distance.
About 8:15 am, the race began. The weather was perfect--sunny and just cool enough to be in-vigorating. (Last year, it had snowed the day of the race.)
About 1000 competitive cyclists and the steam engine and eight cars of the Durango & Silverton Narrow Guage Railroad left the station in a race between humans and steam.
There were three sizable groups of riders--with serious expressions on their faces and little recognition paid to us or any of our fellow RVers positioned on the highway that early morning.
Some of the late-departing recreational cyclists were quickly passed by those who saw the race not as competition with the steam locomotive but with other cyclists.
Our first awareness of any other competitor in the race occurred when this "checker car" came along, checking the track for any signs of problems or debris.
In this early stage, everyone looked fresh with no signs of weariness.
What lay ahead were two climbs through passes in the San Juan Mountains. From Durango's elevation of 6520', the riders would face Coal Bank Pass (elev. 10,660') about 34 miles into the race and Molas Pass (elev. 10,905') about 42 miles along before descending into Silverton (elev. 9,305') and the finish line.
And if the elevation and the climbs are not enough of a challenge, the thrill of traveling the route along a highway that overlooks guardrail-free drops of several hundred feet should provide an adrenaline rush to counteract the effects of the climbs.
The tracks ran parallel to the highway in the early stage of the race, so we could see the early leader (human or machine).
The early picture did not look good for machine.
But when Engine No. 481 approached, it was clear which competitor had the lead--in style.
The picture of the noble engine with its rhythmic movement and voluminous "breath," as if on a cold morning, was classic. The idea of a race was secondary to just admiring this historic competitor.
Recreational cyclists finish the course in four hours or less.
For the record, Burke Swindle-hurst (not shown here) of Salt Lake City (and former Durango resident) won the men's competition for the third time with a time of 2 hours, 12 minutes, 15 seconds and
Mara Abbot (not shown here), for the third consecutive year, won the women's road race with a time of 2 hours, 37 minutes, 1 second.
For the 39th consecutive year the Iron Horse came in "second" to human-powered two-wheelers with a time of 3 hours, 30 minutes (but with two or three stops along the way).