Balls of fire," said Patrick Dennis, standing atop 12,095-foot Independence Pass and gazing down at the six sharpened-rock switchbacks he was supposed to cover on his thin-tired bicycle. "I know who sponsors the race over this pass. A mortuary."
The first annual North American Bicycle Championship was, in more literal fact, sponsored by a group of Colorado men dedicated to the proposition that America's youth—and not-so-youth—is soft, even the portion of it that trains 400 miles a week on 10-speed cycles. In their eagerness to find a course more demanding than the usual 41 times around Somerville, N.J., the sponsors created a monster that humbled the Tour de France in every respect but distance. Cycling devotees Bert Bidwell and Bernie (Big Wheel) Witkin, with the help of the Aspen Chamber of Commerce, laid out a 190-mile course that crossed the Continental Divide twice at the most fearsome altitudes in North America. Their Aspen-to-Glenwood Springs-to-Leadville-to-Aspen circuit traversed two high mountain passes and half of a third. Parts of the course were covered with assorted rock masquerading as gravel, and on one miserable stretch of Independence Pass riders could expect snow or sleet, even in mid-September.
The race was to take two days. On the first day the cyclists were to cover 131 miles, about two-thirds of the total distance. After a relatively easy 41-mile sprint northwest from Aspen to Glenwood Springs, the terminal point of the first stage of the race, the racers were to turn northeast and wriggle through the 2,500-foot-deep Glenwood Canyon, roller-coast 60 miles to Minturn, thrash up steep Battle Mountain and long Tennessee Pass, slope into the Arkansas Valley and, finally, .pull into Leadville, altitude 10,152 feet, the highest incorporated city in North America.
The second day was to be shorter—only 59 miles—but harder. From Leadville the state highway department's best attempt at a road to Aspen over the savage Sawatch Range skirts four 14,000-foot peaks and dozens of 13,000-footers. Early gold miners in the Roaring Fork basin had to haul their wagons up the Sawatch with 20-mule teams and lower them down the precipices on ropes. One wagon, moored to a tree and abandoned in the snow, was found the next summer dangling 30 feet above ground.
The riders who assembled at Aspen to match these mountains were an appropriately tough lot, long used to such extracurricular hardships as ducking beer cans, bottles and rocks thrown from passing cars. Gentle-looking George Gamble, a onetime Teddy boy from Manchester, England, was not untypical. "I never used to leave the house without having razor blades sewed under my lapels and a chain over my shoulder," he said. "Self-defense, you know." Among them, the riders had shrugged off two fractured skulls, several concussions, dozens of broken bones and the removal of cubic yards of dermis, not all of it epi.
"Loss of skin is the most common complaint among racers," said Steve Hammond, co-favorite from the Berkeley Wheelmen. "Notice how our legs are shaved. If your legs aren't shaved they have to give you novocain to remove the bandages."
The cyclists reported to Paepcke Park in Aspen early on a Saturday morning for the start of the race. There were only 16 of them, thanks to a bit of mismanagement by the Amateur Bicycle League. Scheduled for late July and expected to draw a field of 70-odd, the race had been postponed at the last minute until mid-September. Since many of the July entrants had been students, the September list was drastically reduced.
Getting ready for the start of the race, the 16 men clipped feeder bottles into cages on the fronts of their bikes and stuffed edibles into their jerseys. Chiquita bananas, raw meat, white grapes and dextrose tablets disappeared into pockets. The race promised to be grueling, but the mood of the cyclists was light. "Peaches are no good," said Tom Meyer of Westfield, N.J. "You get all sticky, and by the end of the day your bike is Hawaiian Punch."
"Nice thing about water," said Meyer. "You can wash yourself off with it. Try that with orange juice."
"Or soda pop," put in Stu Pray of Cincinnati, who finished fourth in the nationals this year. "I was riding along once, hot and sweaty, and saw somebody with what I thought was a pitcher of water. 'Throw it,' I yelled. They did. Ook!"
"Same thing happened to me," Meyer said, "only it was chicken soup."
Most of the riders had decided to use orthodox equipment and strategy during the race, including the standard practice of staying with the pack until the sprints for bonus time at the end of each of the three stages. Almost all the cyclists planned on extreme conservatism during the treacherous gravel descent from Independence Pass. There were, privately, exceptions. For example, Jim Crist, a Denver teacher and ski patrolman, was ready to exchange his sleek racer for an old Schwinn clunker at the top of the pass, trusting to a combination of weight and tire thickness for speed and safety.
At 10 o'clock the little band of cyclists lined up, and with a shout took off through the center of town. The cheer that went up from those who watched may not have equaled the turn-of-the-century days when the likes of Major Taylor raced at Aspen, nor were the spectators able to follow the race by riding the old Colorado Midland Railroad, which is now defunct, but the speed of the racers was greater than ever, so great that the old railroad could not have kept up.
By the time the field had rolled over the high Castle and Maroon Creek bridges, it was moving at 45 miles per hour. The riders were already trading places at the front of the pack to share, by cycling's customary unspoken agreement, the burden of breaking the wind. At Shale Bluffs, Meyer, Robert Schwaighofer and 60-year-old Lawrence Gordon, oldest man in the race, were already well behind the pack. Schwaighofer, from Verdun, France, began using a black Volkswagen as a windscreen. "Quit pacing that VW," roared Bert Bidwell, careening by in his referee's jeep.
Through Woody Creek the riders flashed (10 miles in 22 minutes), spinning around the curve at Phillip's Corners, bunched tightly together. As they went through Snowmass (14 miles in 32½ minutes) rain slickened the asphalt. The 13 cyclists approached a yellow-flagged Rio Grande railroad crossing; only eight left it unscathed. Dick Oldakowski, hitting a rail obliquely, went over backward. Gary Wilson, Wally Dziak, John Marshall and Gamble, unable to turn, piled into him.
By the time trainers' cars, following close behind, had supplied new wheels, tires, bikes and ice bags, the surviving pack of eight leaders was well down the straightaway to Catherine's Store. The others struggled behind. Still gaining time at Carbondale (29 miles in 62½ minutes), the leaders got their first crack at gravel. Colorado gravel tends toward large rocks and spattering red mud, and this ran true to form. The riders sprinting across the first-stage finish line at Glenwood Springs were red, all red. Some of it was mud, some of it was blood, but all of it was over everything.
"Sheer torture is the only way to describe this race," said one red rider who sounded like Bob Weedin. "I felt like an egg in a sonic scrambling machine." That was the easy part of the race.
The first-place finisher at Glenwood Springs, Steve Hammond (41 miles in 1:23:52) had won a bonus minute to deduct from his time; Kalman Halasi Jr. had won 45 seconds, Jim Crist 30, Stu Pray 20 and Bill Scott 10; the rest had new stories to tell. "I stripped a freewheel and lost a pedal," Meyer was saying just as Dick Oldakowski spurted across the line, fell off his bicycle and lay clutching a cramp acquired in the crossing crash. Presently Oldakowski picked himself up, limped to an automatic car wash, cleaned off himself and his bike and, giving up, caught a ride back to Aspen. Gary Wilson, who had also been in the crash, was ordered out of the race by a doctor. He refused to quit.
The remaining racers left Glenwood Springs behind police escort after a 15-minute rest period, old Lawrence Gordon temporarily catching the field just as it left. Leadville was 90 miles away. Through narrow, twisting Glenwood Canyon, past Grizzly, Shoshone and the trail to Hanging Lake, the field of 14 stayed intact, but between the end of the canyon and Gypsum, Schwaighofer and Gamble quit. Herman Kron dropped back but pedaled on. ("Looks like you folks been in muddy country," said the attendants at the Conoco station in Gypsum.)
Across gentler terrain to Eagle, the pack of 11 hissed along in high gears, swinging into single file to meet a head wind, stringing diagonally across the road for crosswinds. At Eagle, 31 miles and 87 minutes out of Glenwood, the cyclists were pulled over by a trooper for riding more than two abreast. When he sent them on their way, Steve Hammond discovered his knee had stiffened—an old injury recurring. He continued, pedaling with one leg. Three miles farther Bill Scott fell out, but it was not until the group neared Wolcott that Hammond, still leading and still pedaling with only one leg, gave up.
With 52 miles to go before reaching Leadville, Kal Halasi was the leader, Jim Crist was 16 seconds back and Pray 31. The approach to the Continental Divide begins beyond Wolcott, however, and Halasi, a big man as bicycle racers go, soon dropped back. Crist now had the elapsed-time lead, with Pray second and Weedin moving into third. But Weedin is also a big man, and when the old six-day cyclist, Caesar Moretti, waved the field around Vail junction he had already dropped back.
The racers were stopped again at Minturn. This time they were delaying no traffic but their own training cars, a fine point overlooked by the state trooper. Happily, the field was still able to get a running start up Battle Mountain, an aid all but Pray and John Marshall badly needed. Everyone else fell back immediately, and even Crist soon trailed.
After the hard five-mile climb to the top of Battle Mountain, Pray and Marshall, on the other hand, had enough left to sprint. The two screamed down the far side and over the vaulting arch bridge near cliff-hanging Gilman at 60 mph to gain momentum for the 10,424-foot Tennessee Pass. As the two leaders topped the pass 15 miles later, however, Pray's usual knock-kneed gait was made more pronounced by cramps. By pushing a lower gear on hills, Pray nevertheless stayed with Marshall and even saved strength for the sprint into Leadville.
It was an exciting end to the first day's racing. Marshall, straining at last, beat Pray into town by only nine-tenths of a second. Crist came in less than four minutes later, and only 1.5 seconds separated Dziak, who had to be walked by friends, and Patrick Dennis, practically praying as he crossed the line.
The old town put out a real Leadville welcome: the citizenry gathered, listening to the race on car radios; police guarded intersections, listening to transistor models; squad cars, lights flashing and sirens wailing, escorted each rider to the finish.
The party at the Hotel Vendome was also authentic Leadville. The mayor, George Harris, tended bar, and the second-stage winner, John Marshall, got a gold watch. Unbelievably, his name was engraved on it 10 minutes after he hit Harrison Avenue. But in spite of his second-stage sprint, Marshall was still trailing Pray in the overall time.
"I'll have to go down that hill fast tomorrow," he said. "The worst I can do is fall 3,000 feet."
A report circulated around the party that Gary Wilson had ridden the last 115 miles with a broken arm. A cheer went up as old Lawrence Gordon came in, smiling, having finished an hour and a half after the leaders. Dinner was remarkably festive, considering that half the diners had pedaled 131 miles uphill. "Gee," said Jim Crist as he began to eat his second full dinner, "I'm beginning to feel human again."
Next morning there was sleet with breakfast, but by the time the field of 10 was wheeling down California Gulch, 14,431-foot Mt. Elbert had stopped looking like a Christmas card. Aspen was 59 miles away. Near the little red schoolhouse at Bucktown, Bob Weedin began testing the field, jumping at curves and hill crests in tentative attempts to get out of sight. Passing over the Arkansas Valley, the field whirred along at 40 miles per to the junction of U.S. 24 and Colorado 82 (15 miles in 30 minutes). INDEPENDENCE PASS OPEN, the sign read.
It had been all party till now, but beyond a PAN GOLD l MILE sign the slow grind began. Past ultramarine and slate-gray Twin Lakes the cyclists climbed. Past a turn where the Divide could be seen walling in the valley and where wind that blows is cold, even in summer. Past Perry Mountain, where a 1962 avalanche swept away three houses and six lives so silently that neighbors 50 yards away did not discover it until morning. It was a reminder that these mountains, behind the spreading litter of trailer courts, billboards and shoddy houses, are still unforgiving and vengeful.
Halasi and Dziak, slipping half a mile behind at Black Cloud Creek, shifted to the left to use a windbreak provided by tall pines. Meyer was next to feel the 10,300-foot altitude, and he, too, fell back. It was a pack of only seven that swung around Star Mountain and saw the road switchbacking straight up as far as anyone could see.
Oxygen tanks and new wheels at roadside marked the beginning of gravel, but only Dennis stopped to change. Pray and Marshall were away immediately; then came Crist 100 feet behind; Weedin and Wilson; and Kron. Rounding the second switchback, Marshall had moved 150 yards in front. At the third, amid evidence of recent snow, he was charging ahead as if on a motorcycle, and Pray could no longer see him. "If he beats Pray to the top by one minute he'll win," Bidwell yelled at Coronary Corner. Marshall sped by the summit two minutes ahead and two to 12 minutes sooner than the fastest estimates.
Pulling his brakes close to the rim with a special switch, Marshall dropped down washed-out hairpin turns at 30 to 35 miles an hour, rattling over rocks and veering to the outside edge. Suddenly Marshall's front tire blew out at the ghost town of Independence, and he was forced to limp along the rim. Bidwell, who was following, spun his jeep around and shredded rubber back up the pass, in search of a new wheel. But when he got back to Independence, Marshall was long gone. "With Pray within 200 yards, some guy in a VW bus gave Marshall a $79.75 bike with about seven pounds of air in the tire," said Bob Brougham of the Aspen Times later. "He hopped on, stuck down his legs and couldn't reach the pedals. Funniest look on his face. There he was, trying to lower the seat with a wrench as he rode." It was still a fast trip down. Bidwell, freewheeling down the mountain with the ignition off in order to shout into a transceiver that the racers were arriving early, had to skid around the curves at Lost Man Creek and Devil's Punch Bowl and Difficult in order to beat Marshall into Aspen.
Marshall did, in fact, spook across the finish before the whole crowd had gathered. Pray was only 48 seconds behind. Crist was third, and that was the final overall finish: Marshall, Pray and Crist, Marshall winning by 17 seconds out of nine hours, 25 minutes and 22 seconds in two days and 190 miles.
The other riders had harrowing tales to tell, most of all Bob Weedin. On and after Independence Pass, Weedin had broken a chain, lost a crane, lost his rear brake, flattened a tire, staved in a wheel, gotten a new wheel, suffered four more flats, walked down off the gravel with no help in sight, ridden on the flat tire, destroying another wheel. Altogether the riders had run through at least 34 tires, nine wheels, 12 chains, forks, headsets, sprockets, freewheels, cranks, brakes and pedals, one arm (Wilson's, sprained, not broken), three legs and innumerable feeder bottles. Most, however, surveyed the toll of $20 wheels and $200 bicycles in terms of the months of conversation it would provide. With commonly shared enthusiasm they agreed that the race should become one of the biggest and that John Marshall would be mighty useful at the Mexico City Olympics. But there were exceptions. "Bicycle racing is exciting enough without adding actual hazards to life," said Crist, albeit rather cheerfully. Not everybody joined in admiration of the classically mangled equipment. "Whose wheel was that with the spokes hanging in little shattered pieces from the rim?" someone asked Patrick Dennis. "Lots of guys'," Dennis replied, not too happily.
Rio Grande Crossing