Bike vs. train: A classic showdown

03:29 - Source: CNN
Man on bike races train for Parkinson's cause

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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 Fit Nation special with all 8 races will air on Saturday, Nov. 19 at 2:30 p.m. ET.


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.

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