SI Vault
Harold Peterson
October 04, 1965
The North American Bicycle Championship, a 190-mile grind over a monster course at high altitudes, tested the stamina and nerve of 16 hardy riders
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October 04, 1965

A Two-day Torture On Wheels

The North American Bicycle Championship, a 190-mile grind over a monster course at high altitudes, tested the stamina and nerve of 16 hardy riders

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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.

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