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!"