A Veteran’s Train Ride For The Iron Horse Classic

Image by Rusty Oremus of engine before leaving the depot

Durango, CO – The annual Iron Horse Bicycle Rally took place once again, attracting over 1,900 cyclists who eagerly signed up to conquer the challenging U.S. Highway 550 route from Durango to Silverton. This unique event, which pits participants against the iconic Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad train, has become a thrilling tradition for both riders and spectators alike.

Every  year, however, the Iron Horse Bicycle Rally holds a special significance for veterans, thanks to the generosity of Al Harper, the owner of the historic train. For the past few years, Harper has been providing a complimentary ride to veterans, allowing them to compete against the bicyclists in a race to the finish line. As a fortunate beneficiary of this offer, I had the privilege of joining the veterans on this remarkable journey, and here is my story.

The morning of the race began early, at 7 AM, as we gathered at the Durango train station. The air buzzed with excitement as cyclists and veterans alike prepared for the adventure ahead. With coffee and snacks in hand, we eagerly awaited our departure. However, a minor delay provided a silver lining, affording ample time for me to locate my designated cart.

At 8 o’clock, the train embarked on its scenic voyage through the picturesque mountains, bound for Silverton. I was fortunate to find myself assigned to the second cart from the engine, reserved exclusively for veterans and their families. This fortunate circumstance meant that the cart was not overly crowded, and I enjoyed the luxury of a seat to myself for the entirety of the journey. Additionally, I relished the freedom to move from one side of the train to the other, ensuring I captured the best possible photographs.

Image by Rusty Oremus of riders racing along Hwy 550

As the train meandered along its 140+ year-old track, I marveled at its narrow gauge of only 3 feet, and the nerve-wracking proximity to the cliffs in various sections of the route. The 3.5-hour ride was not only an opportunity for me to capture breathtaking pictures but also a chance to engage in conversations with fellow passengers. Among them was Al Harper himself, the owner of the train. Harper, who has owned the train for 26 years, shared his personal stories and explained how he has been offering this free service to veterans for years, a cause that holds a special place in his heart. His passion for the annual journey was evident, and he described it as one of his favorite rides. Interestingly, our conversation extended beyond the train, as Harper also owns the Grand Imperial Hotel in Silverton, providing us with yet another intriguing topic to discuss, as I had been involved in the hotel’s roof renovation.

Upon reaching Silverton, the culmination of the race was marked by a vibrant celebration at the local park. It was here that the victorious cyclists crossed the finish line, having conquered the challenging course. In the men’s pro category of the Coca-Cola Road Race, Caleb Classen, aged 21, secured first place with an impressive time of 2 hours, 7 minutes, and 18.6 seconds. Notably, he outpaced the second-place rider by a margin of 1 minute and 37 seconds. Meanwhile, in the women’s pro road race, Kira Payer, aged 24, emerged victorious, completing the course in 2 hours, 30 seconds, and 28.5 seconds. Her triumph over the second-place rider was achieved with a lead of 44 seconds.

Moreover, the park hosted a ceremony in observance of Memorial Day, honoring the sacrifices made by service members. Attendees, including veterans from the train, were treated to a complimentary lunch. The ceremony, led by Jo and Jared Thompson, was a poignant tribute to the men and women who have served their country. Josephine, affectionately known as Jo, had an illustrious career as a medical evacuation officer and pilot, retiring as a colonel. Jared, on the other hand, rose through the ranks to become an experimental test pilot and chief warrant officer 5 (CW5). The couple’s story of love and dedication shone through their military service, with Jared’s decision to forgo a medical evacuation role due to Army policies in order to maintain their relationship. Jo’s desire to fly led her to become a MEDEVAC officer, a challenging endeavor that she pursued with determination. During the ceremony, Jo shared the arduous process of becoming a MEDEVAC pilot, emphasizing the rigor and dedication required for such a role.

Image by Rusty Oremus of speakers and honored guest at Memorial park in Silverton

Following the memorable events at the park, we were graciously provided with a bus ride back to Durango, concluding a day filled with camaraderie, triumph, and heartfelt remembrance. Want to give a special thanks to The Wells Group for helping to organize the event and all the veterans that participated. Including the leaders of the veterans posts for both towns.

The Iron Horse Bicycle Rally, with its unique blend of competition and scenic beauty, once again captured the essence of Durango’s vibrant community. As the train journeyed through the awe-inspiring landscape, veterans and cyclists alike shared their stories, forming connections that transcend the event itself. Al Harper’s unwavering commitment to supporting veterans added a layer of meaning and gratitude to an already cherished tradition. With each passing year, the Iron Horse Bicycle Rally continues to exemplify the spirit of endurance, camaraderie, and the unwavering resolve of those who have served.

Post courtesy of Rusty Oremus for more information about the rally check out this post from Durango Downtown.


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