50 miles, 7,000 feet of climbing " all on a unicycle | SummitDaily.com

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50 miles, 7,000 feet of climbing " all on a unicycle

Mike Tierney rides his unicycle prior to the start of the Ride for the Pass in May. Aspen Times photo/Mark Fox.

ASPEN ” Two days before the 34th annual Iron Horse Bicycle Classic, Aspen’s Mike Tierney learned on the internet that the race ” a grueling 50-miler from Durango to Silverton ” featured a unicycle division for the first time.

“And when I found out the road was going to be closed to traffic for the race, I thought, ‘Man, I’ve got to do this,'” Tierney said.

Tierney, an avid unicyclist and familiar sight around Aspen, scrapped his boating plans and hit the road south for the May 28 race, which attracted more than 2,000 participants.

He was one of seven unicyclists at the starting line, but after 50 miles, 7,000 feet of climbing and 4,400 feet of descending (up and down Coalbank and Molas passes) along the “Million Dollar Highway,” Tierney was the first and only single-wheeler to finish the race.

Riding a 36-inch wheel, it took him about six hours (five hours in the saddle, six with breaks).

“The descents were the hardest part because I don’t have a brake and I can’t coast ” it’s all legs,” said Tierney, a Highlands ski patroller and co-owner of Aspen Solar Inc.

But during all that suffering on the way to Silverton, a funny thing happened. Highway 550 re-opened to traffic about four hours after the start, and Tierney at that point was near the top of Molas Pass (10,900 feet) with about 10 miles to go to the finish.

Soon, up the pass came caravan after caravan of racers making their way back to Durango.

“There was a steady stream of honking the whole time,” Tierney said, “the whole way down.”

“When I made it into Silverton, the streets weren’t packed like they were for the pros, but there were still enough folks there ” and it was like a wave of cheers. I don’t do it for that reason, but I tell you what, after being out there for six hours, it certainly makes you feel good.”

“The disbelief look was a common look that I saw,” Tierney said. “People just don’t think that it can be done.”

In another Iron Horse first, a disabled former Navy SEAL became the pioneering hand cyclist to finish the race, Tierney said.

In the front window of a local Silverton establishment, Rocky Mountain Funnel Cakes and Cafe, the proprietor had slung two signs. One read, “Free food to Iron Horse participant Lance Armstrong,” and another, “Free food to any unicyclist that finishes the Iron Horse.”

Well, Armstrong didn’t show up in Silverton, but one unicyclist did.

“That was pretty cool,” Tierney said. “Unfortunately, I didn’t see the sign until it was too late ” they’d already closed.”

Next up for Tierney ” the famed Mount Washington Hill Climb on Aug. 20.

Tierney noted the race has been done by a unicyclist ” once.

“And this year there’s three of us signed up,” Tierney said. “I want to do well, so I’ve been trying to find the steepest roads I can around here. But it’s tough. Independence Pass has the vertical gain, but it’s just not steep enough.”