Unicyclist puts smiles on hundreds of faces – The Durango Herald
Mike Tierney starts riding Iron Horse early so he can finish with the crowd
Because most people can’t stay on top of a unicycle for more than a moment or two, seeing a one-wheeled rider climbing mountain passes and riding all the way to Silverton is quite an event.
Mike Tierney of Aspen first attempted to ride a unicycle at the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic in 2005. He was invited to participate by fellow unicyclist Bill Manning, then director of Trails 2000, who had persuaded the ‘Iron Horse to authorize a ‘united’ division.
This year marks the 50th running of the annual Durango-Silverton race pitting bikes against trains. Ed Zink, who promoted and encouraged the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic from its inception in 1972, passed away in October 2019. He was looking forward to the 50th anniversary, and this weekend’s Memorial Day festival is being held in his memory. .
In conjunction with the Iron Horse Organizing Committee and as part of its 50th celebration, former Herald of Durango Writer and editor John Peel has put together a series of stories tracing the history of running and racing. These stories and more have been compiled into a book, “Iron Horse Bicycle Classic 50th Anniversary: Looking Back, Racing Forward.”
About six unicyclists started with the train whistle that year. Some went down the main avenue, others up to Animas Valley. Manning has arrived in purgatory. There were few other two-wheelers around at the time, but Tierney kept going.
He was no stranger to mountain passes – he trained on the 12,095-foot-high Independence Pass – but he wasn’t used to connecting two passes together and was always nervous at the idea to finish. He received congratulations from onlookers, but by the time he got to Silverton, “they were actually rolling through the streets,” Tierney recalled with a laugh. He had hoped to eat at the restaurant which had posted a sign “Free food for unicyclists or Lance”, but it was already closed.
A few officials dismantling the finish line congratulated him, but otherwise the street was deserted. It had taken about six hours. A dozen people eagerly awaited his arrival on a bus so they could all return to Durango. As beautiful as it was, the ending was a little disappointing.
Ten years later, he tries again. This time, in 2015, he started early so he could blend in with the other runners.
“What a difference it made,” he said. “It turned the event into a whole different ball game.”
He mingled in the event for the last 2½ to 3 hours and had a great time.
“You lost a wheel,” joked a passing runner.
“I live in Aspen. I can only afford one.
As he approached Silverton, word spread.
“There were people running out of stores: ‘The unicyclist is here!'” Tierney said. “You could just see the wave forming.”
He felt the appreciation and the love and felt the tears flow. “It’s a moment I want to bottle up for history.”
After that, Tierney decided to ride the Iron Horse every year to push his limits and ride a car-free highway. He sees how much it makes people happy to see him and loves the feeling of giving back to the world in a fun and positive way.
In the spring of 2022, 63-year-old Tierney retired after 42 years of service with the Aspen Highlands Ski Patrol. He still runs a solar energy business, now in its 40th year.
In an April interview, Tierney said he planned to take perhaps one last Iron Horse unicycle trip, his eighth, to celebrate the 50th.
“It’s so cool how they support this thing,” Tierney said of the Durango and Silverton communities. “Over 50 years of work, and it showed no disappointment.”