25 years of serious suffering
Death Ride puts cyclists through 228 miles in a day

Early in the day, Fred Hutt grunts up the highway from Silverton toward Red Mountain Pass./Photo by Jenna Hutt

Last week, long before the sun had even stirred, a group of six locals - dubbed crazy by others and even themselves - set off to travel the famed San Juan Skyway. Not impressive? Perhaps it isn't - if you're driving a car. But these "crazies" were on nothing but two wheels.

The cycling enthusiasts set off to do the 228-mile loop, starting and ending in Durango. And they took only the day to do it. It is aptly named the "Death Ride," for which no explanation seems necessary. In fact, there aren't many explanations for the Death Ride, other than it is, as originator Bob Gregorio puts it, "a group ride amongst friends."

But it is also known in the cycling community as a sort of "underground event." Cyclists abound in this part of the state, especially since the terrain provides a range of riding for a range of cycling levels. There are also legions of organized races and events that demand skill and fitness. These are on the surface for cyclists. The Death Ride, in contrast, is equally, if not more, demanding, and is talked about with regard not used for other rides.

"It's like riding a world-class course in one day," says rider Fred Hutt.

Mike Docherty puts one pedal in front of the next above Telluride and en route to Lizard Head Pass./Photo by Jenna Hutt

This year was the 25th anniversary of the Death Ride - though no one thought about that until the day after it was over. You see, the ride is unofficial and so informal that these kinds of trivial things slip by unnoticed.

The ride's casual history begins with Gregorio. In 1979, working with the Outdoor Pursuits programs at Fort Lewis College, Gregorio organized the 228-mile ride just for fun. He billed it as a two-day ride, with an overnight stop in Ouray. The cyclists pulled it off. But by the following year, when Gregorio decided to organize the Death Ride again, he and others significantly upped the challenge by making it a one-day ride instead.


"Well, we were athletes looking for a greater challenge," says Gregorio.

Over the years, the course has stayed the same, but the dynamics have changed and new challenges have come along. This includes everything from participants to weather. Yet, in spite of these things, the informal gathering of cyclists takes place each year. Because the riders do it in one day, Gregorio says they try to do the ride during the full moon and near the longest day of the year. This provides longer daylight hours. Still, there is plenty of darkness on the ride - riders leave in the wee morning hours and return as the sun is setting.

"This year we did it in 17 hours, but I'd say the average is about 16 hours," Gregorio explains the day after the infamous ride. "I'm pretty worked today. I think I lost five pounds yesterday. No, I really did."

Although Gregorio is regarded as the founding father of the ride, he stopped doing the rides for about 12 years during the 1990s.

"I took those years off to 'get a life,'" he says. By this, he means he married and had children. Those priorities took precedence over the annual Death Ride. Still, the Death Ride went on without him. Then, last year, Gregorio rejoined the ride he christened.

"I got a life but I still pursue my various endeavors," he explains.

On only the second of many major passes, Fred Hutt and Bob Gregorio work their way to the top of Molas./Photo by Jenna Hutt

Gregorio was back at work as a bike mechanic the day after the Death Ride. He didn't have time to spare, but he wasn't gloating.

During his absence, Gregorio says, more and different people experienced the Death Ride. It scared some away, while hooking others. Some years, the group grew to include as many as 12 riders. But usually the number of riders is only a handful.

"It is so classically difficult that I always knew it would weed out a lot of people," he adds.

This year, six men and two women ventured over several of the most difficult mountain passes in the Continental West. Riders included Gregorio, Hutt, Rick Callies, Linda Paris, Emily Loman and Mike Docherty.

All of them gathered for what Gregorio calls the ultimate and only prize: common fatigue and pain. Fortunately, they all thrive on a test of physical endurance and mental moxie.

"The first time I did it, I wanted to see if I could do it. The second time I did it to see if I could do it and enjoy it," says Callies, whose second ride was this year.

The official word from Callies is that he did, indeed, enjoy it this year. He is also officially part of a crazy group.

"Every time I heard people talk about doing this ride, I thought they were crazy," he says.

This year Callies decided to do the Death Ride only a few days before it was scheduled. The last-minute decision paid off, mostly because this year's riders didn't engage in a pseudo-race, he explains.

In the past, some people turned the Death Ride into a race, where it was a daylong game of attack-and-chase. Ultimately, this burned out everyone too quickly and even tainted the spirit of the decades-long ride.

"This is not something that's enjoyable to be ridden as a race," says Hutt, who has finished the ride three out of the four times he's attempted it.

Riders take advantage of the group as they draft their way up Dallas Divide. The six were well into the ride but still more than 100 miles from home./Photo by Jenna Hutt

With Gregorio back, Callies says, he thinks the Death Ride will continue in the spirit it was born with - a ride without pressure and pretense. Hutt agrees. In fact, he says he rode this year because Gregorio was on board.

"Since he's the founding father, I wanted to do it with him and do it in the fashion of a team ride," says Hutt.

All three of these riders attribute the longevity of the ride to this prevailing approach. "Nothing is official about this ride, which, for me, is part of the appeal," Gregorio says, always emphasizing that it is not a race.

As the originator, he isn't interested in turning the Death Ride into an organized event either. Neither are its other participants. They like the anti-establishment nature of a ride with a good reputation. Which, by the way, is enhanced because there have never been any serious injuries or "death."

"It just shows us that there is a crazy person born every minute," says Callies.







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