An On-Again, Off-Again Love Story
Dating back to well over a century ago, motorcycles have been an integral, exciting part of the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb…most of the time. Though there have been years where no motorcycles were allowed to compete, primarily due to deaths and injuries of participants, when the two-wheeled machines were part of the festivities, there was not a dull moment to be had.
In 1916, the year it all began, the first winner of the motorcycle division climbed the hill, and it seems that the last motorcycle crossed the finish line in the race to the clouds in 2019, as bikes have now been banned from the race following the death of a participant. While only allowed to compete in 41 of the hill climbs, it is without a doubt that every year motorcycle participants graced the Peak, they brought passion and heart to the race. They offered fans from the world over an unparalleled sense of adventure and excitement that could be found nowhere else.
Over a century before the debut of the International Hill Climb, Lt. Zebulon Pike declared that no man would ever reach the summit of the Peak. The Peak starts at over 9,300 feet above sea level, summits at over 14,000 ft., and has over 150 break-neck turns along the 12.42-mile track, giving credence to Pike’s claim. However, people from all over the country came out to see his theory dispelled in 1916.
Motorcycles proudly competed in this first official jaunt up the road to the clouds. Floyd Clymer was the first motorcyclist to make it to the top of the Peak, making the trek in just under 22 minutes. He went on to win two of the four biking events that year, placing second and near the top in the other two.
Climber took on the rest of the motorcycling challengers in a bike he built himself. Though his bike wasn’t as sleek or quick as the others he competed against, Clymber said that it handled better than other factory bikes, and he appeared to be right on the money with his theory.
Though the race was a hit, the following three years did not see a race to the summit due to World War I. When it picked back up again in 1920, fans were disappointed to see that bikes would not compete. They would remain disappointed for over three decades, as the motorcycle races on Pikes Peak were put on hiatus due to the race not being sanctioned by the AMA.
1954 welcomed the return of motorcycles to the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb. 1955 brought about the second year in a row for bikes to compete, and the big block four-stroke twins came out on top both years. But 1955 would be the last run for the bikes on the Peak until 1971.
Once again, bikes were welcomed back to be part of the festivities, and this time their run would last longer than the years prior. Bikes were welcome in the International Hill Climb until tragedy struck in 1976.
Poor visibility for motorcycle racers due to exhaust from the bikes caused many issues for riders. In ’76, a near-tragic ending caused a halt to be brought to two-wheelers being allowed to race once again. One of the two racers who were in the running for victory at the Peak’s summit hit the pole that held the finish line banner, and the racer coming in third was almost decapitated as the wire that held the banner found itself stretched across the road.
Thankfully, that tragedy was avoided, but motorcycles would not find their place back on the road to the clouds until the beginning of the next decade because of the accident. That stent would last from 1980 - to ’82. The motorcycle portion of the race was once again put on hold when a rider did, in fact, lose his life during the competition.
Motorcycles would not appear again on the race docket until 1991. By this time, the race’s organizers had developed a system where each racer was individually timed, removing the need for all of the bikes to rev up and take off simultaneously. This procedure was implemented to eliminate some of the issues caused by the bikes’ exhaust. In turn, some of the visibility issues caused by exhaust that resulted in accidents and fatalities would be reduced.
In ’91, promotors found themselves in a lurch after opening the race back up to include motorcycles, and they were in danger of not having enough entries for the race. After a bit of reconfiguring, they found just under 60 riders to sign up in two months, and the race to the Peak was a-go.
Over the next 28 years, motorcycles were an integral part of the PPIHC. Records were made and broken. The first motorcycle to make it to the Peak summit during the first race in 1916 came in at a time of just under 22 minutes. In the final motorcycle race, the winner finished in under 10 minutes.
Due to a tragic accident where a prominent rider lost his life, it has been determined that motorcycle racing will never be allowed at the PPIHC again. It seems that this is the final word, and fans should not expect the ban to be lifted.
Though the history of motorcycles in the PPIHC was tumultuous, to say the least, every year they were allowed to participate, they promised an exciting ride.
Though tragedy could appear around any of the Peak’s curves, riders and fans were always on the edge of their seats to see how the race would unfold. When bike enthusiasts reflect on motorcycle participation since the inception of the PPIHC, they will no doubt say, “What a ride!”