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Mountain bikers raced head-to-head in dual slalom racing at Chapman ski area as part of the 50th Iron Horse Bicycle Classic over Memorial Day Weekend in Durango. (Scott DW Smith, Special to The Sun)

DURANGO – After finishing her first bike race during the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic over the weekend, 4-year-old Lexi Cowan was grinning ear to ear. When asked how long she’s been riding bikes, she said, “10 years, I think.” In a town that boasts one of the oldest bicycle races in America, Durango’s next generation is born ready to ride.  

The Iron Horse Bicycle Classic celebrated its 50th anniversary with record attendance. The main event is an old-school contest, pitting human power against steam power, with cyclists racing the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad 47 miles up to Silverton.

The cyclists have the greater challenge, climbing 5,700 feet over two 10,000-foot passes on U.S. 550, while the train chugs through the valleys. Nevertheless, pro riders and many others beat the train every year. 

Durango residents pedal from the Ska Brewery to the Steamworks Brewery to celebrate the breweries’ annual collaboration beer — Faceplant Lager — brewed to celebrate the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic. (Scott DW Smith, Special to The Colorado Sun)

For five decades both local and international riders alike have enjoyed the challenges, the scenery, and the camaraderie of the weekend races. What started as a bet against two brothers in 1971, one the brakeman for the train and the other an avid cyclist, has now evolved into a three-day bike fest with events for every discipline of cycling. After Tom Mayer beat his older brother, Jim, to Silverton on his 1968 Schwinn for the sweet prize of a Baby Ruth candy bar, they discussed making an annual race out of it in order to bring people to town during the slow shoulder season in Durango. One year later in 1972, the first official race took place with 36 riders who paid an entry fee of $1.25. 

The race, since its inception, “intended to bring people to town for the first train ride of the year, to fill restaurants and hotels, and to boost the economic impact to the community,” race director Gaige Sippy said.

And it’s had quite the impact over the last 50 years, funneling millions into local businesses every year, including $4.5 million this spring. As the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic planning committee has grown the event, they’ve ensured 80% of the revenue stays in the community with 10% specifically supporting local entities such as the Fort Lewis Cycling Team and the community mountain bike development program Durango Devo

No other cycling event in Colorado has endured like the Iron Horse. The graveyard of dead bike races is vast – the Tour of California, the Tour of Utah, the Tour of Georgia and Colorado’s USA Pro Challenge, Red Zinger Bicycle Classic and Coors Classic – and the Colorado Classic is searching for a lifeline.  But Durango’s Iron Horse Classic thrives despite similar challenges that have doomed other events. It is a logistical challenge to close a busy state highway for five hours over Memorial Day weekend, requiring coordination between five different law enforcement agencies, as well as emergency medical services, Durango and La Plata County officials, volunteers, race timers and many others.

“Everyone plays a part in this outstanding success story,” the late Ed Zink, one of the race founders and a driver of its longevity, said in 2018. “Whether you ride your bike, volunteer as a marshal, provide food at a rest stop, cheer for the racer, or just put up with the inconvenience of the whole weekend — you are a part of it.” 

Durango’s secret to success for the Iron Horse, Sippy said, is support from the entire community.

“Even if you don’t like riding bikes, our community still takes pride in the history and economic benefits of the event,” Sippy said.

Olympic mountain biker Howard Grotts leads fellow Olympian Todd Wells – both from Durango – in Monday’s cross-country race at the 50th annual Iron Horse Bicycle Classic. (Scott DW Smith, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Durango hosted the first-ever sanctioned UCI Mountain Bike World Championships in 1990 at Purgatory Resort. Local mountain biking legend Ned Overend took first place in the cross-country division that year. Shortly after, he helped write the rulebook for the first Olympic mountain bike event in 1996. 

Sippy remembers watching Overend pedal past his house every morning, heading into town to dumpster-dive outside of bike shops for rejected bike parts. 

“He was religiously collecting and tinkering, always improving his bikes,” Sippy said. 

Overend still races, making a 9th place finish this weekend in the overall men’s pro category at age 66. He is lovingly referred to as the “Pope of Silverton” because when he crosses the line, the crowd engulfs him like a holy man. 

Durango cycling legend Ned Overend nears 60mph while descending Coal Bank Pass on U.S. 550 on his way to Silverton during the May 28, 2022 road race as part of the 50th Iron Horse Bicycle Classic. Overend, 66, finished the weekend in 9th place in the overall men’s pro category. He is known as the “Pope of Silverton” because when he crosses the line, the crowd swarms him like a holy man. (Scott DW Smith, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The local legacies continue with Durango Devo graduates taking the podium in both the men and women’s categories, including Quinn Simmons and Riley Amos, two Durango-raised athletes who logged record times in the road race. 

The Devo program, started officially in 2006, is one of the greatest contributors of cyclists to the international racing scene. 

“Every season we add a new program, and it continues to grow every year,” Durango Devo co-founder Sarah Tescher said. “I don’t think we have ever been able to meet the demand.” 

There are currently over 600 Durango Devo participants, ages 2 to 18, run by 100 coaches. The program’s alumni include Olympians, World Tour pros, Grand Tour stage winners, Cape Epic champions, World Championship medalists, and more than 50 national champions — all of whom count the Iron Horse as an inspiration. 

Durango’s cycling legacy surpasses that of other communities due, in part, to the long history of hosting international bike events and fostering the development of high-level riders. 

One of the main reasons the Iron Horse has lasted for 50 years is because it is always adapting to the current evolutions of cycling. The event is not just the famous road race but also includes cross-country, BMX, dual slalom, gravel, e-bike, cruiser, and kids’ races. There is something for every type of bike enthusiast. 

“For many, the Iron Horse is a bucket-list event. Some people use it as a goal to get back in shape after the winter, and for others it is a celebration in their recovery from cancer,” Sippy noted. 

Durango’s Tom Mayer in 1971 made a bet that he could pedal his Schwinn to Silverton faster than his brother could reach the mining town on the narrow gauge railroad from Durango. Mayer won and the next year started the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic race. The three-day celebration of all things cycling turned 50 over Memorial Day Weekend and Mayer raced to Silverton on his 1968 Schwinn. (Scott DW Smith, Special to The Colorado Sun)

There are new moms, riders with disabilities, father-daughter duos, and groups of friends who make it an annual tradition. 

“We attract participants at every age and ability. From toddlers on push bikes to olympians, everyone is having fun this weekend,” he said.

New to this year’s schedule was a road ride to Silverton from Ouray, which sent 300 riders over the iconic Red Mountain Pass and added another mountain town to the festivities. 

There was also the rebirth of the “Roostmaster,” a mountain bike event that was created as a race for ESPN. This invite-only race requires elite riders to climb steep and loose terrain, then quickly descend and “roost” the corners of the dual slalom course. 

The return of the Roostmaster awed the crowd with high speeds and hard crashes, adding just a little blood to the bike weekend. Ruth Holcomb, a 19-year-old Durango Devo grad turned national champion, said she was honored to be racing the legendary Roostmaster. 

“I just have to be fast on the up, and fast on the down,” she said. 

Brian Hastey races in the dual slalom event at the Chapman ski area during Durango’s 50th annual Iron Horse Bicycle Classic. (Scott DW Smith, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Fast indeed. Holcomb raced in three events over the weekend, taking 2nd place in the Roostmaster and 1st in the Subaru Mountain Bike Race.   

On the other side of the ridge from Fort Lewis College, the cross-country mountain bikers raced through the Horse Gulch Trail system and parts of the Colorado High School State Championship course. The trails are meticulously built and maintained by Durango Trails, the local nonprofit trails organization. The race started on Durango Mesa Park, an 1,850 acre parcel that is slated to become the largest bike park in Colorado.

This project, managed by the Durango Mesa Park Foundation, is an excellent example of the community collaboration that has sustained the Iron Horse Classic. The land will host the La Plata County Fairgrounds with an equine facility, a multi-event center for festivals, a disc golf course, hundreds of miles of hiking, biking, and equestrian trails, and 800 acres of directional, progressive mountain bike trails. 

Although the Durango area boasts 300 miles of trails within 30 minutes of town, there are still missing pieces when it comes to a well-rounded trail system. 

“We recognize that there is a lack of progressive flow trails as well as beginner trails in our community,” said Sippy. “Durango Mesa Park will be a place where our kids can learn and train, as well as a place to host races on world cup level courses.” 

They are currently in the master planning process, with initial construction beginning 2023. This project will continue to elevate Durango’s title as the top mountain bike destination in Colorado.   

Local breweries Ska Brewing and Steamworks Brewing Co. have collaborated since 1997 to brew a beer specifically for the Iron Horse Classic, which serves as Durango’s official kick-off to summer. This year the brewers joined forces with Tailwind Nutrition to create the electrolyte-infused Faceplant Lager, brewed with Mandarina Bavaria hops and orange blossom honey as well as Tailwind’s all-natural recovery fuel. 

Durango’s Ska Brewery and Steamworks Brewery collaborated with Tailwind Nutrition to create the electrolyte-infused Faceplant Lager to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Iron Horse Classic. (Scott DW Smith, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“We are excited for our first ever nutrition and beer collaboration, and we hope Faceplant lager brings riders and community members together in celebration of the 50th Iron Horse,” said Jeff Vierling, co-founder of Durango-based Tailwind Nutrition.  

Whether it is a road race through the San Juan mountains of Colorado, a head-to-head dual slalom, or a costumed cruiser ride through downtown Durango, the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic has become a bucket-list event for cyclists across the planet.

Every year, thousands of athletes race against the train, battle for coveted podiums and soak up the scenery of the San Juans. 

Durango, the birthplace of competitive mountain biking, has labored to maintain its status as a leader of all things cycling, building progressive trails and enlisting wide swaths of the community to support the city’s cycling legacy. The Iron Horse Bicycle Classic brings together all types of pedalers and supports myriad events with community leaders, law enforcement, race organizers, brewers and nutritionists. This collaboration is precisely what has sustained the race for half a century.

“There’s nothing else like this in the world,” said Tom Mayer, now in his 70s, who raced to Silverton this year on his original 1968 Schwinn.