As a Colorado resident for the last 17.5 years, most of my in-state exploration has been limited to areas near the Front Range and ski resorts. Last August I did my first road trip out to the southwestern part of our beautiful state and landed in Ouray. The jaw-dropping views from every turn of the road and my bike ride on the Million Dollar Highway made me want to come back for more.
I heard of this small city just north of the Colorado-New Mexico border and the perfect opportunity to visit presented itself in the form of the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic. This event has a long history, celebrating over 100 years of cycling in Durango. You can see it in the infrastructure around town.
The Iron Horse Bicycle Classic started out as a race between two brothers, Tom and Jim Mayer, with a Baby Ruth candy bar as the winner’s prize. Jim worked as a brakeman for the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad, which ran the steam powered locomotive between Durango and Silverton. Tom was a young cyclist who grew up near the train tracks to Silverton.
One day Tom challenged Jim to a race to Silverton. As the train came by the house, the steam whistle screamed and Tom climbed on his trusty steel framed 10-speed and rode all the way into Silverton. Tom beat the train and won the Baby Ruth candy bar and bragging rights. In 1972, Tom conceived the idea to turn his favorite cycling route into an organized race. Check out Tom’s story of the origin of the race here.
For a town with the population of around 18,000, Durango has an impressive offering of really tasty restaurants, fun retail shops, wide variety of outdoor activities, and plenty of lodging options. The weekend of the IHBC, Buckley Park in downtown Durango turns into a fun festival location with live music, vendors, and bike parade. The vibe was definitely very laid back and I was impressed by how far many riders traveled for the chance to “beat the train.”
At the IHBC, there are activities for every type and ability of riders. Saturday was the main day for the road cycling portion of the weekend. The Durango Coca-Cola Road Race was a timed event with cash prizes awarded to winners. Down by the train station was the McDonald’s Citizens Tour to Silverton, starting with the whistle blow of the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad train. Riders were then greeted at the finish line in downtown Silverton with a fun finish line festival which included a beer garden, food vendors, and much more. Cyclists wanting to do a shorter ride could do the Quarter Horse, a 25 mile tour from Durango to Purgatory Ski Resort.
As far as my own personal experience as a first-timer at the IHBC, I opted for the Road Race. The start of the RR was at Durango High School, and each division went off every 4 minutes. Along the course there were plenty of cowbell and cheers from locals, fans, and race volunteers. The three major “checkpoints” along the route with basic support (porto-potties, hydration, snacks) were the Purgatory Ski Area, Coal Bank Pass, and Molas Pass.
The start to Purgatory was definitely a great warm up to the rest of the race. Similar grades as Squaw Pass Road (Evergreen, CO), it is a very scenic section going past various points of interests including Honeyville, a locally-owned beekeeping and honey bottling business. The climb from Purgatory up to Coal Bank Pass (elevation 10,640’), although only 4-5 miles long, will test your climbing ability like no other. Many seasoned riders, myself included, were found hopping off our bikes along the way to stretch out aching lower backs. After reaching the top of Coal Bank Pass you get a short but much welcomed break, 2-3 mile descent before starting the 4 mile climb up to Molas Pass (10,910’).
The top of Molas Pass was definitely a sight for sore eyes. Once you reach this point, you are done climbing and can enjoy the fast sweeping descent into the town of Silverton. I was greeted with cheering and even more cowbell as I rode through the main part of town on Greene Street to the finish at Silverton Memorial Park.
After the finish of my race, I hopped on the train back to Durango. It was a beautiful and relaxing four hour ride through the San Juan Mountains. If you plan on doing this as part of your weekend, it is highly recommended purchasing your train ticket when registering for your event as it sells out early. Other options include buying a shuttle bus ticket back to Durango or bribing a stranger to drive you back.
Race organizers definitely made things fairly easy for riders to enjoy the entire experience. Bike transport from Silverton to Durango was included and I was able to check my bike in right after crossing the finish line. No need to worry about how to get my bike back. Riders were also able to check in gear bags at the start and pick them up at the finish. Super easy.
Bike pick up was available later that day back in Durango at the High School and they were pretty strict with their security efforts. I had friends that tried to pick up my bike, and even with text messages and photos with my race bib number the volunteers stood firm and only allowed the actual rider to take their bike. Thumbs up to that crew!!!
To sum it all up, the ride was tough, fun, and I would definitely do it again! If you are looking for reasons to sign up for next year’s ride, here are my top 10 reasons you need to put this on your racing bucket list:
- Beautiful scenery
- Challenging course
- Music and fun at the event festival
- Mountain bike race course goes right through Steamworks Brewery!
- Don’t want to do the road race? There’s the Full Costume Cruiser Crit too!
- People come from all over the country to ride the Iron Horse
- You get a chance to beat the train!
- Most of the 50 mile course the highway is completely closed to vehicular traffic
- Ride the train from Silverton back to Durango when you’re done racing!
- Three words…Durango is fun!