Shaun Stanley/Durango Herald
Mitch Hoke thinks more mountain bike races should be like the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic.
Between the crowds that pushed against the tape and barricades to cheer the riders on, the route that wound through Durango’s main thoroughfare and even through the inside of Steamworks Brewing Co., and strong competition from around the country, Boulder’s Hoke said Sunday’s race “was hands down the best mountain bike race I’ve ever been to.”
It probably didn’t hurt that he won it, either.
Hoke held off Fort Lewis College’s Rotem Ishay, a two-time Israeli and two-time collegiate national champion, on the final stretch of the three-lap course to claim the Iron Horse mountain bike crown.
Howard Grotts of FLC took third, way ahead of the rest of the pack after riding through downtown Durango, up and around the FLC campus and back through downtown for the finish.
“It was really hard,” Ishay said. “It basically covered everything you can cover just outside of town.”
Hoke and Grotts broke out early, while Ishay struggled with a bad start after his pedal slipped on the first slippery climb.
Ishay, who finished 17th in Saturday’s road race to Silverton, caught the duo on the second lap and overtook Grotts before Hoke turned on the burners on the overpass bridge that crossed over Saturday’s criterium track shortly before the finish downtown.
Fresh off a sixth-place finish in the road race, Grotts, a Durango native and Durango High School alumnus, said he just didn’t have it in him to catch the other two once they passed him.
“I just thought if I could limit the damage he did to me on the climbs, I could catch him on the flats and decents,” Hoke said.
Grotts, the defending Iron Horse mountain bike champion who just returned from European mountain bike racing, said the level of competition in this year’s race was much higher than last year – the first year Iron Horse organizers decided to bring back mountain biking after a long hiatus.
“Durango World Championship: That’s what it is in three words,” Ishay said.
And after riding in Europe, Grotts was happy to be back in front of a hometown crowd.
“Those guys over there cheer for all the Frenchmen,” Grotts said. “But they cheer louder for us here.”
And nowhere was the cheering louder than inside Steamworks, where the riders rode through an open restaurant window, through the bar, down a ramp out the back and over a patch of crowd-pleasing obstacles.
“It was awesome going through that bar,” Hoke said. “It’s too bad more races aren’t like this.”
“Steamworks was insane,” said Sarah Zoey Sturm of Durango, who took fifth in the “super-duper suffery” women’s field. “I would do that section over and over again, it was so fun. And sketchy. I’m glad I still have all my teeth.”
Sturm, a former national collegiate mountain bike champion at Fort Lewis, said her first professional race was “the most nerve-wracking thing ever.”
“I thought I was either going to barf or cry at the start,” she said.
Durango native Teal Stetson-Lee didn’t barf or cry and kept all of her teeth, too, as she managed to make her first-place finish look easy.
After taking second in last year’s race, Stetson-Lee said she came out with a “vengeance” and took advantage of months of training on the tight and turny “tape maze” section in FLC’s Factory Trails to build her lead bit by bit.
“My hometown trails – I’m quite fond of,” Stetson-Lee said. “Those seconds, they just add up ... I was like, ‘I know how to ride this.’”
Sturm, who is a former roommate of Stetson-Lee, said she had no doubt her friend would take the top spot Saturday.
“I kind of knew she was going to go for the win, and when Teal gets an idea in her head, she does it,” Sturm said.
The former Fort Lewis rider said it was “a dream” to ride with the “legendary” Shonny Vanlandingham, who took second behind her Luna Chix teammate.
Vanlandingham, the 2010 Xterra offroad triathlon world champion, is recovering from reconstructive knee surgery late last year.
Boulder’s Meredith Miller, who took eighth in the road race as part of her first-ever visit to Durango, finished third.
“It was really awesome,” Stetson-Lee said. “I love winning races in my home town; it’s the best.”