It would be almost impossible to top last year’s five-man sprint finish for the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic road race championship. The finish had everything cycling fans could ask for, with local heroes flying down Molas Pass together after 47 riveting miles and 6,700 feet of climbing from Durango to Silverton.
A three-time Olympian, a rising phenom, a legend, a young and skilled Fort Lewis College star and a German mountain bike veteran who has called Durango home went to the line. Todd Wells, the Olympian, pulled a foot out of a pedal at the start of Silverton’s Greene Street, the final gradual uphill road to the finish line. The young phenom, Christopher Blevins, who had graduated as valedictorian of Durango High School only a day earlier, put in a strong attack, but he clipped the rear-wheel of Fort Lewis star Payson McElveen and faceplanted on the asphalt. That gave 60-year-old mountain biking legend and five-time IHBC winner Ned Overend a third-place finish.
In the end, it came down to McElveen and Benjamin Sonntag, the always consistent pro mountain biker from Germany, in a photo finish at the line. Initially, it looked as though Sonntag had the win. Upon further review, the victory went to McElveen by a hair in 2 hours, 20 minutes, 7.5 seconds.
“A year out, it’s still a really cool day for me to remember for a long time,” McElveen said. “I don’t know that it will happen again this year, but that was a pretty memorable finish. I hope I’m never part of a carnage finish line that again, but it sure was a memorable race.”
There is only one way to top the finish from that year, and that’s to bring in an even better field for the 46th Iron Horse Bicycle Classic Coca-Cola Road Race.
Enter 2016 mountain bike Olympian Howard Grotts, a 2010 Durango High School graduate who has been a force on the pro mountain biking circuit since he was 22 and first started challenging the pro elite fields. Now 24, Grotts is coming off a big win at the Grand Junction Off-Road backcountry mountain bike race last Sunday.
Also insert professional road cyclist Sepp Kuss, a 2013 Durango High School graduate who is fresh off a strong showing at the Tour of California stage race last weekend with his Rally Cycling team. Kuss finished 10th in the climbing stage up Mount Baldy and was 28th overall in the UCI World Tour event. He’s in fine form.
“Howard and Sepp together, that’s a lot of horsepower,” Sonntag said. “Those two, they’re the hands-on-favorites.”
‘The favorites’McElveen won’t count himself out of a repeat performance. He was recently crowned the USA Cycling marathon mountain biking national champion. He said people keep asking him about the pressure of being the defending champ at the IHBC, but he doesn’t see any pressure.
“Having Howard and Sepp there, I don’t feel the pressure because they are pretty heavy favorites,” McElveen said. “Their abilities shine brightest on those long climbs. I have an edge on guys like that in other events, but this is where they really excel.”
Grotts hasn’t done the road race since 2012, and Kuss said he can’t remember the last time he competed in the hometown event. Grotts, in a post-Olympic year, didn’t mind missing a European World Cup event this weekend. That event did take Blevins out of this year’s field. Kuss, in the middle of his pro tour season, saw it is a good opportunity to come home and prepare for the second stretch of his international road racing schedule.
Still, the humble favorites are downplaying their ability to run away with the race.
“I’m not really sure where my form will be at,” said Kuss, who successfully graduated from the University of Colorado at Boulder earlier this month. “I’m taking this week before the race completely off as a midseason reset. I’m obviously in decent form coming off of California, but you never know how the body will feel after taking a week off. I’m excited to put it all out there and get back on the bike.
“Either way, it will be a shock to the system. It’s a short race, but those are almost harder because it’s faster all day. The one-day races aren’t necessarily my forte, and I think it will be hard.”
Grotts said he has only done one road ride in the last three months, but he joined McElveen for a ride up the passes last week and hit them harder this week. Grotts is interested to see how his childhood friend Kuss is riding coming off of California. The race will really start at Coal Bank Pass for the two elite climbers, and nobody, including Grotts, will be surprised to see them breakaway at that point depending on wind conditions, as a headwind on Molas usually negates breakaway attempts on the second climb.
“Sepp is definitely the person to watch once we hit the bottom of Coal Bank,” Grotts said. “The Iron Horse plays out more like a mountain bike race. There’s not too much hiding when you hit the real climbs, so I expect Payson, Sonntag and the mountain bikers to still be there.”
Kuss is bringing Rally Cycling teammate Colin Joyce with him to the race. Kuss said Joyce is looking to move to the area.
Grotts and McElveen are good friends. But when asked if there was anyone he might work with during the race, Grotts had only one person in mind.
“If I can rope Ned into helping me, I’d love to do that,” Grotts said.
‘Never rule out Ned’At 61 years old, nobody can ever count Overend, the five-time IHBC road race champion, out of contention. He benefited from the misfortune of Blevins and Wells to take third a year ago, but the savvy veteran was with the breakaway group the entire race and took more than his fair share of turns at the front of the group.
As always, Overend downplayed his preparation for the race, but nobody doubts his ability.
“Never rule out Ned,” Sonntag said. “I need an extraordinarily good day to keep up in the passes with Howard and Sepp and even Ned.”
Overend is excited about the young riders returning to the race. He’s happy to have some local talent to fill his shoes in the hometown event. He hasn’t raced yet this year and said he doesn’t feel like he’s at the level he was at a year ago.
Overend has no reason to be stressed about climbing roads he knows like the back of his hand. Even if he gets dropped on the climb up Molas, as he was last year, he has the skill in the descents to cut the gap.
“I don’t have a problem using whatever fitness I have,” he said. “All these years, I can go and suffer to the limit to hang on as long as possible. You can’t fake it when you got guys accelerating at 8,000 feet with that much climbing involved. It might be some other guys don’t dig as deep as maybe they could. I don’t have a problem using everything I’ve got.”
King of the MountainTodd Wells won’t compete in the road race this year, but he will be back in the Sunday mountain bike race in downtown Durango. He’s the two time defending champion of the event and is always ecstatic to race in front of his hometown fans and ride through Steamworks Brewing Co.
“This season has been a rough one,” Wells said. “Whenever I seem to be riding good, I get some bad luck. Then, when everything works, I don’t have any good fitness. So it will be great to race the Iron Horse and race in Durango with the history of mountain biking here. The fans are great, and riding through Steamworks is the highlight of the weekend.”
Without riding the road race, Wells won’t be eligible for the King of the Mountain. The top finisher combined in the road race and mountain bike event will earn the extra prize purse and added glory. Kuss said he won’t race the mountain bike after switching permanently to the road bike two years ago. His mountain bike riding now is viewed as solely recreational.
Grotts, McElveen and Sonntag figure to be the top contenders for that prize. This year, the mountain bike loop is running backward of recent years, with riders going uphill into Steamworks. That allows fans to cheer on the racers longer and also makes the climbs much longer, steeper and more technical. That plays into Grotts’ hands well. “It should make it more of a dramatic race like a World Cup where every uphill section you’re going full gas,” Grotts said.
Sonntag will have extra motivation with his parents in town visiting from Germany. He hopes to recover from the road race well enough to be able to empty his tank Sunday.
“People who skip the road race may be fresher,” Sonntag said. “But if you race IHBC weekend, you should do the road race. It’s a big part of the tradition.”
Going to gravelOverend, an American mountain biking pioneer, will skip this year’s mountain bike race and compete in the first gravel ride in IHBC weekend history. Gravel rides are booming in popularity, and he’s thrilled to see one added to the schedule.
“That’s a big growth area, and it has been important for Specialized and a lot of people in the bike industry as that area is really growing,” he said. “It will go into some areas a lot of people are not familiar with, myself included. It’s a reasonable length course at 54 miles, but it’s still hard with a lot of climbing. It will be a great event I’m really looking forward to.”