Howard Grotts was considered a strong favorite to earn his first Iron Horse Bicycle Classic Coca-Cola Men’s Road Race title as little as two weeks ago. That was until 2015 winner Keegan Swirbul joined the field.
Grotts of Durango and Swirbul, who is from the Aspen area, will likely ride at the front during the climbs up Coal Bank Pass and Molas Pass, but they won’t be the only professionals in the field with a good chance of winning the 47th edition of the 47-mile race from Durango to Silverton.
“It’s fun for me to have this hometown race and to actually be here these last couple of years not doing the (mountain bike) World Cups in Europe,” Grotts said. “It’s nice to show up in Durango and try to do as well as I can for the home fans.”
Grotts, 25, is the three-time defending cross-country mountain bike national champion and 2016 mountain bike Olympian. The native of Durango rides for Specialized Racing.
Last year, Grotts was third in 2 hours, 24 minutes, 44.9 seconds on the U.S. Highway 550 course that features 6,700 feet of climbing, his specialty. But he couldn’t keep up with road racing climbing specialist Sepp Kuss, also of Durango, who won in 2:20:50.9. Kuss, now a rider with Team LottoNL-Jumbo based out of the Netherlands, will not be back to defend his crown, as race obligations in Europe conflicted with the schedule.
Last year, Grotts still went on to win the IHBC King of the Mountain honor after winning the Sunday mountain bike race paired with his road race result, and he is the heavy favorite to repeat that honor.
Still, he’d like to get his first IHBC road race win and join a list of storied champions, including cycling icon and longtime Specialized rider Ned Overend of Durango. Overend has a record five IHBC road titles, the last coming in 2011. The 62-year-old will once again be in this year’s race and will undoubtedly partner with Grotts to try to get him to Silverton first.
“Winning the Iron Horse road race, it kind of puts you on a list with guys like Ned in this town,” Grotts said. “It would be sweet to win, but you got to get over those humps first.”
Along with Swirbul, Grotts will have to tango with the likes of Swirbul’s Jelly Belly-Maxxis pro cycling teammate Cormac McGeough of Ireland, who competes for Fort Lewis College, last year’s second-place finisher Mark Aasmundstad of Albuquerque, as well as mountain biker Benjamin Sonntag of Durango, who finished second and fourth the last two years, respectively. And nobody can count out Overend of a potential sixth championship.
Still, the competition is all looking to Grotts as their biggest challenge.
“It’s definitely going to be hard to beat Howard,” Swirbul said. “We will have to maybe change the tactics up a bit, maybe save me for the main climb because Howard is going to be going full gas at that thing. Maybe send Cormac up the road early and try to make Howard work to bring him back and let me sit in behind him.”
Here’s a closer look at Grotts’ competition:
The Jelly Belly boysMcGeough, 21, and Swirbul, 22, are in fine form after recent stage races at Tour of the Gila and the Redlands Bicycle Classic. McGeough was especially impressive at the Gila, with a third-place finish on the race’s second stage.
“I’m really looking forward to this race,” McGeough said. “I was telling some friends that this is the race you get most nervous for. It is like all the people you’re used to seeing every week at group rides that you battle it out with. But this is the championship game. It’s kind of funny in that way.”
It is only the second IHBC road race for the teammates. McGeough finished seventh in 2:31:17 in 2016 – the year Payson McElveen won in a five-man sprint finish. McElveen will not participate in this year’s road race.
Swirbul’s win in 2015 was especially impressive in cold conditions with snow skirting the roads. He held off former FLC mountain bike star Ryan Standish and Overend for the win in 2:29:14.1, a little less than five minutes slower than Grotts’ third-place time last year.
“This is one of my favorite races by far,” Swirbul said. “My big memory from 2015 was coming down Molas Pass, doing the super tuck on top of the top tube. I was cruising down the descent, but I was wearing this necklace around my neck. It got stuck on my bars somehow, and I was trying to pull up on that big corner going into Silverton. I got stuck in that tuck position and had to yank my chain off, but it broke and fell into my sprocket on the back of my bike with 1 kilometer to go. I thought I was going to have to stop to pull it out and then probably lose the race, but thankfully, it didn’t jam up. I’ll be sure to tuck those chains in this year.”
The mountain bikersOverend, Sonntag and Todd Wells are likely top-10 candidates who could be in the race when it hits Molas Pass.
Overend wasn’t planning on racing a couple of weeks ago, but, as in recent years, he decided to give it a go even though he hasn’t specifically trained for the race.
“I always ride, just haven’t made it up to the pass as much,” Overend said. “I’ll get out there and work my way to Silverton one way or another.
“Last year there was a break, and I wanted to kick the pace up so the break didn’t get too far away. I was trying to support Howard. This year, I’ll be less motivated to use too much energy before getting into the big climbs.”
Sonntag has showed good form on the mountain bike already this season. He also hasn’t spent much time at altitude training on the passes, but Overend expects him to be in contention again this year.
“I would love a hard race early on,” Sonntag said. “That will suit me better than if we hit Coal Bank and then everyone is going hard. I would love to be fast toward Purgatory, but it’s hard to say what the race dynamics will be. Going solo, that’s a big gamble.”
Last year, it was the 42-year-old Aasmundstad who went for a solo break and got nearly a 10-minute lead on the peloton. He held on to finish second after sneaking away relatively unnoticed. Sonntag said it would be difficult for anyone to do that again, especially a local.
“I don’t think that can happen again,” Sonntag said. “Everyone from town knows who is going fast. It would be a lot harder for any of us to just sneak away. You can have tactics going in, but really it’s just instinct.”
Wells retired from full-time mountain biking after last season but has trained on the roads when he can. He isn’t planning on contending to win the road race but wants to finish close enough to the front to have a chance at the King of the Mountain title after the mountain bike race Sunday.
“Howie is the best climber in the field, but Cormac is a really strong rider,” Wells said. “Cormac is a pretty bigger guy, but for a bigger guy, he gets up the climbs well. At high altitude and with a shallow grade, I’d expect him to do well here.”
Overend also expects Rotem Ishay, a former FLC rider and the exercise science director at FLC, to show well along with 303 Project road cycling team rider Rolando Gonzalez, the 2006 IHBC winner, to potentially contend.
“I would like to see a lot of guys win,” Overend said. “Howard, I like. I’m sure Howard will win many Iron Horses in the future. He would be a worthy champion. The locals, I like them all. I’m friends with these guys and would like to see a lot of them go at it, too. I’d like to see a good battle for it.”