Cyclists have been drawn to the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic for 48 years for the purpose of testing themselves either against other professional riders or against the mighty locomotive of the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. But it was the closure of U.S. Highway 550 in the 1990s that helped the event gain more steam.
“Much like people want to come race the train, they also want to take advantage of a closed highway,” said IHBC race director Gaige Sippy. “We cherish that closed road, covet it. We do everything we can to be good stewards of that and make sure it continues in perpetuity. It’s the essence of the event.”
Since the ’90s, the 47-mile stretch of highway between Durango and Silverton has closed during the morning hours the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend so that thousands of cyclists could make the trek over Shalona Hill, past Purgatory Resort, up and down Coal Bank Pass, over and down Molas Pass and finally into Silverton where hundreds of eager fans await the arrival of the first finisher. Before the IHBC committee was able to obtain a permit to close the highway, racers faced a drastically different scene with automobiles still clogging the two-lane highway.
“We started with 30 riders, and there wasn’t as much traffic in those days,” said IHBC founding president and committee chairman Ed Zink. “As the number of riders increased and the number of cars increased, concern started increasing, and so we as the bicycling community continued to discuss it.
“A new captain of the state patrol came to this district, Capt. (Alan) TeBrink, and he kind of looked it all over and said he thought we needed to close the road and make it safer.”
Zink said it took the approval of the towns of Durango, Silverton and Ouray to make the closure happen, because all three towns are significantly affected by the closure during the busy holiday weekend. After resolutions were passed to support it, the IHBC was able to gain a permit for the road closure.
Zink estimated that participation in the IHBC road race has doubled since the road closure went into effect.
“The fact we have been able to close the highway for the last two decades is probably the reason the event is still going,” Sippy said. “If we had to try to run the event with an open road again, it just wouldn’t be feasible from a lot of levels.”
The Colorado State Patrol charges the IHBC a fee for the excess pay troopers require to control the road blocks and patrol the highway on motorcycles during the race. State patrol is also key in sweeping riders off the road if they are unable to hit certain checkpoints in a fast enough time to finish the ride before the highway reopens.
State Patrol Capt. Adrian Driscoll said IHBC requires all hands on deck, with eight to 10 troopers managing traffic on Highway 550 to Purgatory then closing the highway entirely between Purgatory and Silverton. Troopers will be set up with cones throughout the Animas Valley to divert traffic and to keep drivers off Coal Bank and Molas passes.
“Once closure hits, there are very few people who are in the event course,” Driscoll said of drivers. “We want to limit vehicles; most of our people are off the course.”
Zink said the IHBC happily pays the cost.
“We hire the state patrolman and pay them an hourly rate to help manage the closure,” Sippy said. “They are the keeper of the keys and the landlord of the road while we are doing the event. The permitting process goes through state patrol and then onto (Colorado Department of Transportation). It’s a circuit it travels to gain signatures before it gets back to us, but there’s always tremendous support from everyone.”
Ned Overend has competed in every IHBC road race since 1982 and has won a men’s record five races. Now 63, Overend still remembers a time he would get caught behind traffic. In those days, cyclists would have to risk breaking some rules or sitting in traffic.
“The problem was, as cyclists, we were supposed to stay in our lane,” Overend said. “You could get stuck behind a car on the descent and be faced with trying to pass it. There was controversy of people being suspended for crossing the double-yellow line.
“Several times, you’d work so hard to get away from another rider on Molas Pass and then you’d sit behind a car on the descent. That was tough. It was less professional having a race affected by traffic.”
Overend said it became important for the IHBC to gain the road closure if the IHBC was to be established as a prestigious race.
“You didn’t want guys behind you catching up if the climbs are where the race is really decided,” he said. “I think it’s far more relaxing now for all the riders not dealing with cars. We already are dealing with a lot just with the riders around you. Cars in there, that makes it too complicated.”
Whether a professional cyclist or one of the thousands of Citizens Tour riders, all who participate in the IHBC are grateful for the open, or closed, road.
“People say it’s worth the entry fee just to get to ride on those mountain passes with no automobiles and bicycles only,” Zink said. “Whether they are interested in competition or not, just that experience is quite unique and fulfilling.”