So much of Durango’s top talent is out of town that the 48th Iron Horse Bicycle Classic could be any rider’s race.
Sepp Kuss, the 2017 champion and World Tour rider, is at the Giro d’Italia. Howard Grotts, the 2016 Olympian who was last year’s IHBC champ and back-to-back King of the Mountain winner, has taken much of the spring off and is unlikely to compete this weekend a year after outsprinting Keegan Swirbul, the 2015 IHBC winner who just competed at the Tour of California. Christopher Blevins is racing World Cup mountain bike races in Europe. Rising road star Quinn Simmons is racing in junior races in Europe, and fellow junior Riley Amos is competing in junior Canadian Cup mountain bike races this weekend.
It’s taken a toll on the men’s field for the 2019 IHBC weekend in Durango.
Still, several elite athletes remain, but there is uncertainty as to who will compete and which riders will be willing to race in a nearly 50-mile road race from Durango to Silverton as well as Sunday’s mountain bike race in downtown Durango. As to who will win either race, it’s anyone’s guess.
“It’s hard to pick a favorite,” said Durango’s Todd Wells, a three-time mountain bike Olympian and now an assistant race director for the IHBC. “A lot of guys can win, but it’s not like Sepp is racing and you just know Sepp is going to win the race. It should be exciting because there are a lot of guys on a fairly similar level, and it’s going to come down to whoever happens to have a good day that day. If a break goes and you make it in the break, all of those guys will have a chance.”
A favorite in the road race that features more than 5,000 feet of climbing could be Durango’s Payson McElveen, the 2016 IHBC champ, though he is unsure if he will compete after a recent bout against flu-like symptoms. Durango’s Benjamin Sonntag has been close, including his photo-finish second place to McElveen in 2016. Fort Lewis College cycling alum and 303Cycling pro rider Griffin Easter will also compete for the first time in an IHBC road race, though he competed in several downtown criterium races during his time at FLC, where he won a collegiate road race national championship.
Ned Overend, 63, will compete in Saturday’s road race. He has raced in every IHBC road race since 1982 and won his fifth title in 2011. As always, Overend was coy about his chances of winning a sixth title this Saturday, but no one doubts his ability to take another top-10 or to even cross the line first. Nobody knows the asphalt on U.S. Highway 550 and what goes into the climbs of Shalona Hill, Coal Bank Pass and Molas Pass better than Overend.
“I’m not that wound up about it, you know? I’ve done some training, but it was a tough time to train,” Overend said. “I was in South America for a couple of weeks, northern California a few weeks after that. I’ve been back here for a few days, but the weather hasn’t been very good, especially in the high country. But that’s interesting.”
It’s this weekend’s weather conditions that many believe could favor Overend once more. It’s supposed to be a mostly clear morning with no precipitation, but temperatures on Coal Bank and Molas could hover at or below the freezing point of 37 degrees by the time the pro riders get into the mountains. Knowing how to dress and handle the conditions is key to success in the short, punchy race. Wells expects the weather, with snow piled high on the shoulders of the highway, to favor local riders.
“It’s hard to say how to dress properly,” Overend said. “You don’t want to carry too much gear up there. Coal Bank can actually get pretty hot when you’re climbing, and you don’t want to be overheating and carrying extra stuff on ya. Being able to dress just right to knock the chill off but then not end up overheating, it’s tricky. Taking clothes off while you’re riding is pretty tough to do. There’s some strategy to it.
“For me, it’s pretty hard to get motivated to go fast when you’re cold.”
McElveen had to skip the 40-mile Grand Junction Off-Road mountain bike race last Sunday because of illness. He had taken second in the short-track event two days earlier while battling through the symptoms. Local fans will hope the pro mountain biker can get involved in the start line Saturday. He said he may start Saturday and use it as training for Dirty Kanza, the 200-mile gravel race he has the following weekend in Kansas.
“If I feel good enough, I may race to Silverton and then ride back to get that last big training ride in before Kanza that I need,” McElveen said. “We’ll see. Right now, I think racing IHBC is unlikely but staying hopeful.”
Sonntag, originally from Germany, has had a pair of podium finishes in Epic Rides mountain bike races this year, including last weekend’s fourth place in Grand Junction. He always performs well in the hometown races in Durango and has a solid chance to be crowned King of the Mountain if he can put together top finishes in Saturday’s road race and Sunday’s mountain bike race that rips around downtown Durango with passes through the bar at Steamworks Brewing Co., up Chapman Hill to the rim of Fort Lewis College, through singletrack trails and back into town. He has finished on the IHBC pro men’s mountain bike podium each of the last two years.
“The bad weather could be a good thing for me,” said Sonntag, who has battled allergy issues in dry conditions in recent years. “It takes the pollen out of the air. I feel like, if I don’t get allergies, I could compete well, but it’s hard to say. I wake up in the morning, and it’s really a surprise as to how I’m going to feel out there.
“I have been pretty close the last two years with King of the Mountain. Wherever you show up to race, you want to put on a good show. Iron Horse is not the biggest race for me in the year, but it’s a local race and there’s so much local pride involved. It’s a special feeling to do well here. If you win the mountain bike or the road race, it’s something pretty special.”
Easter is teammates with 2006 IHBC road race champion Rolando Gonzalez and could get a chance to work with his 303Cycling partner Saturday. Though Easter never competed in a pro road race during IHBC weekend during his time at FLC, he is familiar with the stretch of road and could add his name to the prestigious list of champions.
“For some odd reason, I never checked this one off,” Easter said. “It worked out with my race and work schedule to make a trip down from Utah to do the race this year, and I’m stoked to be down there.”
Easter said he is looking forward to the closed highway and getting his first chance to fly down the descents at speeds of nearly 50 mph for the first time without traffic on the road.
“The full freedom to take whatever line you want to take with other people racing, it’s just going to be fun,” he said. “When the road is closed, that’s always the best part. Full rein to go for it.”
Durango’s own Stephan Davoust, an FLC alum, has had stellar results on the mountain bike this year and is on a tear of podium finishes, including his second place at marathon nationals. But he will only contend in Sunday’s mountain bike race. He will be among the favorites with Sonntag.
“I have been racing quite a bit, so it’s nice to not have a fully-packed weekend,” Davoust said. “Podium or no podium, it’s fun to be racing in front of all of your friends and hometown fans. The Iron Horse mountain bike race has such a special feeling to it when you’re racing through Steamworks with people yelling to ya. We also get that fun singletrack going out of town a bit on the trails we all love so much, so I really wanted to do that one.”
A problem with picking a potential winner is that many of the professionals do not officially register until the Friday before the race. There’s always a chance an out-of-town rider will show up and surprise the local talent.
There’s also a chance for young riders such as Durango’s own Keiran Eagen, who rides at Fort Lewis College, or even high school mountain bike state champion Cobe Freeburn to surprise with a podium finish. Colby Simmons, younger brother of Quinn Simmons, could show his emerging road prowess and turn in a top-10 result.
“Cobe Freeburn, he’s been riding strong in group rides and climbing well,” Overend said. “I’ve been out of town so much, but all the Durango kids are fast right now, the boys and girls on DEVO. It’s incredible how fast those kids are, and it won’t surprise me to see some young kids from Durango up toward the front.”
This year’s road race has changed its start point and moved from Durango High School back half a mile to Buckley Park in downtown Durango. Overend hopes that is more spectator friendly for fans and doesn’t think it will change any kind of early race dynamics, as the peloton likes to stick together through the Animas Valley until the start of Shalona Hill, at least. With several changes over the years to the start line and finish line and with this year’s race exceeding the advertised 47 miles, Overend would like to see some standardization to where the riders officially begin to be timed. Grotts won last year’s race in a 2 hours, 19 minutes, 25.4 seconds. From the same start point, Kuss won in 2017 in 2:20:50.9. Swirbul won in 2015 but was 10 minutes slower than his sprint finish for second a year ago. Over the years, no official record time could be established because of the variations to the race.
“Starting at Buckley, it will add a little time to it,” Overend said. “I think we need to decide how the time should actually be calculated. Should it be from the edge of town to the finish? I know it’s not easy to do, but it’s something we should look at.”
Regardless of this year’s winning time, some rider will have a chance to add to their IHBC legacy or start a new chapter of their own.