As the popularity of the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic has boomed over the last two decades, a new trend has emerged among citizen riders.
Roughly 2,500 Citizen Tour participants make their annual two-wheel pilgrimage from Durango to Silverton with 47 miles of U.S. Highway 550 and two mountain passes of an elevation greater than 10,000 feet above sea level separating them from their goal of beating the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad locomotive in roughly three and a half hours. The citizen riders depart Durango from College Avenue at 8 a.m.
Meanwhile, at another location, roughly 100 professional men and women depart Durango at 7:30 a.m. knowing they will make it to Silverton before the train as they compete for a $3,000 prize purse paid out to the top-10 finishers.
However, in recent years, more citizen riders have departed Durango before the professionals leave at 7:30 a.m. The Animas Valley and Shalona Hill climb have been packed with early-departing non-professionals. Without chip timing for the Citizen Tour, there has been less incentive for the average riders to depart at the scheduled 8 a.m. Some simply want a better shot to get to Silverton before the time cutoff.
The result is the pro peloton dodging more cyclists on the road while also having to navigate nearby traffic in the adjacent lane before the full road closure takes effect at Purgatory Resort.
“It seems like there are a lot more now,” said 63-year-old professional Ned Overend, a five-time IHBC road race winner who has competed in every race since 1982. “There’s a stream of riders out there now. I’m always a little impressed because I’d actually like to start the race a couple hours later, and those people are getting out there earlier. It’s gotta be dark when some of them start. It’s dang cold, too.”
All of the citizen traffic on the roads has caused a bit of confusion for the pro peloton. With so many people on bikes up ahead on the road, it has become more difficult for the racers to recognize if a pro has made a breakway or if it’s simply an early-starting citizen. That was the case in 2017 when Durango’s Sepp Kuss, now a World Tour rider for Jumbo-Visma, had to chase down Albuquerque’s Mark Aasmundstad from several minutes behind on the final climbs of Coal Bank and Molas passes.
“Personally, I remember being one of the guys saying, ‘No, let that guy go, he’s not with us,’” said Durango’s Payson McElveen, the 2016 IHBC winner who was in the chase group behind Aasmundstad in 2017. “We didn’t get the info right until it was kind of too late.”
Overend was angry in 2016 when he realized the peloton had let Aasmundstad get so far up the road before they realized there was a pro several minutes ahead.
“When a rider gets away in the valley or up by Purgatory, you can’t really see who it is up the road there,” he said. “When they’re mixed in with the citizen riders, it’s hard to tell what that gap is and makes it hard to chase them. I know a lot of people need to get going early to make the time cutoff, but it does make it more confusing.”
Overend said the pros have to be careful when it comes to passing the citizen riders, especially on Shalona Hill before all traffic is cleared off the road. McElveen said he is usually so focused on riding in the middle of the pro peloton that he often doesn’t even recognize when those passes are being made.
Durango’s Benjamin Sonntag, the 2016 road race runner-up, said the lesson of 2017 was evident a year ago.
“The last few years, honestly, the main group, besides Mark’s attack ride in 2017, it’s felt extremely slow until Coal Bank,” Sonntag said. “Our output is more like a training ride to the bottom of Coal Bank, and then the race starts. After Mark got away a few years ago, I feel like the main group was way more welded last year trying to control who is going out front. We are paying attention now really close because he almost pulled a big surprise off. We are more aware of it, and it would be difficult for that to happen again.”
While many pros aren’t focused on the citizen riders on the road, Sonntag said he likes to take a look around and see the faces of the fellow IHBC enthusiasts as they make their way to Silverton. There’s no stopping the early leavers, so he has embraced the new trend.
“All of these riders who are already on the course, they are there to accomplish that goal to ride to Silverton,” Sonntag said. “We see people on Shalona and then also right before Needles, and I pay attention to that. You get a feel of the atmosphere and realize that our pro race is just a little part of the total event. It’s cool to see.”