SILVERTON – Nobody knew when three breakaway riders had gotten away from the peloton halfway into the race. It wasn’t until a group of 10 chase riders could look up at Coal Bank Pass that they realized they had work to do. Nobody looked more calm and steady than Griffin Easter.
The 2014 Fort Lewis College alum, who claimed a collegiate road race national title his senior season riding for the Skyhawks, had the legs to chase down the breakaway group and then hold them off in a sprint up Greene Street to the north end of downtown Silverton to claim the 48th Iron Horse Bicycle Classic professional men’s road race championship in a time of 2 hours, 27 minutes, 29.4 seconds. He was five tenths of a second faster than second-place Justin Thompson of California.
The route is nearly 50 miles with more than 5,000 feet of climbing, sporting two mountain passes higher than 10,000 feet above sea level.
“I had never done the race, but I knew that when a break goes into Coal Bank that it can stay,” Easter said. “We had to kick up the pace. I got on the front going over Molas and just kind of grinded it out.
“We hit the main drag, and my legs were burning. My brother, Cullen, had told me that it’s a long, uphill drag to the finish. I was biding my time, cat and mouse, and I jumped from the back and just went for it with about 400 meters to go. I didn’t know if the other two guys had a really fast pop because they jumped into town fast and went real quick. I knew I had to probably make my move pretty far to make sure I got it to the finish.”
Easter, a 28-year-old originally from California who now calls Salt Lake City home, jumped to the front of the chase group and worked alongside Basalt’s Brett Wachtendorf and the rest of the trailing group that included five-time Iron Horse Bicycle Classic professional men’s road race winner Ned Overend, Durango’s Cal Skilsky, Fort Lewis College rider Cooper Wiens and Durango’s Benjamin Sonntag.
Easter and Wachtendorf weren’t able to reel in Thompson on the climb to the top of 10,610-foot Coal Bank Pass. But the gap had trimmed from more than one minute to 10 seconds by the time Easter and Wachtendorf chased Thompson down the Coal Bank descent with Twilight Peak glimmering in the distance, a fresh coat of snow sparkling in the morning sun on a perfect blue-sky day.
It was halfway up the climb up 10,910-foot Molas Pass where Easter and Wachtendorf were able to make their move and get past Thompson. Overend estimated Griffin set a pace of nearly 20 mph climbing Coal Bank and Molas.
Easter, Thompson and Wachtendorf descended past Molas Lake and into the town of Silverton together, setting up a dramatic sprint finish. Wachtendorf finished third, three seconds behind Easter.
“I started with two other guys on the base of Coal Bank and could ride at my pace,” Thompson said. “The fast guys behind us kept it steady, and we all got back together on Molas. I knew I wanted to get into some move early, and it worked out for me.”
Descending into Silverton, Thompson knew he had done enough to secure a podium finish in the top three. He wanted to play it safe to not mess it up. Playing it safe led to a second-place finish when Easter edged him by a bike length at the line.
“I was just hoping I wouldn’t crash so I could go to work on Monday,” said the 36-year-old Thompson, who hadn’t raced in an IHBC since he was 16. “The race was just as painful as I remembered it, but fun.
“When we got into Silverton, I wasn’t sure if the other two guys had a good sprint, so at the edge of town, I tried to jump both of them. I had a 20-yard gap and then the legs shut down. I regrouped, playing cat and mouse, looking at each other and seeing who was gonna make the first move. It was awesome.”
It was a gutsy breakaway ride for Thompson along with Albuquerque’s Mark Aasmundstad, who is no stranger to making that move. He did the same in 2017 and had gained as many as four minutes on eventual champion Sepp Kuss before Kuss used his supreme climbing prowess to edge the now 45-year-old from Albuquerque near the top of Molas. That year, Aasmundstad finished second ahead of Howard Grotts. This year, he faded to ninth overall.
“(Aasmundstad) and I kept it steady, taking 20-second pulls each on the climbs,” Thompson said.
Much like 2017, Overend had no idea Aasmundstad and company had made a break, with so many early starters from the Citizen Tour clogging. Eventually, word got out to the chase group that the break had formed.
“I had no idea they were up there,” Overend said. “It was confusing. I don’t remember ever seeing the three guys go.”
The racers broke from usual form and crossed the double-yellow center lane several times after the road blocks on U.S. Highway 550, but those moves started even earlier on the climb of Shalona Hill and even in the Animas Valley, with pro men’s riders swerving into the lane used for traffic. Overend, who has raced in every IHBC since 1982, said that was far from typical. With all of the leaders doing it and Colorado State Patrol seemingly allowing the moves, everyone followed suit.
“Safety in numbers,” Overend said with a wry smile. “You figure they aren’t going to DQ everybody. They didn’t emphasize it much at the beginning. Guys started taking the whole road. When the leaders went through the turns, everybody follows them.
“If only one guy crosses the double-yellow, sometimes that gets checked. A lot of time, a cop is there saying don’t cross the yellow. But they didn’t do that this year.”
Skilsky finished a strong fourth, while Overend was fifth and Wiens sixth. Jameson Ribbens placed seventh, and Sonntag eighth after he was dropped from the chase group on Coal Bank. Rotem Ishay, another FLC alum, rounded out the top 10.
“I thought I was gonna get worse than fifth,” Overend said. “I was struggling on Shalona. Like 15 guys went up Shalona fast, and that was painful. Then it went 5 mph after that. Had I known that, I wouldn’t have been going so hard when it was fast up Shalona. Several times, I was gonna let go, but I felt good about fifth.”
Easter had never raced an IHBC pro men’s road race before Saturday despite attending FLC and racing for the Skyhawks. He had done several downtown criterium races but had never checked the road race off the list.
“I’m so honored to win this race and be part of this race,” Easter said. “When I came here in 2010 for school, I always wanted to do it and never had the chance. For the first time, what a way to start. I’m honored to be part of Durango history.”