Once postponed and now canceled, the 49th edition of the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic will have to wait until 2021.
In an email sent to thousands of registered participants at 6 a.m. Thursday, the IHBC announced its plan to cancel the 2020 event because of the new coronavirus pandemic.
Organizers had made the announcement April 2 to postpone from its usual Memorial Day weekend event and aimed to find a date in September to hold the race. But the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 and the potential to not be able to host large group gatherings led to cancellation.
“We spent a lot of time trying to make sure we didn’t let the emotion of not having an Iron Horse for the first time in 48 years on Memorial Day weekend – or an annual event, period – override our decision making process,” said IHBC Race Director Gaige Sippy. “We had to take into account the landscape right now of large participation events and all of the unknowns coming along with it right now.
“We are in the same spot we were 60 days ago and don’t know how long it will be like that. I don’t envy folks with fall events lined up. It’s a real challenge not knowing when large public gatherings will be allowed again.”
The Iron Horse Bicycle Classic was formed in 1972, one year after Tom Mayer bet his brother Jim, a brakeman on the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad line from Durango to Silverton, that he could ride his bike from Durango to Silverton faster than the train could arrive. Tom won the bet.
A year later, Tom Mayer and Ed Zink, the longtime owner of Mountain Bike Specialists in Durango who died in October at age 71, founded the first IHBC road race from Durango to Silverton. The road race has been the staple of the event that has since added more road races, mountain biking, BMX and gravel riding to various editions of the race. It is an event that now brings thousands to Southwest Colorado with an average of 44 states and five countries represented among the field of participants each year.
Only once was the road race canceled, and that was in 2008 because of weather. In 1997 and 2014, the road race was shortened to finish at Purgatory Resort instead of Silverton, and that was because of snow on Coal Bank and Molas passes. Even in those years, some cycling races were held in Durango in association with the IHBC on Memorial Day weekend.
This is the first time the entire event has been canceled. The IHBC is the second-longest continuous road bike race event in the country behind only the Tour of Somerville in New Jersey. That event was originally founded in 1940 and has completed 76 editions. It, too, was canceled this year because of the virus.
“It’s definitely a tough decision,” said longtime pro cyclist Todd Wells, who is now an assistant race director for the IHBC. “We’ve been doing the race every year for 48 years. We just wanted to do what’s right for the town, what’s right for the racers and make sure we don’t get all the way to September and then still not be able to have it. We had to make the best decision with the info we have right now.”
Refunds and fundingThe IHBC has previously stated a policy that reads: “Once registration is confirmed, there are no refunds or transfers. There are no refunds for cancellations due to weather or unforeseen circumstances.”
However, the IHBC wanted to provide riders some relief while still protecting its business to survive a lost year of revenue. The IHBC will offer riders a 30% refund of their registration fee for this year as well as an option for 20% off registration for the 2021 event. Riders will have to submit a request for refund by May 15. Sippy said those refunds will then be sent out by the end of May.
Registered riders can donate the entirety of their 2020 registration fee to the IHBC.
“We had to make sure we are viable for the future,” Sippy said. “We’re a year-round business. We are currently 11 months into our year and were getting ready to put an event on at the end of May. We needed to do what we thought was best for our participants as well as the business of the event. Essentially, people can get up to 50% back of this year’s registration with the refund and the application of 20% to next year’s registration if they choose to do so. What we’ve done is give up half of our revenue over a two-year period to try to do the best we could by our participants and keep the business alive for future years. The worst thing we can do is put a 48-year business out of business. We can’t give all the money back. We have to be honest. We already spent a considerable amount to get us to March.”
Sippy stressed that the stated policy upon the completion of registration is that no refund would be given in the event of a cancellation and that the IHBC was breaking from the previous policy to offer some form of relief.
“We wanted to make an exception to do something,” he said. “We are going to have hard decisions this summer on what we spend money on and what we don’t. We want to be able to make contributions to the community like we normally do, but we won’t be able to do as many. There are still some critical ones we want to hit.”
Sippy said the IHBC has not reached out to its sponsors over the last two months to request funds. In most years, the bulk of sponsor money comes in during the two months leading up to the event, he said.
“Most of our loyal, long-term sponsors own a business and have their own issues right now,” Sippy said. “They’ve stood by us for many years. If we can do without their help, we’re doing that. We didn’t start this year with as much and won’t end with as much, but we want to do right by everybody as best we possibly can.”
2021 and beyondIn the first IHBC since the death of Zink, organizers had hoped to honor the co-founder. It also was to serve as a lead-in to the 50th edition in 2021. Now, the 50th anniversary will be pushed to 2022.
“This is a prudent decision for the community,” Patti Zink, Ed’s wife, said when the event was postponed earlier in the month. “Ed was always very open to changing things over 48 years. The event has started in different places, ended at different places in Silverton. We’ve had different events. Ed added mountain biking when that became big. We’ve had a time trial, then we didn’t have a time trial. Ed was always really good about being innovative and watching trends and willing to change. He would be at total peace with the fact that, yes, this is an unfortunate situation, but in the whole scheme of things, we have to look at the greater good.”
Wells said Zink was able to persevere through the good and bad times of the event and agreed he would have wanted to do what was best for Durango, Silverton and the event for the long term. Wells said it was best to make the decision now and not give false hope to riders who train all year.
Each extra month of planning also would have required more money to be spent.
“The last thing we wanted to do was get to race day, not hold it and end up bankrupting the event,” Wells said. “When this event was created, it was for the town – to bring people to Durango and showcase the town. If it is not safe to bring people here, the last thing we want to do is bring thousands of people to town.”
Sippy said the IHBC didn’t want to step on the toes of other events already on the calendar for September. The health of Silverton, which still has zero confirmed cases of COVID-19, also took precedence.
“Thinking about bringing a couple thousand people to their community, is it the right thing to do? How many participants would even want to travel here in September? Everyone is struggling this year, but the last thing we want to do is contribute to the health problem or put pressure on events already scheduled,” Sippy said. “We know what the right decision is here.”
After all the economic impacts were considered and the heartache of the event’s first cancellation passed, Sippy felt good about the future, knowing many other bike race events around the world won’t be so lucky.
He now will look forward to the 49th IHBC in 2021 and the big 50th celebration for 2022 that has been in the planning stages since 2017.
“I’ve gone over our budget more times the last two months than ever looking at different scenarios,” Sippy said. “We know our event is a big, positive impact on the Durango and Silverton economies each year. We took it all into account but also had to make sure we remain viable for the future. We will have the 49th next year, and we will now have the time and opportunity to do the 50th justice in 2022.
“We will live to ride another day.”