Nobody doubts Ned Overend’s ability to win the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic. From the first year he entered in 1982, he’s never missed a ride and is a perennial favorite. But, at age 60, Overend is looking for a young rider from Durango to carry the torch.
Overend earned his first championship in the 47-mile road race from Durango to Silverton in 1983 and claimed back-to-back titles in 1986 and 1987. Five years later, he won for a fourth time in the 1992 race and set the record with a fifth championship in 2011.
Equally impressive is Overend’s numerous podium finishes, including a third-place result a year ago at the age of 59. He went on to claim the omnium championship by racing in the criterium and time trial, too.
Though he’s back in the field again this year and nobody will count him out, Overend finds less time to train for the climbs up Coal Bank and Molas passes each year. He feels an obligation to compete to give hometown Durango fans a rider to cheer for.
“It’s a roller-coaster of emotions at the Iron Horse,” Overend said. “I’ve done well at it. It’s such an important event for the community, and I always feel some pressure to do well. I did better last year than I thought, for sure.”
He hopes a young gun can take on that role in coming years.
But elite junior riders are landing on professional teams earlier these days, and with pro sponsors come obligations to race in certain events. The Iron Horse is not on a big series calendar, so many Durango riders compete elsewhere Memorial Day weekend.
That’s the case for Durango’s Sepp Kuss, a junior at the University of Colorado who won the collegiate cross-country mountain bike national title in the fall and has established himself as one of the nation’s most promising young road cycling climbers after a stage win at the Redlands Bicycle Classic and a strong showing at the Tour of the Gila this year.
Instead of racing the IHBC, Kuss signed with Rally Pro Cycling this week and is attending the USA Cycling Professional Road Race & Time Trial National Championships in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
“The Iron Horse was my first road race growing up in Durango,” said Kuss, son of Dolph and Sabina Kuss. “It definitely holds a special place in my heart. It’s an interesting time in the schedule because there is a lot of overlap, and sometimes it’s hard to get to it.”
Scheduling also makes it difficult for 23-year-old mountain biking sensation Howard Grotts, who is in Europe this month racing in UCI Mountain Bike World Cup events.
However, 18-year-old Christopher Blevins will give fans a Durango rider to cheer for this year. One day after delivering a commencement speech to his graduating class at Durango High School, Blevins will clip into his pedals to race up the passes he has trained on since he was 12 years old.
Scheduling worked in Blevins’ favor this year. Because he wanted to walk at graduation, he went to Europe earlier this spring and returned home for this weekend. He is coming off a UCI World Cup Junior Series mountain bike race win in Germany last weekend and a victory on his road bike at the five-stage Peace Race in the Czech Republic three weeks ago.
“Being home for the race this year, I had to race the Iron Horse regardless of where I’m at with training,” said Blevins, son of Field and Priscilla Blevins.
“It’s such a big part of Durango and such a legendary race. I love it and would like to be back for many years to come and hopefully win it a few times.”
Though he’s no spring chicken, Durango’s Benjamin Sonntag could give hometown fans someone else to cheer for this year. Sonntag is from Germany but married Durango’s road-cycling hero Carmen Small and has called Durango home since 2008. Perhaps his wife’s national championship win in Friday’s time trial in North Carolina can give him an extra boost on the road bike Saturday.
“This is my home, and I feel the community,” Sonntag said. “It may not be on the calendar like the most important race of your year, but it brings local prestige, and you want to do your best here.”
The young riders consider Overend an idol. They grew up trying to catch him on training rides and said he set the example of how to conduct themselves in the sport.
“I remember training on the passes and seeing Ned riding away,” Kuss said.
“He was always flying by guys many years younger than him. If there is anybody in the sport to have as a hero, Ned is one of those few people to be the guy. He’s a true competitor and always does his best.”
Whether it happens this year or years down the road, Durango will need a new hero to cheer for against the swarms of outside competitors who flock to Durango every May to race the train to Silverton.
“We need a Durango boy down here to take the mantle for Ned so he can retire one of these days,” IHBC race director Gaige Sippy said. “He’s not willing to give in yet, but he loves watching the young Durango guys.”