Iron Horse kicks into gear

From pro cyclist to cruising kid, Durango celebrates the bicycle

Ed Zink, owner of Mountain Bike Specialists and co-founder of the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic, discusses this year’s race inside his shop on Main Avenue. Zink says his shop and others in town saw plenty of action this week: “Some (riders) come for repairs and others are just nervous, wanting to make sure everything on their bike is in top shape.” Enlarge photo

SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald

Ed Zink, owner of Mountain Bike Specialists and co-founder of the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic, discusses this year’s race inside his shop on Main Avenue. Zink says his shop and others in town saw plenty of action this week: “Some (riders) come for repairs and others are just nervous, wanting to make sure everything on their bike is in top shape.”

It all comes down to this. After months of preparation full of burning lungs and packs of Gu Energy Gel, they are ready.

Cyclists are likely to wake up to perfect conditions Saturday morning for the 41st Iron Horse Bicycle Classic. Forecasts show nothing but sunshine and warm temperatures, with low to moderate winds, for the entire Memorial Day weekend.

The Iron Horse will kick off at 7 a.m. with the main event – the 47-mile climb to Silverton – when the field of 1,000 timed riders departs from Durango High School.

They have about 3½ hours to emulate Tom Mayer’s 1972 feat and arrive before the train. The untimed “citizens tour,” with 1,500 additional riders, will leave from College Drive and Camino del Rio at 8:30 a.m.

“All preparations are on track. No major hiccups whatsoever,” said Iron Horse Director Gaige Sippy.

Street-sweeper trucks have completed a final inspection of the route and cleared any loose sand, brush and debris, said Nancy Shanks, spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Transportation.

U.S. Highway 550 will be closed to all vehicles from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday between Purgatory at Durango Mountain Resort and Silverton. In addition, from 7:15 to 9 a.m., northbound traffic in the Animas Valley between the Iron Horse Inn and Hermosa will be restricted to the left shoulder, and cars traveling south will be rerouted to County Road 203. All spectators hoping to greet cyclists in Silverton must clear DMR by 8 a.m.

Both defending champions are, on current form, unlikely candidates to repeat this time around. Durango’s Ned Overend won his fifth Iron Horse title in 2011 at age 55 but has not raced competitively this year and acknowledged he could be rusty.

“Racing hasn’t fit with my schedule,” he said. “I know what to expect from the course, but how I’ll fare against the other riders is harder to say.”

Overend won his first Iron Horse in 1983.

Boulder-native Mara Abbott defeated Kristin McGrath by 10 seconds last year to win a fourth consecutive race, but she is taking a more relaxed approach in 2012. The change is part choice and part bad luck.

“I retired from competitive cycling at the end of 2011,” she said this week. “Now, I’m just ready to have a good time.”

Abbott suffered a foot injury while running this winter and has been restricted to swimming laps to keep in shape. She resumed training only two weeks ago.

“At least I’m well-rested,” she said.

The Quarter Horse, a 25-mile abbreviated version of the full race, will begin at 8:45 a.m. near Wells Fargo Bank. Those looking for a less-strenuous ride, followed by food and celebrations at the Purgatory finish line, may find this an attractive option.

Events will continue Sunday with the criterium in downtown Durango, where riders barrel through a closed-circuit course between Main and East Third Avenue. Serious cyclists will compete for the fastest time around the eight-turn loop, while fun-loving revelers in wild costumes will take part in the “cruiser criterium” at 3 p.m.

Drivers are encouraged to stay clear of downtown Sunday; Main Avenue will be closed entirely from Seventh Street to 11th Street. Portions of East Second Avenue, East Third Avenue and several cross streets will be off limits to motorists as well. People attending church services on East Third Avenue will need to avoid the racing zone between Eighth Street and 10th Street, but can otherwise park as usual.

Sunday’s lineup also will include the kids race, which organizers say contain “more smiles in four blocks than anywhere on Earth,” and a mountain bike course circling clockwise around the Centennial Nature Trail, Rim Drive and Goeglein Gulch Road. Near the end, mountain bikers will rampage through a hollowed out Steamworks Brewing Co. and down a ramp into the back alley.

The 13.7-mile time trial on East Animas Road (County Road 250) will conclude the weekend’s events Monday morning.

Video technology is making its Iron Horse debut this year. While spectators have long gathered to see riders start and finish the races, what happens in the middle can be a mystery.

No longer. Event volunteers are setting up flat-screen monitors at Silverton Memorial Park on Saturday and downtown Durango on Sunday to provide an inside look. People can also follow all events online with a live stream.

“I’m not guaranteeing perfectly smooth coverage, since this is a trial run,” Sippy said. “But we want family members back home to see what the Iron Horse is.”

As usual, registration for the citizens tour filled up within days of opening in December.

Iron Horse co-founder Ed Zink, who also owns Mountain Bike Specialists, attributes the high demand to consistency.

“(The Iron Horse) is reliable year after year,” he said. “People look forward to it. This edition will be good, as always.”

Based on a Fort Lewis College study, Sippy estimates the Iron Horse brings an annual $2 million to the Durango economy, including $75,000 in sales-tax revenue.

Registration is still open for all events except the citizens tour and certain road race classes. Cyclists can sign up from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. today at Buckley Park.

For more information about specific race logistics, visit www.ironhorsebicycleclassic.com.

lgroskopf@durangoherald.com

Walt Axthelm leads a group of cyclists down East Animas Road (County Road 250). Training should pay off Saturday for the racers and participants in the casual citizens tour. Riders face a total ascent of 6,650 feet and must clear two mountain passes, 10,640-foot Coal Bank Pass and 10,910-foot Molas. The grade on Coal Bank Pass is 6.5 percent, and riders face a 4.9 percent grade on Molas. Enlarge photo

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald

Walt Axthelm leads a group of cyclists down East Animas Road (County Road 250). Training should pay off Saturday for the racers and participants in the casual citizens tour. Riders face a total ascent of 6,650 feet and must clear two mountain passes, 10,640-foot Coal Bank Pass and 10,910-foot Molas. The grade on Coal Bank Pass is 6.5 percent, and riders face a 4.9 percent grade on Molas.

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