Go ahead – Think of us as a two-wheeled town

You’re leaving? Already?

Have you even taken the time for the ear-plugging elevator ride to the 121st floor of our skyscraper or to cruise our newly tiled subway system?

I bet you haven’t. If you’re a rider or team mechanic, you’ve probably been sequestered up at Fort Lewis College on the outskirts of town.

Or maybe you’re a bike race fan and you’ve been wandering around downtown but never bothered to look way up – or underground.

It’s possible you’re leaving Durango and thinking, quite simply and ignorantly, “What a great cycling town.”

Cycling town?

Is that all we are to you?

You come from foreign spots all over the globe – Britain, Australia, Azerbaijan, Texas – and then you ride around town for about an hour and – whooshhh!! – you’re gone.

Is that any way to get to know a place?

Well, two weeks from now, when you’re back on the Champs Élysées munching a croissant, or in the Outback hunting dingos or in Kazakhstan chasing women on horseback, don’t forget about us. Don’t forget what gracious hosts we were for the grand start of the 2012 USA Pro Cycling Challenge.

You won’t forget this place, but I know what you will be talking about.

“Oh, dat little Doo-rango. Eet vas so special. Vat a awesome place to bicycling.”

Maybe someday you’ll come back to Durango, but not for our famed lobster sandwiches or caviar beignets. Not to thank the people who laid out the red carpet and made your stay so sweet (but short). You’ll return for our cycling.

From casual riders to some of the world’s top pros, what makes Durango such a mecca for cyclists? Is it the location? Is it the weather? Is it the great community support for cycling?

“Luck,” answered Ed Zink, a member of the local group who talked Pro Cycling Challenge brass into making Durango this year’s launching pad.

Zink probably could have answered “me,” and there would have been some truth there. But, of course, that wouldn’t be the full answer.

It’s luck, Zink said, that we have a scenic and weather-friendly place in which to recreate. It’s luck that we have not only a variety of paved paths for road cyclists, but a thousand miles of trails built by the extracting industry – loggers, ranchers, miners. If Durangoans had been forced to start from scratch to build a system of cycling paths, we would never have gotten this far.

“The right pieces fell in place,” Zink said, “so we, the community, could capitalize on it.”

The first event to put Durango in the public eye, of course, was the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic. Its genesis was Durango cyclist Tom Mayer, who figured out he could beat the train to Silverton – much to the surprise of his big brother, train conductor Jim Mayer.

Tom Mayer convinced others, including sporting goods shop owner Zink, that it was a cool ride. The first Iron Horse race took place in 1972, and under the leadership of Zink and others, it’s still going strong.

The cycling scene continually lured new blood. Ned Overend moved here from California in 1980 to, of course ...

Ha! Gotcha. Overend didn’t come here for the cycling. At the time, he was more into running, and really it was backpacking and mountaineering that drew him here.

In the next year or two, though, he realized he could keep up with folks on a bike.

Overend, who has won too many Iron Horses and other bike races to count and is now a member of the U.S. Bicycling and Mountain Bike halls of fame, said he’s impressed at how the Iron Horse benefits not racers, but noncycling, overweight smokers who decide to shape up.

“That race inspires them to get into cycling,” he said.

For Durango cycling, the 1980s and ’90s were a whirlwind, and mountain biking created the tempest. The attention from hosting four national championships and the first official world championships in 1990, combined with extensive coverage in cycling magazines and ESPN broadcasts, made Durango a magnet. Together with Moab and Crested Butte, it became a must-visit for cycling tourists blowing through.

Overend recently attended a convention of Specialized (his sponsor) dealers in Brazil. When he introduced himself as a Durango, Colorado, resident, he received a response not uncommon from industry representatives, whether he’s in Europe or Japan or even South America.

“Oh, Durango. I’ve ridden Hermosa Creek.”

Local organizations – primarily Trails 2000 – have bolstered the area’s trails, giving us multiple options such as Horse Gulch and the Durango Mountain Park, right from town. The recently fully linked Animas River Trail works as a commuter route and trail connector.

We’ve reached the gold standard set by the League of American Bicyclists for being a Bicycle Friendly Community. (Only three towns are at platinum, the next-highest level.) We’re No. 3 on a recent Outside magazine list of top bicycling towns. Our residents include a who’s who of cycling greats and now this burgeoning road race brings stars such as 2011 Tour de France champion Cadel Evans.

“We have a critical mass of success surrounding us,” Zink said.

Through race teams, spectators and TV coverage – enhanced by the Internet – the USA Pro Cycling Challenge will undoubtedly blow another confetti-like wave of riders to Southwest Colorado.

Personally, I came here for the fantastic beach access, the jazz scene and the double-decker buses.

Alas, you’re going to remember us only for our cycling. What can we say to this ignorance? Your loss.

johnp@durangoherald.com. John Peel writes a weekly human-interest column.

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