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Continued success of past Iron Horse winners adds to event’s legacy

Durango’s Howard Grotts, left, and Sepp Kuss, made their way up Coal Bank Pass toward Silverton together during the 2017 Iron Horse Bicycle Classic. But, on Molas Pass, Kuss dropped Grotts in an effort to chase down Albuquerque’s Mark Aasmundstad, who had made a big breakaway. Kuss went on to win, while Grotts took third. Grotts was an Olympian the year before, while Kuss has gone on to the World Tour and will make his second Tour de France start this year. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)
Past winners have gone on to reach bigger heights in cycling

At the 2017 Iron Horse Bicycle Classic men’s road race, Albuquerque’s Mark Aasmundstad rode solo, several minutes ahead of the peloton. The group was caught flat footed, and as the finish line in Silverton became closer and closer, Durangoans Sepp Kuss and Howard Grotts gave chase.

By the time the riders reached the top of Molas Pass, Kuss had caught Aasmundstad and held a healthy lead ahead of Grotts. Kuss went on to win the race, a performance that left his competitors in a “sense of awe.”

Today, Kuss rides for the professional cycling squad Team Jumbo-Visma at races as large as the Tour de France. While an Iron Horse road race win doesn’t guarantee future career success, Kuss’ win in 2017 proved that the former mountain biker could compete on the road. And it was a sign of how deep the competition at the race can be.

“People definitely know the Iron Horse, that's for sure, and especially in the Rocky Mountain region. It's a really big race,” said Todd Wells, a former mountain bike Olympian and regular Iron Horse competitor.

Wells said that the depth of competition at the race – from Olympians to national champions and Tour de France racers – gives the event credibility.

“Sepp Kuss could win the tour of Spain this year, and he's the No. 1 helper for the guy that's probably going to win the Tour de France,” Wells said. “All the great athletes that have come and raced the Iron Horse, it just kind of adds to its legacy.”

The COVID-19 pandemic canceled the race last year, so the reigning road race champions are still Sarah Sturm and Griffin Easter from 2019. Sturm, who is likely to enter the race again this weekend, said her sponsors value that she competes in local races.

Sarah Sturm crosses the finish line first to win the 2019 Iron Horse Bicycle Classic women’s professional road race in Silverton. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

“I think my sponsors just like to know that I'm doing some local racing,” Sturm said. “Local representation, especially in a town like Durango, is really important because Durango is on the map for a lot of bike brands.”

Large bike manufacturers such as Specialized and Trek are interested in the Durango market, Sturm said, because there is such a large number of cyclists who live here or regularly visit.

“It certainly doesn't hurt to do local racing and do well at local racing in this area, especially when legends like Ned (Overend) and Todd (Wells) and Carmen Small and Mara Abbott have all graced the start line,” Sturm said.

Abbott is one of the biggest names to have won the Iron Horse, and she won the women’s road race a record six times. The now retired professional cyclist won last won in 2016 just months before she placed fourth at the Olympic Games road race in Rio de Janeiro. Abbott was also the first American to win the women’s tour of Italy (today called the Giro Rosa) in 2010, one of the most prestigious races on the women’s cycling calendar.

This year, the Iron horse may once again be a part of an Olympic legacy, as Boulder’s Erin Huck is slated to compete in both the road and mountain bike races. Huck just came back from a successful stint of mountain bike World Cup races in Europe and is considered a favorite to make Team USA’s women’s mountain bike team for the Tokyo Olympics, although the selection won't be made until next month.

Huck said the Iron Horse is not a major part of her Olympic preparation but rather a chance to have fun in a low-pressure environment.

“The promise was that these would be fun, and I can't be too stressed about that,'' she said. “I mean, the reason to do them is just to enjoy riding my bike and have fun and take advantage of kind of the environment that Durango offers because there are so many bike enthusiasts there and it's impossible not to have a good time.”

While the list of accomplishments from all the past Iron Horse podium finishers is impossible to list in one article, past years’ results sheets read as an index of the top American professional cyclists, many of whom call Durango home.

Grotts has won both the road race and mountain bike race and also was a 2016 Olympian. While he has retired from full-time racing, Grotts is slated to take part in this year’s races and could be a contender once again.

Payson McElveen, who won the road race in 2016, has quickly become one of the most recognizable names in mountain biking thanks to both his race results and polished short-film and podcast projects. He just took the win at the Rule of Three gravel race in Arkansas and is gearing up for the Unbound Gravel race in Kansas, so he won’t be competing in the Iron Horse this year.

While Christopher Blevins hasn’t won the Iron Horse, his hard crash in the 2016 sprint finish on Greene Street etched its own history among the race’s memorable finishes. Blevins is currently in California, so he won’t be at this year’s race, but he’s also considered a favorite to be selected for the men’s mountain bike race in Tokyo this summer.

Griffin Easter descends Coal Bank Pass during the 2019 Iron Horse Bicycle Classic men’s professional road race. Easter is now racing professionally for a team in Europe. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

The 2019 men’s road race champion is also living life as a professional cyclist. Griffin Easter is currently training and racing in Europe with the Start Cycling Team. The Fort Lewis College alumnus said that there was “magic in the air” the first time he experienced the Iron Horse as a college freshman, though 2019 was the first time he toed the line.

“I was simply a spectator, but the atmosphere, colors, energy and life drew me in,” Easter said. “The race itself has such a long history. It was such an honor to take the victory and have friends and locals cheering at the finish.”

Easter won’t make this year’s event, but said he can’t wait to come back to it.

“I’ll always make the Iron Horse a weekend and event to come back to,” he said. “I love Durango and I love the Iron Horse. They go hand in hand.”

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