Durango’s iconic kickoff to summer, the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic, has seen slow registration for this year’s Memorial Day weekend events – unusual for an event that has been known to fill its available slots within a day.
But IHBC race director Gaige Sippy and economic leaders across town aren’t worried the luster is coming off the shine of the event that helped put Durango on the outdoor recreation map.
Instead, they attribute the slow pace of registration for this year’s race between cyclists and the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad’s train to the truncated nature of this year’s gathering and the aftereffects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
As of Thursday, Sippy said 850 riders had registered for the available 1,000 spots for IHBC’s two major events, the Citizens Tour to Silverton and the Road Race.
Normally, the IHBC allows a total 2,500 riders to compete in the two major events, with the bulk of the riders participating in the Citizens Tour.
“In the end, I think we’ll be at the 1,000 number. Part of it is folks are still unsure about doing stuff,” Sippy said. “They’re unsure about travel plans, they're unsure about events getting canceled. So, I think that's partly why we're seeing so many people registering later than normal.”
Registrations would have come in at a faster clip if the race were held in September rather than May, further from the outbreak of the pandemic, Sippy said.
He also noted the Iron Horse will be the first major gathering in town in more than 14 months, since the beginning of the pandemic.
In addition to the lingering hangover from the pandemic, Sippy said IHBC normally opens registration for the event in December, but this year registration didn’t open until April 15.
Also, the event is essentially a mini-me version of the annual classic.
Gone this year are the kids race, the Cruiser Crit and the mountain bike race through Steamworks Brewing Co., though there will be a mountain bike race held away from downtown starting and finishing at Durango Mesa Park.
Also missing this year will be the festival-related events with tent campuses in Silverton and Durango to host special events.
“Those are big draws for people. It’s not just the ride to Silverton,” Sippy said. “A lot of the fanfare that we have around the events brings people here. And since we had to scale all that back, we have a ton of people that asked to defer to 2022.”
IHBC 2022 is likely a big reason for the slow registration this year.
IHBC 2022 will be the 50th anniversary of the event that started when Tom Mayer, a cycling enthusiast, challenged his older brother, Jim, a brakeman on what was then the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad, to a race to Silverton.
In 2020, IHBC registrants were refunded 30% of their entry fee and offered a 20% discount for the $100 entry fee for either the 2021 or the 2022 race.
With a big shebang planned for 2022, Sippy believes a lot of people who have the Iron Horse on their bucket list are holding off until then.
“We offered folks from the canceled 2020 event priority registration for either 2021 or ’22, and I think we’re going to have big numbers for 2022. We’ll be doing some special things for the 50th, and I think people are waiting for that,” he said.
Still, Sippy said it’s too early to tell if the COVID-19 pandemic did any long-term damage to the Iron Horse.
And it is too early to tell if people have gained a long-term germophobic fear of attending events with large crowds, he said.
“Are people going to avoid large events? Do they want to eat out as much? We don’t know the answers to those questions yet,” Sippy said.
Rachel Brown, executive director of Visit Durango, said she believes people are still more reluctant to commit to events where there will be crowds, but they are still willing to travel on their own.
“My guess is that people will be much more reluctant to return to events and large gatherings of people before they return to independent travel,” she said. “It just seems logical to me that people might be ready to start taking road trips or even flying again. But maybe they don't want to be a part of events with a crowd of a thousand people yet.”
Brown also said the coronavirus has led people to register later for events because they want to wait to see if they end up getting canceled.
“I think the shorter booking window definitely applies here, too,” she said.
Brown is optimistic the IHBC will be back to a more normal footing in 2022.
“By next year, I think those fears of event cancellations will have subsided,” she said. “I think it’s also a blessing in a way that this year didn't end up being the 50th anniversary.”
Brown is not worried the light demand for this year’s Iron Horse indicates the summer tourism season in Durango will be underwhelming.
“I think our unique advantages will continue to work in our favor this year. Things will be getting back to normal, but it will be a transition year,” she said. “But the fact that we have an abundance of outdoor activities and that we are kind of a remote destination, I think that will continue to work in our favor.”
Tourism research this year indicates people’s top destinations for the summer will be beach towns and mountain towns, she said.
Brown said the IHBC is a standout event for Durango and its branding power is a gift any town would love to have.
“There’s a historical aspect to it,” she said. “It combines two of the cornerstone features of Durango, cycling and the train. Its economic impact alone is very important, but from a branding perspective, it really adds a lot to Durango.”
Sippy said the IHBC will endure two tough financial years – 2020’s canceled event and 2021’s truncated event.
“Fortunately, we have planned well financially in past years for rough spots in the road, and we will get through it OK.”
The basic business model of the Iron Horse he said is to bring in enough money to cover the cost of putting on the show and providing seed money for initial investments in next year’s events. Any money raised beyond that, usually between $25,000 to $75,000, is given to nonprofit groups.
The biggest recipient of IHBC philanthropy in the past has been the Mercy Health Foundation. Sippy estimates Mercy Health Foundation has received about $450,000 in the past 12 years from IHBC giving.
In addition, the IHBC regularly provides money to the Boys & Girls Club of La Plata County, Durango Devo and the Fort Lewis College cycling program.
“We’ve prepared those folks that usually get revenue from us that this may not be our year,” Sippy said. “But the most important part of this year is to get the event up and running again, so we can get back to a place where we can help out again in the community.”