In recent years, the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic mountain bike race has been defined by sending racers through downtown Durango and through the bar at Steamworks Brewing Co. This year, COVID-19 has blocked the novel course popular with both riders and spectators, and a new course was designed using the Horse Gulch trail system.
The new course, which is nearly all singletrack and features longer climbs and descents, will almost certainly create different racing dynamics than its predecessor. The course will also be a new challenge for competitors, many of whom are Durango locals who compete on the world mountain biking stage.
The IHBC mountain bike race often features fields that are just as competitive as the more lauded road race to Silverton, featuring established professionals along with up-and-comers. This Sunday, Durangoan Stephan Davoust, the 2019 mountain bike champion, will face off with riders such as Riley Amos and Howard Grotts in the pro men’s race. In the women’s field, Olympic hopeful Erin Huck will butt heads with Evelyn Dong of Utah and Ruth Holcomb of Durango.
"Having a lot of the race in Horse Gulch will make it a bit more interesting in the pro race,” said Grotts, a former mountain bike Olympian and multi-time winner of the race. “I don't have any expectations, it's just going to be a toss up to see what I can do."
Grotts may claim that it’s “a toss up,” but his competitors know he is nearly always riding fast, and recent rides logged on Strava prove that. For his part, Grotts tips Davoust along with Fort Lewis College alum Henry Nadell as two riders who could do well.
“He'll be a racer to watch for,” Grotts said of fellow Durango Devo and FLC alum Davoust. “He's got the bike skills and the high-altitude fitness right now, and not doing the road race will probably help him.”
Davoust recently won the cross-country race at the Solider Hollow Bike Festival in Utah, which shows that he’s on form. Plus, as a Durango local, he’ll know the course well, including the steep climb up Telegraph trail.
Another local who’s on form is Amos, a 19-year-old coming off of a successful stint of racing in Europe on the World Cup circuit. Amos placed second in the under-23 race in the Czech Republic, a career-best result for the young rider. Amos has had perhaps the most experience racing around the Durango Mesa Park of anyone in the field, as he won a high school state championship there as a senior at Animas High School and won the cyclo-cross race there put on by FLC last fall.
In the women’s field, Ruth Holcomb is also coming off a stint racing in Europe. The future FLC cyclist won the pro women’s field in 2019 and placed second in the Queen of the Mountain omnium competition.
“The overall course is better, but it definitely doesn't have that same aspect of like you're riding through downtown and everyone's there,” Holcomb said.
One aspect that will impact the race is how well riders recover from Saturday’s road race. Holcomb said it’s a mental advantage knowing that her competitors are also tired heading into the race.
“Most of the people that are lining up in the pro women's mountain bike race also raced the road race the day before, so that mentally is helpful,” she said. “You're pretty tired going into it, and definitely by the end of the mountain bike race you're ready for a few days off for sure.”
Todd Wells, a former Olympian who is planning to race in the pro category despite retiring from full-time racing in 2017, says that recovering for the mountain bike race is dependent on how much training riders do ahead of time.
“When I was racing full-time, it really wasn't a big deal,” Wells said. “I would usually race better on the second day, so the recovery didn't seem like much, but now that I don't ride quite as much, I'm going to be feeling that second day for sure. The less you ride and the older you are, the more important that recovery is when you're doing multiple races back to back.”
An out-of-towner who could perform well in the pro women’s field is Huck, who is hoping to be selected for the Tokyo Olympic team. Huck is coming to the Iron Horse for a low-stress weekend but will still be a factor in the race.
“I think this will be the first time really that we'll be going to kind of a fun event since COVID and first time that we'll be seeing a lot of our really close friends since COVID,” Huck said. “We're looking forward to that, too.”
The course will start and finish at Durango Mesa Park, the location of the 2018 and 2019 Colorado high school mountain bike championships, and a possible nod to future plans for the open space if plans for a bike park are seen to fruition.
“Currently, the trails that are out there were really just built for the Colorado Leage state championships and aren’t ridden much besides that,” Amos said. “We were up there the other day for a short-track race to get those trails moving again, so it will be good.”
After a short section on the Durango Mesa property, the course quickly enters the meadow area of Horse Gulch and begins climbing Telegraph trail. The climb is steep and punctuated by tough rocky sections. The top of the climb is the toughest uphill section on the course, as it kicks up to a more than 20% gradient.
Riders will make a quick left turn down Anasazi trail for a steep descent back toward the meadow, where they will begin the next big climb on the course. The climb is more gradual than the first and features a brief downhill respite on Stacey’s trail, so it will be a section for riders who can sustain big power outputs on shallow gradients.
Once at the northernmost point of the course, riders begin the descent down Cuchillo trail and then head over to Horse Gulch Road. A short climb and tricky descent on the East face of Raider Ridge then sends riders back toward the start/finish area.
Because of the high-desert terrain in Horse Gulch, heat could play a factor in riders’ performances. Plus, gusty winds on exposed sections of trail could either help or hinder riders’ ambitions.
Pros will complete three laps of the course for a distance of approximately 27-miles, with expert categories riding two laps. Beginner categories will ride two laps of a shortened course that eliminates the climb up Telegraph for a total of 14-miles.
“The Iron Horse mountain bike race, before we started riding through Steamworks we used to ride in Horse Gulch quite a bit,” Wells said.
Wells also noted that the course in Horse Gulch will be harder than the course through downtown, since the old course allows riders to rest a bit on the pavement sections. “You got to earn every pedal stroke,” he said.
Added Grotts: "I am incredibly excited for the Durango Mesa Park and what they have planned there. It's a long time coming for Durango. It's going to be fun to get to ride there a little bit for this race and get back on the Durango trails and see what I can do."
Regional Sports Editor John Livingston contributed to this report.