Cyclists are flocking to Durango this Memorial Day weekend to test their mettle in the iconic Coca-Cola Road Race and McDonald’s Citizen Tour, which take riders along the famous U.S. Highway 550 route that begins at 6,512 feet in north Durango and finishes at 9,318 feet in Silverton.
Along the way, riders will pass 10,000 feet in elevation as they push themselves to their limits across 47 miles of winding roads and mountain passes.
Accomplished riders who have bested the mountains before will ride alongside newcomers itching to test their limits and see if they have what it takes to beat the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge train to Silverton that leaves its station in Durango at 8 a.m. sharp.
One Durango resident has adjusted his meals and trained for months for his first attempt at the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic with the goal of beating the train in Durango’s own epic version of man versus machine.
An Albuquerque man who first rode the route to Silverton with his father and since passed the tradition down to his own son is returning for his 33rd Iron Horse.
And a Tucson, Arizona, man who is paralyzed from his chest down is back after two decades to settle his personal score with the Iron Horse. Race officials cut his ride short in 2009 because he did not make the cutoff time before Highway 550 reopened. But he is determined to make it all the way this year.
These are their stories.
Matthew Robinson of Tucson is a Navy veteran, an avid outdoorsman and a paraplegic. He said he was paralyzed from the chest down in a snowmobile accident about 22 years ago. Now, at age 55, he is returning to Durango to finish what he started more than two decades ago.
He made his first attempt at the Iron Horse in 2009 and made it as far as Molas Pass before race officials escorted him to the top so he could ride down to Silverton in time for Highway 550 to reopen to vehicle traffic.
1-7 p.m.: Local packet pickup at Chapman Hill
5 p.m.: Women’s Short Track race at Chapman Hill
5:30 p.m.: Men’s Short Track race at Chapman Hill
7:30 a.m.: Durango Coca-Cola Road Race start, 33rd Street and East Second Avenue
8 a.m.: McDonald’s Citizen Tour start, 33rd Street and East Second Avenue
3-7 p.m.: Bike pickup at Durango Transit Center
8:30 a.m.: La Strada La Plata Gravel Race start at Chapman Hill
9 a.m.: Mountain Bike wave 1 start at Chapman Hill
11:30 a.m.: Mountain Bike wave 2 start at Chapman Hill
2 p.m.: Mountain Bike wave 3 start at Chapman Hill
Back then, Robinson did not know exactly what he was in for with the Iron Horse. He said he wasn’t cognizant of the timing needed to pace himself on the 47-mile ride to Silverton. He was less experienced with racing then, having just ridden recreationally.
“I’ve wanted to do it for many years afterward. But there was always something that got in the way. Usually, some sort of race or I was traveling somewhere or, you know, a health issue,” he said. “But this year, I was open and I said, ‘Why don’t we go up there and knock this thing out?”
Since his first attempt, he’s ridden at least 65,000 miles with his hand cycle.
He said it is common for people to offer words of encouragement when he is racing or riding – “It’s just the nature of the beast.” But on Saturday, when he makes his climb over Coal Bank and Molas passes, he plans to be selective in acknowledging people. He wants to focus on maintaining his rhythm.
One of the most common questions Robinson is asked is how he pedals using his arms.
“The bottom line is we just don’t put out as much power with our arms, chest, back and shoulders as legs do, but I guess it’s just what are you determined to do? It’s no different than when you’re first injured,” he said.
Some people who face paralysis give up their athletic aspirations. Others are determined to find out what they’re capable of in the world. Robinson said he chose the latter path.
Robinson enjoys the camaraderie and traveling that comes with competitive racing. Half a notch below that is the competition of it. If he can beat even one able-bodied cyclist, that is an achievement. But his goal is to finish on time before the road reopens, and his main competition is against himself.
Rory Freidank, 37, is taking on the ride to Silverton for the first time Saturday. Although he grew up mountain biking, he said he isn’t used to riding on roads in tight packs at high speeds, and the ride to Silverton will be his longest ride yet. But he is pumped for the experience nonetheless.
He said the Iron Horse is an iconic race and a bucket-list item that must be checked.
“I’m looking forward to doing it for myself – not looking to win the damn thing, that’s for sure,” he said.
Freidank isn’t aiming for a particular completion time, although he wants to reach Silverton in under four hours. He’ll be happy if he just beats the train.
“As long as I beat the train, I’m good,” he said. “I think that’s around 3:43 hours or so. My buddy, Grady, thinks I could do it around 3:15.”
He credited his wife and friends with helping him prepare for Saturday. His wife has encouraged him to eat better by avoiding cheeses and beers and eating mostly cooked chicken, rice and greens, he said. And drinking a lot of water.
“I’m definitely looking forward to eating pretty good after the ride, for sure, and then having a few beers,” he said.
He said getting healthier has been huge for him. He’s been working with a trainer since wintertime, riding twice daily and doing gravel rides on his mountain bike. Getting used to the bike seat and drop bars, and the sheer speed and length of rides has been the biggest thing for him.
“You crushed, you know, 40-some odd miles like that in a day. That’s a big day on a mountain bike,” he said.
He said the IHBC is huge for the community and he’s excited to be a part of it this year. He’s also happy the Iron Horse has been around 51 years and he is able to join in.
The road racing tradition doesn’t just apply to locals. The IHBC attracts people from all over the country and, sometimes, the world. Bruce Gronseth, 68, from Albuquerque, is a rider from a multigenerational family of riders who has enjoyed the Iron Horse for over 30 years.
This year marks Gronseth’s 33rd pass at the ride to Silverton. He and his father, Delmar, made their first ride together in 1988 or 1989, he said.
His family was big into camping and mountain biking. He had owned his road bike for about six months and his brother traveled down from Salt Lake City so the family could tackle the ride to Silverton together with a family friend.
Before his first Iron Horse, he trained in the Sandia Mountains in New Mexico, which crest at 10,378 feet in elevation. He remembers the ride to Silverton being pretty challenging, but exhilarating – especially the downhill segments.
He said he remembers flying downhill from Coal Bank Pass, then again down Molas Pass with Silverton coming into view – a view that can’t be beat.
As Delmar reached his late 60s and early 70s, the ride to Silverton was becoming more and more challenging for him, he said. But Gronseth had a son of his own, Tyler, who was 12 or 13 years old.
Gronseth said the family was still riding tandem bikes to Silverton at that time. So at the top of Coal Bank Pass, Delmar would get off the bike and trade places with Tyler, who rode up that far in the family car. Tyler would climb aboard the tandem bike and ride the rest of the way to Silverton with his dad, grinning ear to ear.
“He loved it,” Gronseth said. “He was so thrilled at that age, and there’s nothing like a tandem on the downhills. Nothing passes you, they are so fast.”
This year will be Tyler’s sixth or seventh ride and the first organized ride for his girlfriend, Gronseth said.