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Silverton has come to embrace its role as steward of the Iron Horse finish line

2,500 riders, with family and friends, multiply the town’s population many times over for several hours
Silverton gets a huge financial shot in the arm Memorial Day weekend as a couple thousand Iron Horse riders, and their friends and family, end up in town for several hours. (Courtesy of Scott D.W. Smith/Iron Horse Bicycle Classic)

Silverton’s role in the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic has historically been, well, complicated.

It’s a big economic surge, particularly for the food and beverage establishments, and most residents of the small mountain town have learned to embrace their role as stewards of the finish line.

The first Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge train arrives in early May. Then comes the Iron Horse on Saturday of Memorial Day weekend; tourist season has begun. Businesses better be ready to – in cycling terms – bolt from a track stand to a sprint.

About this series

This year marks the 50th running of the annual Durango-to-Silverton race pitting bikes against train. Ed Zink, who promoted and fostered the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic from the start in 1972, died in October 2019. He was eagerly anticipating the 50th anniversary, and this Memorial Day weekend’s festival is being held in his memory.

In conjunction with the Iron Horse organizing committee and as part of its 50th celebration, former Durango Herald writer and editor John Peel put together a series of stories looking back at the race and ride’s history. These stories and more were compiled in a book, “Iron Horse Bicycle Classic 50th Anniversary: Looking Back, Racing Forward.”

“That’s the weekend you have to prepare for,” said DeAnne Gallegos, Silverton Chamber of Commerce executive director since 2014. You’d better have your staff ready and your food ingredients stocked. “That’s always sort of the kickoff for our businesses, getting that surge.”

In years when the field is full – lately that’s been nearly every year – 2,500 riders, with friends and family, multiply Silverton’s population many times over for several hours.

In the race’s early days, the finish was located near the western outskirts of town. Many riders never even stepped foot near downtown establishments. Many townspeople objected to the influx of cyclists who often didn’t spend money, and sometimes crammed into shops just to warm up after chilly rides.

Until the road closure in the mid-1990s, one could finish a ride, instantly get in a car and head home. When the road closed, Silverton suddenly had a captive audience of people in essence trapped for several hours until the road barricades were lifted.

The finish line shifted, and by the 2000s it was firmly established on the far end of town, near Memorial Park. Breakfast and lunch bring large Saturday crowds, and there’s also an uptick for Friday dinner meals as riders leave cars in town so they have transport back to Durango on Saturday afternoon.

Gallegos said both the economic impact and the excitement are anticipated.

“Just the vibe and the energy, especially in the park,” she said. “And the race is just exciting. The bells, the screaming, the people on the street. It’s a very positive impact to our summer.”

For Silvertonians, there’s an amusing quality to the Iron Horse as they watch reunions of Durangoans who are waiting for friends and family, or have just finished their rides.

“It’s a Durango-centric event,” Gallegos said. “They all know each other.”

For the first time this year, Ouray will join directly in the excitement with the addition of the Iron Horse’s new Ouray-to-Silverton Race/Tour. Ouray waited to see what economic and other benefits this might bring as riders eat and spend the night there before the 23-mile Saturday morning ride over Red Mountain Pass. The rider limit was set at 300.

“It’ll be a learning curve for all of us,” said Silas Clark, Ouray town administrator. “It is a very neat event.”

Hopefully, riders appreciate the work going on in Silverton and Ouray to prepare. Gallegos has been on the Iron Horse board of directors for several years, and sees this from both her town’s and the organizers’ perspective.

“The Iron Horse has just done an amazing job of assuring that everyone knows what everyone else is doing. Who’s responsible, and what is our emergency services plan.”

Gallegos said the near catastrophe of 1996 – when a sudden snowstorm dropped several inches and forced an emergency evacuation of about 400 riders on the passes, many of them hypothermic – still comes up every year in planning. The bottom line: How do we avoid a repeat? (As reassurance, just know that, for starters, buses are now at the ready for an instant evacuation.)

Once riders leave La Plata County, which is just before they start up Coal Bank Pass, then their safety becomes San Juan County’s concern. The fire department, ambulance and emergency services, search and rescue – all are on alert.

Whether it’s instant medical care or a beer, Silverton is ready to serve.

Said Gallegos: “We are definitely more involved than being the finish line.”

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