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When the world came to Durango

25 years ago, World Mountain Bike Championships put our town on the cycling stage

If you were here, you understand. Right now you’re already scanning your memory for where you stored your 1990 Worlds T-shirt, or your volunteer fleece jacket, or your newspaper clippings. Maybe you still have that banner hanging in your business after a quarter-century.

Or maybe, possibly, 1990 Worlds means nothing to you.

Ask your friends and neighbors and co-workers who were here then. Chances are they worked as volunteers – course marshals, timers, judges and such. Maybe they organized this seminal event. Perhaps they were spectators, or even raced up and down the hills of Purgatory Resort or Chapman Hill during September of that year.

It has been 25 years since Durango hosted the World Mountain Bike Championships. The event was memorable for many reasons, not least for being the first-ever off-road competition sanctioned by cycling’s official world-governing body.

The Paris-based Union Cycliste Internationale, focused exclusively on road bikes at the time, hardly knew what to make of this quickly burgeoning sport. Was it just a fad? Durango had to literally write the book for UCI on how to hold an official mountain bike world championship. How many entrants could each country have? How long should the courses be?

“We did not know how little we knew,” Ed Zink, chief architect of Durango’s organization efforts, said.

But truly, community businesses and individuals contributed their all into having a successful event. Whether they bought T-shirts or banners, donated employee time or their own time or money, they made it a virtually flawless week of competition and festivity.

“Everybody wanted to be a part of the Worlds,” recalled Joanne Spina, then the public information officer for the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office and now assistant county manager. “We all just recognized it was something special.”

With the USCF’s recommendation, at a meeting Sept. 28, 1989, in Brussels, the UCI officially granted the first-ever Worlds to Durango.

Now, the work began.

The community pitches in

Area residents embraced the concept that this was a big deal, and that belief infected everyone involved.

“There was an incredible outpouring of support from the community,” said Susie Fisher, assistant promoter for the 1990 Worlds. “I have to express that. This entire town worked as a team.”

To host the event, the organizing committee had a heady list of needs, including an estimated half-million dollars.

“We were in way over our freakin’ heads,” Zink said now. Quickly on board was Don Mapel, who owns and is president of the local Coca-Cola distributorship. His business had sponsored the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic for many years. And it didn’t hurt that he and his teenage son, Frank, had developed a hankering for racing mountain bikes.

“Without Don Mapel there wouldn’t have been a Worlds,” said Eric Backer, a key organizer.

Mapel arranged for Coke to donate $50,000 to the Worlds effort. It was seed money crucial to getting the effort rolling. He saw the long-term benefit of staking Durango’s claim to a sport that was already drawing droves to Moab, Crested Butte and elsewhere.

“From that standpoint, I don’t think there’s any question it was valuable as a catalyst,” Mapel said. “It did expose Durango and put us right on top of places to go mountain biking.”

Dan Noonan was chief of Hermosa Cliff Fire Department, and was in charge of safety at the race venue. He says the Purgatory medical clinic was staffed and paramedics roamed the mountain on ATVs during the event. There was plenty of road rash, a few broken bones, and even some bee stings. More than 100 patients were aided during the week.

A foreign exchange

There were plenty of nations bringing teams – 32 in all, including France, West Germany and Great Britain, of course. But other more obscure countries signed up too – Bangladesh, Botswana, Nepal. And many needed interpreters.

“It was interesting to find how many foreign speakers there were in Durango,” says Ann Butler, a Durango Herald staff writer who, at the time, was in charge of foreign relations during the 1990 Worlds. She rounded up 35 to 40 interpreters.

Foreign media came from as far away as Australia, recalled Patti Zink, then with the Durango Area Chamber of Commerce, who was in charge of media relations. In all, 300 media credentials were issued.

Durangoans had been working for a year to get ready. Would the actual event equal the buildup? It was time to put all the plans into action, and time for the athletes to shine.

This story was done for the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic, which is hosting a 25th anniversary celebration of the 1990 World Mountain Bike Championships. Reach John Peel at john@jplifepreserver.com

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