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Who rides the Iron Horse? People with passion and purpose

Annual event draws spectrum of riders with different backgrounds and objectives
Bruce Gronseth, front of the bike, and Janet and Joseph Vertrees dressed up as the Unincredibles for the 2008 Iron Horse Bicycle Classic cruiser criterium.

For 46 years, the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic has drawn riders of all kinds. Flatlanders pining for mountainous climbs. Coloradans excited to go elbow-to-elbow with their neighbors. Foreigners looking to combine a vacation with a challenging race.

No matter what kind of rider you are, the classic road race is no easy feet. It covers 47 miles and 5,500 feet of elevation gain, while going over two mountain passes. For some, the race will be a ride in the park. For others, it will be a challenge of a lifetime.

Here’s a look at five people who have chosen to make the Iron Horse a part of their lives. They come from different backgrounds, but all have one thing in common: They want to ride their bicycle.

Iron Horse means tandems and costumes for Bruce Gronseth

This year will be Bruce Gronseth’s 30th time competing in the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic.

The 63-year-old from Albuquerque first heard about the race while camping in the Durango area. He thought he would give it a try, and he has returned nearly every year since.

The challenge of beating the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge train as well as the wacky nature of the cruiser criterium keeps him coming back. Gronseth also praises race organizers for running a smooth event every year.

Bruce Gronseth and his son, Tyler, crest the summit of Molas Pass in 2006.

For a number of years, the cyclist rode the race on a tandem bicycle.

In the early 1990s, he began riding tandem with his father, who died in 2005. In the early 2000s, the father-and-son tandem team would ride to the top of Coal Bank Pass, where Gronseth’s son would switch with the father.

Gronseth still rides tandem with his wife, recreationally.

“I haven’t done the Iron Horse in a few years on the tandem because I don’t have anybody who wants to do it,” he said.

But this year for the Iron Horse cruiser criterium race, he will ride on a quad-bicycle, made for four riders. Gronseth and a group of friends enjoy making unique bicycles and costumes to ride in parades and other events, he said.

“We came up one year for the cruiser crit and decided to bring all the different parade bikes and dressing up and just having a blast with that,” Gronseth said.

This year, the team will dress up as Goldilocks and the Three Bears.

“I get to be Goldilocks, since I’m on the front of the bike.”

Joe Williams doesn’t let Parkinson’s set him back

Joe Williams used to ride his bike from Durango to Ignacio for work every day, but then he didn’t touch a bike for two decades.

In 2010, at 57 years old, Williams was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.

Williams’ doctor said he needed to choose an activity to keep his body healthy because Parkinson’s affects the connection between the brain and the muscles.

Williams decided to take up cycling again, but he crashed three times on his first ride. He would not be deterred.

Despite having Parkinson’s disease, Joe Williams rides in the Iron Horse every year.

“From that day back in summer of 2010, I became a cyclist again,” Williams said. “Something I dared never to do when I was 30 was to go to Silverton. This will be my sixth year of doing it as a man with Parkinson’s disease.”

Williams says the biggest challenge of cycling with Parkinson’s is riding in a straight line because the disease affects his balance. It is also a challenge to keep moving because it’s difficult to start again after stopping.

Williams has worked with the Davis Phinney Foundation to help others in the Durango area with the disease.

In addition to riding in cycling events to raise money for Parkinson’s, he helped establish free weekly classes for people with the disease to help them establish movement and physical activity.

“When I ride, I carry all of the folks with Parkinson’s on my back,” he said. “When I get to the finish line, I feel like I’m the most blessed man in the world – that I could still have the ability to get there for the good of others.”

Lauren Aggeler looking to take Junior Women’s title

Lauren Aggeler started bike racing in the sixth grade. She’s not stopping anytime soon.

Counting backcountry skiing and mountain biking among her favorite activities, Aggeler is fully embracing the Durango lifestyle. She wants to be a professional mountain biker and is chasing her dream by training with Durango Devo.

Lauren Aggeler, who rides with Durango Devo, wants to be a professional mountain biker.

During the Iron Horse, the 14-year-old will compete in both the road race to Silverton and the in-town mountain bike race.

Her goal is to win the mountain bike race because that is where she is strongest. Because of the age groupings, Aggeler will be up against older kids in the road race, so her goal is to be as competitive as possible.

Recently, Aggeler competed at the Soldier Hollow Pro XCT race in Midway, Utah, where she won both the cross country and short track events.

The Durango cycling community feeds her love for the sport, she said.

“The community is super positive, and you just feel so welcome when you’re around all the people,” she said.

Aggeler says she wants to go to college to become an architect, but cycling is clearly a major part of her life.

“It just opens up a new world,” she said. “You literally always learn something new. Every day you learn something new.”

John Rubano brings an encyclopedic cycling knowledge to Durango’s gravel roads

John Rubano talks about cycling as if it is his first love.

“There’s a theme in my life of cycling,” he said. “I love bikes!”

He has ridden the revered roads in Europe that famous races like the Tour of Flanders traverse. European events such as Strade Bianche, which is known for racing on gravel roads in Italy, partly influenced his idea to start a gravel bicycle ride as part of the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic.

Going on his idea, race organizers will offer the inaugural gravel ride last year.

The Durango area has a large network of unpaved county roads that are great for cycling, he said. They go from the countryside into the mountains, and there is little traffic.

Rubano has been hit by a car while cycling, so he enjoys the less busy gravel roads.

John Rubano helped start a gravel bicycle ride as part of the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic.

Rubano’s life is more than just cycling, however. He has acted in 22 episodes of the sitcom “According to Jim,” plus he is a trumpet player and vocalist for the Sacred Hearts band, which backs the Blues Brothers.

He says his passion for cycling has influenced his acting work. Rubano has written a musical called “The Bicycle Men” and a screenplay called “The Ride,” which he did a reading for at this year’s Durango Film, an independent film festival.

Reflecting on his life that is interwoven with cycling enthusiasm, Rubano explains how a bicycle has influenced him so much.

“You get on the bike, you go out and ride, and your mind clears and everything’s cool,” he said. “It gives you a new perspective.”

Camaraderie brings Andrew Carver back every year for the Iron Horse

Andrew Carver lives in Florida where he owns a bicycle shop. He visits Durango every year with a cadre of friends he met in the early 1990s at Fort Lewis College to ride in the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic.

Cycling while attending FLC helped create long-lasting friendships, he said.

“We were all so close then that we remain close, so it’s not hard to get us to make the trek every year,” he said.

Andrew Carver went to Fort Lewis College. The friends he met there are also cycling enthusiasts, and they come back to Durango each year to ride in the Iron Horse.

They will be about eight to 10 riders strong this year.

Carver says the tough course lends itself to friendly rivalries within the group.

“We’re always in various stages of fitness or lack thereof, and you never want to be the last one to Silverton in our group,” he said. “There’s some heckling and that kind of stuff.”

The cycling and outdoor culture in Durango is also a draw. He tries to keep some of that culture with him in Florida.

At his shop, Carver has two Durango-built bicycles displayed on the wall.

“I have a world championships banner from 1990 hanging in my shop, so I try to have a little slice of that Durango cycling culture in my shop, too.”

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