The Iron Horse Bicycle Classic Citizen Tour
You don’t have to be a pro to ride like the pros
The Iron Horse Bicycle Classic is the second oldest consecutively run road bike race in the country (the first is the Tour of Somerville in New Jersey, which first began in 1940). Needless to say, this annual Durango-based bike festival held every Memorial Day weekend is special for both racers and spectators alike.
*The 2020 Iron Horse Bicycle Classic has been postponed until a later date. See the COV-19 UPDATE at the end of this story.
While multiple biking events take place throughout the weekend, the crown jewel of them all is the road ride from Durango to Silverton. The McDonald’s Citizen Tour provides a less competitive ride for those whose goals range from beating the Durango Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad train to simply finishing.
For 50 miles, cyclists experience a stunning section of the San Juan Scenic Byway over two mountain passes — Coal Bank and Molas, both over 10,000 feet in elevation.
The best part? The road past Purgatory Resort is closed to all motor vehicles, an element uncommon for most amateur road races.
“Especially coming down some of those passes, it’s nice to know that you’re not going to come around a corner and have a car coming up the other direction at you,” said Todd Wells, co-director of the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic.
Wells is also a retired professional cyclist who has raced several times in both the road and mountain bike disciplines of the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic.
Whether you’re a first-timer planning to tackle the Citizen Tour, a seasoned veteran with a few rides under your belt or you simply want to cheer on the riders, here are a few tips to help you enjoy this special event to the fullest.
Spring in southwest Colorado is highly unpredictable, which can make training on the road difficult. Take your training indoors with a spin class. Places such as the Durango Sports Club and Durango Community Recreation Center offer Iron Horse-specific classes to help you better prepare for the ride. These classes are also a great way to meet other cyclists in the community.
As the Iron Horse nears, take a little time getting to know your road bike. You’ll be spending quite a bit of time on it come Memorial Day weekend. A tune prior to the big day also isn’t a bad idea.
First Timer Tips
If you live close to Durango, make time for a couple of training rides up the passes to get acquainted with the elevation gain so that you’re not surprised come race day.
“It helps set your mind at ease and gives you a little bit of confidence going in,” Wells said.
For those not in the area, Wells suggests adding in a few rides that involve road climbs with a decent elevation gain into your training.
If you’re not feeling up to the 50-mile ride to Silverton, check out the Quarter Horse to Purgatory Resort. This ride cuts the distance in half and finishes just before the climb up the two mountain passes.
Beating the Train
One of the biggest goals for experienced riders of the Citizen Tour is to beat the train, a feat that dates back to the origins of the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic.
In 1971, brothers Jim and Tom Mayer challenged one another to a race — steam engine versus bicycle. Jim was a brakeman on the train, and Tom was a cycling enthusiast. The reward? A single candy bar. In the end, Tom won the coveted candy bar (with present-day IHBC omnium winners receiving a chocolate trophy).
Today, riders must best 3 hours and 45 minutes if they want to beat the train to Silverton. Make sure to have a friend or family member waiting at the finish line with your favorite candy bar to celebrate this accomplishment.
For the Spectators
Road closures are in effect from Durango to Silverton for the race. If you or your cheering committee wants to be at the finish line in Silverton, it is important to get past Purgatory Resort by 8:30 a.m. The road will not open again until 1:30 p.m.
Not sure how to pass the time while waiting in Silverton? There’s plenty to do in and around the tiny mountain town. Check out the shops in downtown Silverton, or peruse the many vendors set up at the finish line. Live music and a beer garden will also help keep you entertained while waiting for the finishers to come in.
There are also plenty of outdoor activities to help you get outside and enjoy the fresh mountain air. Go for a hike or demo an e-bike on the many trails that surround Silverton, or check out the Animas River that flows alongside town.
Need more ideas? Stop by the Silverton Visitors Center located at 414 Greene Street for additional information on the area.
Sidebar: New This Year
Iron Horse Start
Starting at the Durango Transit Center, all race categories for the road ride will all start at the same time instead of separating categories three minutes apart.
“Groups will still be staged based on the race category,” Wells said. “And they’ll still be scored that way, but the whole group will roll out at once; and then the Citizen Tour will also tag onto the back of the race group as well. What that allows us to do is to have a shorter impact on the time that town is shut down and it allows us to close the road more thoroughly for that group to roll out.”
E-Bike Tour Durango to Silverton
Last year, e-bikers could ride the Quarter Horse to Purgatory. This year, they will have the opportunity to go all the way to Silverton. E-bikers will start at 7:30 a.m., ahead of the rest of the cyclists.
Fat Bike Criterium
Pro racers will have to complete one more race in their quest for the King/Queen of the Mountain Omnium title: The Fat Tire Crit. This race will be held Friday evening during packet pickup, with the course winding through and around Buckley Park as riders attempt to complete as many laps possible in 20 minutes.
Gravel Road Ride
Sunday’s LPEA La Strada La Plata Gravel Ride just got longer. This year, riders can opt to complete a 93-mile gravel road ride starting at Steamworks Brewing Company and heading out on the stunning backroads toward Bayfield. Other distances include the 55-mile and 80-mile.
TIONA EVERSOLE is an outdoor enthusiast based in Durango, Colorado. Look for her on the slopes or exploring the local trails with her pup, Sgt. Pepper.