Sometimes a stupid idea takes on a life of its own. In 1971, Tom Mayer was a cyclist living in Durango and his brother, Jim, was a brakeman on the steam-powered Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad. Brothers being brothers, they couldn’t resist a little friendly competition; they decided to race Tom and his bike Jim and the train nearly 50 miles from Durango to nearby Silverton. The bet ? A chocolate bar.
Tom won, and the following year he and his friend Ed Zink, owner of a local cycling and equipment store, founded the first Iron Horse Bicycle Classic to allow others to attempt the feat. Over the next 50 years, the event will help transform Durango into one of the world’s premier cycling destinations and a paradise for competitive cyclists.
That first year, however, only five of the 36 riders beat the train, which meant sabotaging it over two 10,000-foot-high mountain passes on a path that was five miles longer – and much steeper – than the train. train route. But it was fun enough that they decided to make it a regular thing every Memorial Day with Zink in the lead. Soon more events were added, including a race for the then-burgeoning discipline of mountain biking in 1984, which until recently saw participants ride through the Steamworks Brewing Company bar in downtown city to the delight of the spectators inside.
Ned Overend, a former professional mountain bike racer and five-time Iron Horse winner who has lived in Durango since 1980, believes the event’s ability to adapt to the growing popularity of different cycling disciplines has been key to his continued success. Over the years, the Iron Horse has hosted everything from BMX races to spectator-friendly criteriums, a type of road racing that saw hordes of cyclists race a short course around downtown Durango. “Very little [cycling] events are able to sustain themselves for that long,” he says.
With his experience hosting the Iron Horse – and the national and international influence that comes with it – Zink has been able to help bring other world-class cycling events to town, including several National Championships in mountain biking and the first mountain bike world championships in 1990. Zink chaired the event’s organizing committee and Overend won his first cross-country race.
“It was a big deal. All the different countries that were doing mountain biking sent their teams in, and it brought huge international attention to Durango,” he says. Add to that the national media coverage of all the races that s are taking place there and cycling brands touting their prowess at these events through expensive advertising campaigns, and suddenly Southwest Colorado was the place to be if you were a cyclist.
Locals realized they had lightning in a bottle, Overend says, and soon a cycling advocacy group now known as Durango Trails was born. “It’s amazing how prolific this group has been in building trails and securing easements and rights of way around the city,” he says.
Today, there are over 300 miles of trails within 30 minutes of Durango, and the town has developed a winning pedigree on two wheels. The Fort Lewis College cycling team won the first national collegiate mountain bike championships in 1994 and won 20 other national championships on knobby and slick tires. The area is also home to more cycling legends than Overend, including Tour de France stage winner Sepp Kuss, Olympic rider Christopher Blevins and downhill champion Missy Giove. But Zink is no longer among them. He died in 2019 at the age of 71.
Yet the Iron Horse race he championed remains central to the scene it inspired. “Try to get [to Silverton] faster than a steam train, it’s a great story,” says Overend. “It intrigues people and brings in people who maybe don’t have a lot of cycling history.”
If you are going to: In addition to the train ride to Silverton, this year’s event (May 28-30) features 13 other rides and races ranging from a casual e-bike tour of the classic race course to a gravel ride of 55 miles and children’s events. There will also be the return of two big tire derbies with returning formats: double slalom and the Roostmaster, a jump-filled, made-for-TV competition that debuted at Iron Horse in the 1990s. Click here to learn more, see the calendar, check availability and register for events.