The mountain bike and gravel season may still be in full swing, but for me, it ended after the Snowshoe World Cup. I had a few weeks of downtime, with a race here and there to fill the void, but now cyclocross is in full swing. With some time to catch my breath and reflect on the season, I wanted to revisit some of the highlights of my summer, starting with the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic, which took place in and around Durango, Colorado, May 28-30.
Celebrating its 50th year, the IHBC is a race with an origin story straight out of folklore. Jim Mayer worked as a brakeman on the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad, which ran the line between Durango and Silverton, Colorado. His younger brother, Tom, spent his time riding his bike and exploring the roads alongside the tracks in the San Juan mountains. In 1971, Tom challenged his older brother to a race: Bike vs. Train. The first one to Silverton wins. It was John Henry meets Dave Stohler at 10,000 feet.
The wager for the bike vs. train is what author John Scalzi would call a “Duke Bet.” But in this instance. the winner received a candy bar rather than the $1 wagered by the Duke brothers in the movie Trading Places. The train and bike took off from Durango with high stakes on the line. And despite Tom having to ride over two 10,000-foot-high mountain passes and a bit of a longer distance, he was in Silverton waiting for his brother when the train arrived.
1972 marked the first Iron Horse Bicycle Classic, with the same premise: start in Durango and beat the train to Silverton. Now in its 50th year, the premise and race endure. However, beating the train is a secondary concern for the elite men and women in the road race. More important was the race against the field.
Covering road racing isn’t my primary or even secondary concern. At best it’s fourth behind MTB, cyclocross and gravel. For those events, I have a pretty good idea of what I need to do to get the shots I need. For a point-to-point road race, it’s a whole different can of gummy worms. For one, you have to choose if you’re going to cover the men’s field or the women’s field. There was a media car assigned to the pointy end of each. I chose the women and got to see a great race at the front between Sarah Sturm, Kira Payer and Katie Clouse.
Much like your favorite gravel race, the IHBC starts in waves and the waves join together quickly. This meant that the masters and non-elite men and elite women were in the same group after a mile or so into the race. The lead women would pull away from most of the crowd once the terrain started going up. The early intermingling did allow for one of my favorite moments of the day when Sarah Sturm was asked for either a selfie or an autograph by one of the age-grade category men. The consummate pro, Sturmy politely declined and asked if they could instead take the photo after the race was over.
For the first half of the race, the women’s field was led by a group of seven that included Bailey Cioppa, Lauren Aggeler, Mindy Caruso and Ruth Holcomb along with Sturm, Payer and Clouse.
Holcomb, who ended up ninth, was the first in the group to get dropped. But somehow, she reversed her backward slide, closed the gap, went to the front, and started to push the pace. Not feeling at her best and hoping to engage the “fake it and see if you can make it” strategy, Holcomb went all in before having to pull over to the side of the road, exhausted and seemingly sick to her stomach. That she still was able to continue and finish ninth is possibly the ride of the day.
Back at the front, the leaders eventually whittled the group down to three with Sturm, who was recovering from covid and unsure if she was even going to ride, pushing the pace and monologuing the entire time. From sick bed to riding at the front of the group and chatting up everyone at the same time, maybe this was the ride of the day.
Katie Clouse, on the other hand, was quieter than a Katie mouse, just sitting in the third spot not saying a word. For a time, it looked like she was implementing one of those savvy Euro-strategies she may have picked up during her latest road racing stint overseas. At one point, Sturm started to heckle all of us in the media car so I took the opportunity to ask if she knew Katie was even with them. Sarah assured me she was aware of Clouse and even let us know she had asked Clouse why her once-white team socks were now a pale gray. Katie tried to explain that they were the only pair she had been give at that point. Sturm told her something along the line of “they still let you buy clorox, don’t they?”
This conversation took place at about 10,000 feet or higher. While I was out of breath just running back to the car for 20 steps, these women were racing and performing improv comedy.
On the penultimate climb, Clouse could no longer follow Payer and Sturm’s wheels. Payer put in a sustained effort on the final climb, gained some ground over Sturm, and then bombed the descent to take the solo win. Sturm strolled in for a second-place finish, and Clouse finished third.
On the men’s side, Quinn Simmons took the win over Caleb Classen, with Riley Amos finishing third.
In the 1990s, mountain biking was so popular they made up events just for television. Well, at least one event: The Roostmaster. The first Roostmaster was in 1993 on Chapman Hill, and Tinker Juarez took the win. He was joined by women’s winner Ruthie Masters in 1994. In 1995 and 1996, there was a $5000 prize purse, and ESPN broadcast the event. John Tomac and Julie Furtado won the Roostmaster both of those years. After that, it vanished until its return in 2022.
If you’ve been following what the Savannah Bananas are doing for minor league baseball and baseball in general, the Roostmaster is in the same spirit. It’s ridiculous, fun, made up its own rules, and is easy to follow. The competition is real, and it’s over before anyone gets bored.
For this year’s event, the rules were a little sketchy but it went something like this: the women’s and men’s fields alternated doing one lap on a mile-ish long course that included one big climb up Chapman Hill and then one big descent on a dual slalom course. The festivities included lots of big air, crazy descents, missing sleeves and an endless parade of on-bike jorts. Each field did three laps and points were awarded based on where you crossed the finish line. Riders with the most points (or maybe the least points) after three rounds got on the podium. Sidenote, there was no podium.
Regardless of the lack of rules and general organization, the event was entertaining, and the crowds were huge. Let’s start a national Roostmaster series today. Who’s with me?
After the chaos and absurdity of the Roostmaster subsided, it was time for a more traditional dual slalom competition. Riders competed in a bracketed tournament with each pair competing twice against each other, on alternate tracks. The time gaps from each win are combined to see who wins a round and moves on. So if you were two tenths of a second behind your competitor in the first run and 3 tenths faster in the second run, you moved on with a one tenth of a second winning margin. The rounds go by faster each time as more riders are eliminated until you are left with just two racers competing for the win.
The Chapman Hill dual slalom course is under the lights. The event could not have gone better between the racing, the rain, and the pack of deer who got in a few race runs mid-competition.
The road race makes the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic iconic, there is no argument about that, but the Roostmaster and dual slalom give an outsider to this scene a great look at the soul of Durango cycling culture. My hope is they will bring it back for year 51.