World-Renown Bicycle Classic Celebrates 50 Years

Hi, I’m Beth Drum. And I am a proud employee owner at Alpine Bank. Giving back to the community is one of Alpine Banks core values, as it is with the many nonprofits that serve our community. We invite you to meet some of these change makers as part of our series, “Community Matters.”

When Tom Mayer told his brother, Jim, that he planned to ride his bike to Silverton, Jim, a brakeman on the Denver and Rio Grande Western, bet him a candy bar that he couldn’t beat the train. Tom won the bet when he beat the train by 10 minutes. That candy bar was the inspiration behind the world renowned Iron Horse Bicycle Classic, a race that Mayer started the next year with only 36 rider and a finish line on Coal Bank Pass.

I went to the highway patrol and told ’em what I wanted to do. And they said, “No, absolutely not, no way. This is not going to happen. We’re not having those bikes on the highway, especially on the holiday weekend.” So I went to Ed Zink and told him what I was thinking. He didn’t tell me until a couple years ago, but he thought I was crazy. But their chamber of commerce had come to him, and asked him if they couldn’t do something to kick off their tourist season. So that’s a good business man, put two and two together. And together we put on that first race.

The Iron Horse celebrates its 50th anniversary this Memorial Day weekend. And over the years, it has changed the culture of Durango. In the ’70s, the city of Durango prohibited bicycle riding downtown. And the only place you could find a bike rack was in a schoolyard.

It wasn’t a big thing back in the ’70s. Cycling wasn’t, you know, as Ed would tell you, “They invited anyone that would show up to the start line those first few years to make it look like someone was there.” And over time it started to gain traction, became kind of an Olympic qualifier event. Net Overend comes to town, kind of some perfect storm things come together. A lot of Nordic ski athletes, such as Mike Elliott, Ronny Yeager, were here and were competing in both cycling and skiing, Dolph Kuss. So there’s a lot of things that kind of came together to build some momentum during the 70s, which by the ’80s, mountain biking comes along between the Iron Horse road race, and then this new invention of a mountain bike, it really took hold. And we had such great terrain for the mountain biking piece, and the road biking piece, that I think that intersection of those things really took it in a different level into the ’80s. And now look at, we have kids competing all over the world that are from Durango at the highest levels. We have little kids in Devo, we have older folks riding it as a personal challenge. It’s amazing how far it’s come. Not overnight, 50 years is definitely not overnight, but it has become part of the fabric of the community.

Sippy said the 50th anniversary will celebrate the past and look to the future. The Center of Southwest Studies will unveil an exhibit, “50 Years of Cycling in Southwest Colorado” on Memorial Day weekend. And the Iron Horse will revive a number of mountain bike events at Chapman hill. With COVID changing the face of downtown, the criterium has been eliminated, but a new event, “A Citizen’s Bike Parade” from the train station to Chapman Hill will be on Sunday. The Iron Horse also will add a race from Ouray to Silverton that will run simultaneously with the race from Durango.

Since we’re closing the road anyways, Ouray gets impacted by that road closure, right? And they have been a strong supporter of the event by allowing us to close that road. So we wanted to involve them. And who wouldn’t want to ride Red Mountain Pass without cars?

Through the years, the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic has attracted more than 85,000 bike riders of all ages to Southwest Colorado, and infuse the economy with more than $30 million. The Mayer brothers will be in Durango to commemorate the 50th anniversary, but sadly co-founder and chief cheerleader, Ed Zink will not.

And we celebrated the 40th anniversary right here back in whatever year that was. And when we wrapped that up, the next day I was unloading, you’ll be familiar with this, I was unloading stuff back into the Zink barn to put the event away for the year. And Ed said to me, “We need to start planning the 50th.” And I was like, “Ed, I need a few days before I can start focusing on the 50th.” I’m sorry there’s some people in our organization that won’t be here to celebrate it with us, they were critical to making it happen, including Ed. But I think we’re doing him justice on what he was hoping for.

You can see a complete schedule of events for riders and spectators at ironhorsebicycleclassic.com. Thanks for watching this edition of “Community Matters,” brought to you by Alpine Bank and the local network. I’m Wendy Graham Settle.

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