by Jason Sumner

One bridged late, the other soloed long, but both strategies yielded the desired effect, as Burke Swindlehurst and Mara Abbott won their respective pro category races at the 39th Iron Horse Bicycle Classic road race on a sun-splashed Saturday in Southwest, Colorado.

The big goal: Silverton comes after a short, but tough ride.
The big goal: Silverton comes after a short, but tough ride.

Abbott, who also won here in 2009, disappeared at the finish, not sticking around long enough to break down her win of a race that included 6650-feet of climbing. But it didn’t take Malcolm Gladwell smarts to sort out the details. The wispy 25-year-old Boulder, Colorado-resident darted off the front of the women’s field roughly 20 miles into the 50-mile ride from Durango to Silverton, hammered alone over Coal Bank and Molas Pass, then plunged down to the finish line.

Abbott stopped the clock in 2:37:01, four minutes and 47 seconds ahead of second-place finisher Marisa Asplund of Durango. Third-placed Kasey Clark was another 6:51 behind. The final 2010 standings were a blow-out compared to a year ago when Abbott bested Asplund by just 8 seconds.

Swindlehurst won the men’s pro race in 2:12:15, with Alex Hagman second at 0:44, and Greg Krause another 19 seconds behind.

Those tight times were a testament to an exciting men’s affair that saw Swindlehurst and a small group of chasers were forced on the defensive after an early break rolled up the road during the usually tranquil trip out of Durango and through the Animas Valley.

“It was a strong group of about six guys who went really early,” said cycling legend Ned Overend (Specialized), who turns 55 this fall, but still managed to finish seventh on Saturday, posting a 2:14:44. “The break had about 1:15 at the base of the Shalona climb and the chase wasn’t very organized.”

Little changed on the rolling run from that opening climb, past the Durango Mountain Resort ski area and on to the base of Coal Bank Pass, a 5.4-mile grind that averages 6.5 percent and tops out above 10,500 feet. With Overend doing much of the work, chase and break were still less than 90 seconds apart as the pros made their way up Coal Bank under the shadow of Engineer Mountain, one of the hallmark sites that line a course riddled with postcard views and spectaculal panoramas.

Swindlehurst enjoyed a big win under sunny mountain skies.
Swindlehurst enjoyed a big win under sunny mountain skies.

Also in the chase was Swindlehurst, 37, who’d bridged to an earlier move, but wasn’t able to repeat the effort when the rubber finally snapped in the valley. Instead he dropped back due in part to a grumbling stomach.

“I decided I didn’t want to wake up at 4:30 a.m. to eat [for a race that started in front of the Durango High School at 7:20], so I pushed it a little and paid for it,” said the Salt Lake City-resident, who’s been racing professionally for 13 years and took his first major pro win on these same roads back in 1995 when he was 22. Swindlehurst also won the Iron Horse road race in 1998.

“Fortunately we had a strong group and Ned was really pushing it,” continued Swindlehurst (Team Give-Black Bottoms-First Endurance), who put together his own Utah-centric sponsorship program for 2010. “I was just trying to lay low until the steeper climbs. When we got [to Coal Bank] my legs came around and I started feeling good.”

The end game commenced near the Coal Bank summit where Swindlehurst and a now diminished chase group finally caught sight of the break that included Hagman, Dan Bowman and Lachlan Morton.

“Going up Coal Bank the bunch just started to thin out,” explained Durango-resident Overend, who guessed that he’d raced the iconic Colorado cycling event 28 times starting in 1982, but recently has been living part-time in Northern California to be closer to Specialized headquarters in Morgan Hill where he works in product development and marketing. “I’ve been riding a lot out there, so fitness wasn’t an issue. But the altitude zapped me. I couldn’t do the big accelerations.”

Indeed, it was a big acceleration initiated by Hagman that finally split things up going over the top of Coal Bank. Swindlehurst and Krause were the only others who could latch on.

“When Alex attacked and got a gap, I knew it was do or die,” said Swindlehurst, who spent the day aboard an extremely unique, full carbon Delta 7 bike, which was originally conceived as an engineering project at Brigham Young University. “It’s an iso’truss design, and believe it or not it doesn’t whistle and it’s strong, stiff and compliant.”

After the quick trip down off the top of Coal Bank, the day’s final obstacle loomed, the 4.2-mile, 4.9-percent Molas Pass ascent, which sends riders skyward to nearly 11,000 feet.

“I knew guys would be chasing hard so I just started riding my own tempo,” continued Swindlehurst. “Then all the sudden [former U.S. national road champion turned race support personnel] Chris Wherry pulled up alongside in a car and said, ‘Dude, you’re all alone.’ That’s when I went all in.”

Swindlehurst crested Molas solo, then bombed down into Silverton, an old mining town turned summer tourist destination that sits at 9,300 feet, and according to the 2000 census has 531 residents.

The numbed jumped by a factor of at least five Saturday. All told 2500 riders plus family and friends descended on the town that’s best known as the turn-around point for the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, and is home to the expert-only Silverton ski area.

USA Cycling chief Steve Johnson showed up for the ride, too.
USA Cycling chief Steve Johnson showed up for the ride, too.

“This is definitely one of the best races in the country,” said USA Cycling executive director Steve Johnson, who raced professionally in the 1980s on the Subaru-Montgomery squad. Johnson, who was sporting USA Cycling kit and riding a Shimano Di2-equiped Specialized Saturday, carded an extremely respectable 2:42 and was top 5 in his class.

“When I turned 60 this year I told myself I was going to do at least one race. I definitely picked a good day for it.”

That good day was driven primarily by perfect weather, which race director Gaige Sippy says is always the biggest challenge when putting on the Iron Horse. Springtime in the Rockies is a volatile time, said Sippy, who’s been at the IHBC helm since 2007 and was forced to cancel the event in 2008 when a freak snowstorm descend on the mountains outside Durango.

“Every year we have to make lots of just-in-case preparations,” explained Sippy, who says his summer-kick-off event’s total budget is about $170,000 and brings in $250,000, with a portion of that profit going to the local breast cancer center. “We stage buses on the top of the passes, and have trucks to hold bikes just in case the weather turns and we have to get people down quickly.”

Fortunately on this day, gravity – and a whole lot of persistent pedaling by 2500 determined riders – took care of that.

Race Notes

  • The Iron Horse Bicycle Classic weekend continues Sunday and Monday, with a criterium and time trial in Durango… Sippy was 23rd in the men’s pro race, with a 2:25:50.
  • Team Livestrong brought 114 riders to the event.
  • Next year, for the IHBC’s 40th anniversary, pro and amateur cross-country races and a pro MTB prologue will be added to the schedule. The prologue will be reminiscent to the 2001 World Cup event, when riders blasted around downtown – and in-and-out of a few local businesses. The XC will utilize the wealth of singletrack that surrounds über-bike-friendly Durango.
  • How bike-friendly is Durango? On Friday, there was a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Main Street for a new on-street bike parking area, which replaced one vehicle spot with 14 bike spaces.
Swindlehurst enjoyed a big win under sunny mountain skies.
The big goal: Silverton comes after a short, but tough ride.
USA Cycling chief Steve Johnson showed up for the ride, too.