As the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic reaches the infamous climbs over Coal Bank and Molas passes Saturday, any number of riders from the professional women’s field could make the winning move.
Local riders such as Sarah Sturm, the 2019 champion, or Kira Payer could race to the win on familiar roads. But they’ll face tough competition from out-of-town mountain bike stars Erin Huck and Evelyn Dong.
Last weekend, Sturm rode to a second place finish in the Co2uT Desert Gravel race, which traveled 190-miles of high desert terrain west of Fruita. She said that she’s seeing how she recovers from the effort but is likely to enter the Iron Horse road or mountain bike events.
Sturm, who won the 2019 edition in 2 hours, 49 minutes, 13 seconds, tipped a number of local women who may play a factor in the 47-mile road race to Silverton such as Ava Hachmann, Emily Schaldach, Ellen Campbell and junior phenom Ruth Holcomb.
“(Holcomb) is crazy strong right now,” Sturm said. “She's been prepping for a European mountain bike season, and she's always really fun to watch. I'm sure she definitely could have the legs to win it.”
Holcomb, 18, just returned from racing the World Cup mountain bike races in Germany and the Czech Republic with her Bear National Team and just announced she will ride as a freshman for the Fort Lewis College cycling team this fall as she begins her college studies.
“I'm just really excited to be racing at home, and it’s just good to take a little rest and get ready for the road race,” said Holcomb, who placed second in the pro women’s Queen of the Mountain omnium competition in 2019 for her combined results in the road race – an eighth-place finish – and win in the mountain bike race.
Holcomb also believes the road race could be won by any number of women.
“There's everyone from Erin Huck, who's on the Olympic long team, to a bunch of local girls and just kind of so many fast people,” she said. “I was pretty impressed and excited to see that start list for sure.”
Huck is also coming off of a spring of European mountain bike racing. Now residing in Estes Park, Huck is considered a favorite to be selected by USA Cycling to compete in the mountain bike race at the Tokyo Olympic Games alongside California’s Kate Courtney and Utah’s Haley Batten.
“My good friend Evelyn Dong is signed up for it, too, and it's kind of just an excuse to meet up and ride bikes and have fun in a cool place,” Huck said.
Although Olympic selection is looming, Huck said the goal this weekend is to have fun and not become too stressed.
“The promise was that these would be fun, and I can't be too stressed about that,'' she said. “I mean, the reason to do them is just to enjoy riding my bike and have fun and take advantage of kind of the environment that Durango offers because there are so many bike enthusiasts there and it's impossible not to have a good time.”
One factor in the race that can either help or hinder athletes is the altitude. The summits of both Coal Bank and Molas reach more than 10,500 feet above sea level, challenging even local riders who are used to riding in the high country.
“I usually don't have a problem with altitude, so I'm not super concerned about it,” Huck said.
No matter who’s in the lead group, the pace will pick up early win riders roll out of Animas Valley toward the first climb.
“The race always seems to happen around Shalona, it'll get naturally faster,” Sturm said, adding that she likes how the course is essentially one big climb except for flat sections in the valley and near Purgatory Resort.
Both Sturm and Holcomb noted that they’d prefer to put time into their rivals on the climbs rather than waiting for a big sprint in Silverton.
After 47 miles and more than 5,000 feet of climbing at high-elevation, the stretch down Greene Street is “a lot longer than you think,” Sturm said.
Hachmann and Payer have both had a successful spring racing campaign on the road racing with the FLC cycling team and could both carry that fitness into the Iron Horse weekend.
Campbell is another Durango local and FLC alumna who knows the route well. She is back in town for the race, visiting home from Montana.
"It's going to be awesome to have these women who have been racing at high-level races,” Campbell said. “The Iron Horse is great for bringing in some riders like that.”
No matter who wins, many of the women will have another chance to claim victory in the mountain bike race the next day as a part of the Queen of the Mountain omnium. The race will start at Durango Mesa Park before heading into Horse Gulch on trails like Telegraph, Stacey’s and Cuchillo. The new course for this year is likely to create different racing dynamics than the circuit through downtown Durango and the Fort Lewis College mesa used in previous years.
Campbell mentioned what may be the epitome of the Iron Horse’s significance to the Durango community.
"I'm always excited to do the Iron Horse. Being away from Durango for awhile, I am mostly focused on the fun and riding with friends."