The Iron Horse Classic
We are refreshing out Biking the Million Dollar Highway article to celebrate the Iron Horse Classic? What is the Iron Horse Classic? It’s a weekend of bike racing, bike tours, parties and fun in Durango Colorado.
The story goes that two brothers, Tom and Jim Mayer had a friendly race. Jim was a brakeman on the railroad that runs between Durango and Silverton. Tom would race him to Silverton on his bicycle. After a few runs, Tom was able to beat the train up the mountain (albeit the train had a few stops and speed restrictions).
In 1972, the historic railroad began operations and a group of 36 riders got together to resume the races. The classic has grown to over 3500 participants and expanded to have events and parties span all of Memorial Day Weekend. If you ever wanted to ride in Durango, the Iron Horse Classic might be the perfect opportunity.
Why Ride The Iron Horse Classic?
- Beautiful Scenery
- Epic climbs
- The road to Silverton is closed for the race
- SAG stops and support along the way
- Durango is centrally located between Denver, Albuquerque, Phoenix and Salt Lake City
- Friendship and fun
Durango is a biking town
The local college of Fort Lewis boasts three National Championships in mountain biking. Every Memorial Day Highway 550 is closed from Purgatory Ski Resort to Silverton for the Iron Horse Classic where thousands of cyclists climb from Durango (6500’) over Molas Pass (10,900) and down into Silverton (9300’). Epic climbs on dirt and pavement flow out from town in every direction and quality rental bikes can be acquired at several local stores. We added our own modifications to the Iron Horse climb to include the Animas River Trail and it goes something like this.
The Animas flows through Durango literally and spiritually
Our ride began on the first warm day after a cold snap. The locals were out enjoying an early taste of summer. Groups of kayakers and paddleboarders were playing in the holes on the river as rafters floated by. The trail began several miles south of Durango and followed the river through town. The trail condition was OK. The lower half was like a nice sidewalk and the top half was paved but with regular cracks. It was rideable on a road bike but not smooth. You wouldn’t want to go too fast anyway since the views were amazing. In the end, our only complaint was that it was too short. Seven miles of that splendor was not enough, but if you wanted to extend your time on the flats you can combine the trail with the next section for a solid thirty miler.
Ranches line the river north of Durango
The north end of the trail forks and peters out onto neighborhood sidewalks. You have two choices, turn left and go to the highway which has a very nice riding lane or turn right and go through the ranches on county road 250. You could always do both as a loop. My preference was to take the back road and rejoin the highway in Hermosa. This is also the junction point of the amazing Hermosa Creek Trail which is about 20 miles of epic singletrack that flows down from Purgatory.
Lunch at James Ranch
The ranch land ends at two very nice stops. Honeyville offers all things honey: wines, liquors, jams and more including tasters of everything. James Ranch is an organic, grass fed ranch that offers tours and on Saturdays, they craft amazing burgers and steak sandwiches from their own meat. They have many picnic tables scattered on their tiered lawn with this view to enjoy while enjoying a delicious meal, heavenly! It was definitely worth our lunch stop.
Summer turns to spring as you climb to Purgatory
Shortly after James Ranch are the Pinkerton Hot Springs and then the climb begins in earnest. The heavy climbing continues for a few miles and then the road almost levels out. Not really level, more undulating with a gradual increase. Still the hard work is behind you, but climbing to 9000’ is never easy. The spattering of stores and wide shoulders make this section extremely bike friendly. No wonder there was a constant stream of riders going by.
Winter is coming
The other side of Purgatory is hell. Truth be told we didn’t ride this section. The wide shoulders disappear and the undulating road changes to a steady climb. Not one but two mountain passes stand between you and the historic mining town of Silverton. Coal Bank Pass stands at 10,640’ and Molas Pass is at 10,910. In between is a 1000’ race downhill to Lime Creek and another lung busting climb back up to Molas pass.
The road drops rapidly down to Silverton
After Molas Pass, the road drops rapidly down to Silverton at 9,300’. Silverton retains its mining roots with a colorful, historic downtown including the terminus for the narrow gauge tourist train that runs up from Durango. If you wanted an epic self support shuttle you can take your bike on the train and ride the 50 miles back to Durango. Just make sure of your capabilities. The first sag stop out of Silverton is the Purgatory Resort which is 19 miles away. You’ll have to climb 1,800’ feet to reach that stop even though it is “technically” downhill.
If you really want to push yourself, you can keep riding 550 all the way north to Montrose. The mountains are really magical. Here is more internet proof that you don’t have to go halfway around the world for epic adventures.
It’s better by bike
However you can enjoy this amazing area you should, but for us it’s better by bike. You can hear the frogs croaking in frequent ponds along the road and feel connected to the energy of your surroundings. Maybe you’ll even see an elk or deer grazing by the side of the trail. The mountains look higher and the air tastes cleaner. We truly enjoyed our time riding in Durango and we will be back.