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Race the Train: Conquer the 2024 Iron Horse Bicycle Classic!

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The Iron Horse Bicycle Classic, established in 1971 from a sibling rivalry, is a race against the historic Durango and Silverton train, celebrating adventure and competition through Colorado’s scenic San Juan Mountains.

The Iron Horse Bicycle Classic, an iconic event in the world of cycling, is set to take place from Friday, May 24th, to Sunday, May 26th, 2024. Held annually in Durango, Colorado, this historic race pits cyclists against the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad train in a thrilling contest that has captured the imagination of riders and spectators for over half a century. As the event celebrates its 52nd year, this guide will provide an in-depth look at the route, highlights, and keys to success for those looking to take on the challenge.

Read our complete Colorado travel and adventure guide here.

Photo: Iron Horse Bicycle Classic

The Route

The Iron Horse Bicycle Classic has a storied history that began in 1971, born out of a sibling rivalry. Tom Mayer, an avid cyclist, challenged his brother Jim, a brakeman on the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, to a race. The challenge was simple: who could travel faster from Durango to Silverton, Tom on his bike or Jim on the train? This friendly competition laid the foundation for what would become one of the most iconic cycling events in the United States.

The Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad itself has a rich history, dating back to 1882 when it was constructed to transport silver and gold from the San Juan Mountains. Today, the historic steam train offers passengers a scenic journey through the rugged Colorado landscape, echoing the race’s spirit of adventure and competition. The Iron Horse Bicycle Classic honors this legacy, bringing cyclists and rail enthusiasts together for a unique and thrilling event.

The Iron Horse Bicycle Classic route is a demanding 47-mile journey that starts in Durango and ends in Silverton. Cyclists ascend over 5,700 feet, traversing two significant mountain passes: Coal Bank Pass and Molas Pass.

  1. Starting Line: Durango
    • The race begins in the historic town of Durango at an elevation of 6,512 feet. The atmosphere is charged with excitement as riders gather early in the morning, preparing for the grueling ride ahead. The first few miles offer a relatively gentle introduction, allowing riders to warm up before the climb begins in earnest.
  2. Coal Bank Pass
    • The first major challenge is Coal Bank Pass, with an elevation of 10,640 feet. The ascent to Coal Bank Pass is approximately 21 miles from the starting line. This section is characterized by a steady, relentless climb, testing riders’ endurance and mental fortitude. The gradient varies, with some sections being particularly steep and demanding.
  3. Molas Pass
    • After a brief descent from Coal Bank Pass, riders face the second major climb: Molas Pass, standing at 10,899 feet. Although the climb to Molas Pass is shorter than Coal Bank, the elevation and cumulative fatigue make it equally challenging. The views from Molas Pass are breathtaking, offering a brief respite as riders take in the panoramic vistas of the surrounding mountains.
  4. Descent to Silverton
    • The final leg of the race is a descent into the mining town of Silverton, which sits at an elevation of 9,318 feet. The descent requires technical skill and concentration as riders navigate winding roads and varying terrain. The finish line in Silverton is a welcome sight, marking the end of a physically and mentally demanding journey.

Highlights of the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic

  1. Scenic Beauty
    • The route between Durango and Silverton is renowned for its stunning scenery. Riders are treated to views of towering peaks, lush forests, and pristine rivers. The natural beauty of the San Juan Mountains provides a majestic backdrop, making the grueling effort worthwhile.
  2. Historic Significance
    • The race’s origin is rooted in a sibling rivalry from 1971, when Tom Mayer challenged his brother Jim, a train conductor, to a race. The event has since grown into a beloved tradition, drawing cyclists from around the world. Competing against the historic steam train adds a unique and nostalgic element to the race.
  3. Community Spirit
    • The Iron Horse Bicycle Classic is not just a race; it’s a community event. The towns of Durango and Silverton come alive with festivities, including live music, food vendors, and family-friendly activities. The support and enthusiasm of local spectators create an electrifying atmosphere, encouraging riders throughout their journey.
  4. Diverse Events
    • Beyond the main race, the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic weekend features various events, including the Quarter Horse to Purgatory, a shorter 25-mile race, and the La Strada La Plata gravel ride. These events cater to cyclists of different skill levels, ensuring that everyone can participate and enjoy the festivities.

Keys to Success

  1. Training
    • Proper training is essential for success in the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic. Given the significant elevation gain and challenging climbs, riders should focus on building their endurance and strength. Incorporating hill training, long rides, and interval workouts into your regimen will help prepare you for the demanding course.
  2. Acclimatization
    • The high altitudes of Coal Bank Pass and Molas Pass present an additional challenge. Arriving in Durango a few days before the race to acclimatize can help your body adjust to the thinner air. Training at altitude, if possible, will also be beneficial.
  3. Nutrition and Hydration
    • Proper nutrition and hydration are crucial on race day. Ensure you are well-hydrated before the start and consume a balanced meal rich in carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. During the race, carry energy gels, bars, and electrolyte drinks to maintain your energy levels and prevent dehydration.
  4. Pacing
    • Pacing is key to conquering the climbs. Starting too fast can lead to early fatigue, making the climbs more difficult. Aim to maintain a steady, sustainable pace, conserving energy for the demanding sections of the route.
  5. Gear Selection
    • Selecting the right gear can make a significant difference. A bike with appropriate gearing for climbing, lightweight components, and reliable brakes will help you navigate the course efficiently. Ensuring your bike is in top condition before the race is equally important.
  6. Mental Preparation
    • The Iron Horse Bicycle Classic is as much a mental challenge as it is a physical one. Visualizing the route, setting achievable goals, and staying positive will help you push through difficult moments. Drawing inspiration from the scenic beauty and the spirit of competition can also provide a mental boost.


The Iron Horse Bicycle Classic is a unique and thrilling race that offers cyclists the chance to test their limits against one of the most scenic and challenging routes in the United States. Whether you’re a seasoned racer or a first-time participant, the combination of breathtaking landscapes, historic significance, and community spirit makes this event truly special. With proper preparation, a solid race strategy, and an appreciation for the journey, you can conquer the Iron Horse and create lasting memories in the process. Mark your calendars for May 24-26, 2024, and get ready to ride the rails in the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic.