A road ride from Durango to Silverton on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend is an annual rite of passage for many cyclists.
Not this year.
The Iron Horse Bicycle Classic canceled the 49th edition of its event because of the new coronavirus pandemic. That includes the Coca-Cola Road Race and the Citizen’s Tour which sends thousands of cyclists on the 47-mile journey up U.S. Highway 550 and over Coal Bank and Molas passes on the way to the small mountain town of Silverton nestled in the southern San Juan Mountains.
But the April 30 announcement of the IHBC’s cancellation because of COVID-19and related public health orders may not slow down some cyclists who have continued to train and ride the highway during the last three weeks. That is of concern to IHBC organizers, Colorado State Patrol and San Juan County Sheriff Bruce Conrad, who has already issued tickets to those who recreate in Silverton from outside the 10-mile restriction put in place by Gov. Jared Polis during Colorado’s “safer-at-home” phase.
“We hope not to have to take action, but if a situation is becoming out of hand and dangerous, we might have to,” Conrad said. “I’m not trying to ticket anyone. My goal is not to make an already bad situation worse. But we have to protect our community and do what is best. It’s a public safety issue. We are not trying to be rude neighbors or hoard the backcountry to ourselves. But it’s a safety concern, and I’d hate to see a bunch of cyclists descend on town all at once. It’s not really appropriate at this time. We can’t handle 100 or 200 people in Silverton right now.”
IHBC director Gaige Sippy said the event does not endorse any groups of cyclists making the ride this weekend, but he knows it is possible people will still chose to pedal to Silverton, a community of less than 700 people.
“Silverton is essentially closed and asking people not to be there,” Sippy said. “I understand people are going to ride on the passes and have still been riding on the passes during this time, but I want them to be sympathetic to how San Juan County is still trying to manage their situation. We don’t want to see a bunch of people going that direction, and that was a big part of the decision to not hold the event at all this year.”
During a typical Iron Horse, U.S. Highway 550 is closed by Colorado State Patrol from north of Purgatory Resort to Silverton while the event is held. That won’t be the case this year, making the situation more dangerous for cyclists that decide to complete the ride.
State Patrol Capt. Adrian Driscoll said he does not currently have any plans for extra patrols along the route this weekend and asks that people be respectful of the road.
“Having the Iron Horse is great because the road is closed to keep it safe,” Driscoll said. “But with the switchbacks and hairpins up there, it’s a bad idea to have groups of people on bikes sharing the road with traffic. Obviously, people do it every day anyway. But the large groups of people riding together, that’s a real bad idea. We don’t want people congregating in Silverton. That’s our biggest concern.”
During the IHBC, participants have options to ride the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad train back to Durango. Buses also shuttle bikes back to Durango for riders who hop into a car with family or friends waiting for their arrival in Silverton.
If a cyclist chooses to ride to Silverton this year, they will have to ride back to Durango, which could create traffic problems on both sides of the highway.
“My concern is with holiday traffic and bicycles mixing. That’s never a good idea on that extremely dangerous road,” Driscoll said. “A car versus bike conflict, we certainly don’t want that.”
Conrad is hopeful not to see mass gatherings of vehicles in Silverton awaiting cyclists to arrive to be shuttled back to Durango. He also does not want to close Greene Street through Silverton but said he will if the situation forces his hand.
“Cyclists can’t all cram into the gas station streaming in as they do, either,” Conrad said of the Silverton Conoco located on Greene Street where U.S. Highway 550 splits off into Silverton or continues to Ouray. “If people are going to ride up here, we want everyone involved to keep a level head and do what is best for others as well as themselves.”
Another fear is of cyclists coming to Durango and Silverton from out of state. Conrad said Silverton is simply not equipped to handle visitors from out of the area. By shielding itself from outside visitation, San Juan County has reported only one positive case of COVID-19 and zero deaths.
“If people do come, I hope it is dispersed and less of an event,” Conrad said. “That would not be conducive to what we are trying to accomplish here.”
The safer-at-home order restricts gatherings of 10 or more people. Conrad said any group of 10 or more cyclists would require a permit, and a group of 100 or more is considered an event.
With dry weather in the forecast and a Saturday high of 55 degrees in Silverton, Sippy knows many will likely take advantage of the great weather and maintain their tradition of riding to Silverton. But there will be no train to race against, and he hopes everyone pays heed to the warnings given.
“The Iron Horse is a huge event people train for all year. I understand that, but the great thing about the Iron Horse is that it is organized and safe and they help you get back to Durango,” Driscoll said. “I’m a big fan of the cycling community and bike myself. I don’t want to discourage people from doing that, but we ask them to make sure it’s safe, that they’re complying with the governor’s orders as well as those of San Juan County and limit their travel at this time.”