SILVERTON – Howard Grotts wouldn’t let his window to claim glory in his hometown race slip away in 2018.
One year after he finished third in the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic Coca-Cola Road Race from Durango to Silverton, Grotts climbed to the front and sprinted past professional road cyclist Keegan Swirbul to win the 47th running of the 47-mile road cycling race by one-tenth of a second.
“It’s sweet to show up and perform in front of all my friends and family, and, yeah, it’s just awesome to have a race like this in your hometown,” Grotts said.
Grotts won the race in 2 hours, 19 minutes, 25.4 seconds. Swirbul finished in 2:19:25.5. That was 10 minutes faster than Swirbul’s winning time in the 2015 IHBC road race. Last year, Grotts was third in 2:24:44.9, while fellow Durango native Sepp Kuss, now of Team LottoNL-Jumbo WorldTour, won in 2:20:50.9.
Grotts, a 25-year-old Durango native, had a two-year window to compete in the IHBC coming off his 2016 Summer Olympics, where he represented USA Cycling in Rio de Janeiro. The Specialized Racing team rider was able to skip World Cup races in Europe held during the same weekend as the Iron Horse, with the new points cycle for the 2020 Olympics not set to begin until June. It is likely he won’t be back to the IHBC until 2021, after the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Grotts, the three-time defending cross-country mountain bike national champion and reigning short-track national champ, was untouchable in the 6,700 feet of climbing Saturday. He put in attacks and made Swirbul, the 2015 Iron Horse road race champion and Jelly Belly-Maxxis Pro Cycling Team rider, suffer along the way.
The two came to the top of Molas Pass at 10,910 feet above sea level together. Swirbul was stronger in the descents Saturday, but he wasn’t able to build a gap on Grotts big enough to prevent an all-out sprint finish on Greene Street.
“I didn’t feel great,” Swirbul said. “I was kind of suffering all day.”
Swirbul, a 22-year-old from outside the Aspen area, said it was his first true sprint finish with a win on the line. Grotts has grown accustomed to sprint finishes with close friend Payson McElveen, the 2016 IHBC road race champ, who had beat Grotts in a sprint at the last two marathon mountain bike national championship races.
“I led it out, which wasn’t my plan,” Grotts said of the sprint. “I wanted to kind of be second wheel. ... He for sure was coming up on me, but luckily, I had enough gas.”
Swirbul looked like he would come around Grotts if the race went another 10 yards. Still, Grotts held him off by half a wheel.
“I think I was one gear too high when he started his last sprint, and he got a little room on me, and I had to close it,” Swirbul said. “I just ran out of ground.”
Swirbul also didn’t attack on the climbs because he hoped Jelly Belly teammate Cormac McGeough of Fort Lewis College would bridge the gap up to them so the pair could work together against Grotts. Had McGeough been able to bridge the gap, Grotts would have been in trouble. McGeough wasn’t able to catch the break riders at altitude, though, as they maintained a solid 20-second advantage.
McGeough finished third in 2:20:30.8.
“Keegan and Howard went, and I sat and let it go,” McGeough said. “When they got a bit of gap, I tried to bridge. I was stuck in the middle just dying. The altitude was really killing me. ... Guys came up to me, but I was able to drop them at the very end and come in for third at least.”
Durango’s Levi Kurlander was third at the top of Molas. He finished fourth in 2:21:06.1. Albuquerque’s Fortunato Ferrara was fifth in 2:21:11.6.
“I wanted to ride smart today, not get in any trouble and try to control the pace as much as I could on Coal Bank,” Kurlander said. ”
Kurlander said he saw Grotts and Swirbul from the top of Molas, but he didn’t have the mass to descend fast enough to catch them.
“I just don’t weigh enough,” he said. “Cormac is a big dude. He had more inertia to get him down the hill for third.”
Durango’s 62-year-old cycling legend Ned Overend, the record-holder with five IHBC men’s road race titles, finished sixth in 2:21:20.8.
Grotts went on to win Sunday’s IHBC mountain bike race for the second consecutive year and retained his title as the King of the Mountain, the IHBC’s only omnium championship for a rider’s combined results in the road race and mountain bike event. It was a special sweep for the Durango star.