Minutes before the start, I sat around draped over my bike frame, waiting for the gun to go off, trying not to look at everyone else who looked clearly faster than me. Thanks to my teammate, I couldn’t help but look now.

“Ned, as in Ned Overend?”

“Yeah, that’s him. He’s like a hundred years old, but he’s such a hammer.”

After looking at Ned for one second, I knew he would smoke me. His hair was mostly gray, nearly white, and he had the face of someone approaching their 70s, but his frame was that of gnarled oak, hard, trim, his calves ripping with the torment of fifty years of pedaling. He looked improbable, as if he had escaped from a nursing home, but I knew without knowing why that even at sixty-seven, he was going to shred most of the field in this thin air, most of whom could easily be his grandchildren.

Since I was already looking at other racers, I kept looking at other racers. I saw a Jumbo Visma kit and Trek Segafredo kits, but it was obvious that their owners weren’t dilettantes who scored these jerseys from a raffle – they earned them. Besides those cannons, I saw baby-faced teenagers with wild certainty in their eyes, aching for the race to start so they could attack before we left town. Where the hell was I?

Welcome to Durango – where the local road race turns out a fifty-person field in which a third has raced in a grand tour, held or holds a national championship, or will eventually. Me? I grew up eating German potato salad and watching the Brewers on the weekends.

When the gun went off, half of us didn’t realize the race was starting and gaped as about six people attacked immediately around the corner. Madness ensued.

Pacelines immediately formed before we even left town and cleared the thicket of jumbo construction cones meant to keep us separated from traffic. I forced myself to move up immediately for fear of a crash and was rewarded with that move by the sound of screams and snapping carbon behind me as the day’s first crash went down. I would have looked back if we weren’t already pegging it.

At this point, the break had maybe 20 seconds on the main field. I rode up to my teammate. He, rather dramatically, pulled far to the side and then launched himself off the front of the pack. I thought to follow for a second, but every racing instinct in me said, “Bro, is this your first bike race? It’s mile 0. Chill.” So, I chilled.

Until I let 45 seconds go by, saw the breakaway dwindling in the distance down sharply undulating roads, and thought, “Oh, they’re getting away with my teammate in it! Have I waited long enough to make it harder to join them? NOW is the time to bridge solo!”

So I tried to bridge solo.

Briefly, I drew closer and thought to myself, “Good move, bud, you’re almost there!” until more minutes passed and I realized I wasn’t getting closer, I was actually getting farther away – my initial optimism was a mirage, a trick of foreshortening in the ups and downs of the road.

Have you ever made a dumb decision, rushed into it, and then midway through it, realized it was dumb? Well, if you do, you have two options. First, cut your losses; just stop. Sure, you’re implicitly admitting you’re a moron, but if you stop now, there’s always the chance you could ease the amount of moron, hell, maybe even turn it around.

Second option? Double down. Go full Trump. Recommit to your initially ill-conceived move and, against all odds, continue enthusiastically toward inevitable failure.

I looked back, saw the peloton behind marshaling in the distance and pulled lever two. Let’s find out just how dumb I can be!

I briefly got to enjoy my own company before looking back and noticing two people bridging up. Fantastic. Now I could catch a ride! I slightly pulled off to the side and waited for them to reach me. Almost as I did so, I realized they were here already – that’s how much faster they were moving than I was. Frantically, I swung back over and sprinted for all I was worth into the slipstream of the two passing riders. For a couple of heartbeats, I thought I would somehow miss them. I dangled agonizingly eight feet off their draft but dug deep and finally felt the sweet relief of favorable air pressure streaming off the back of the second rider. Made it.

But Jesus, I couldn’t really let up on the pedals. I looked down at my Garmin, and we were moving at 28 mph on a slight uphill into a headwind. We were freaking ripping. In fact, I started laboring just to hold the wheel in front of me, tilting my hips forward in the saddle, my face nearly kissing the stem as I searched for more power and speed. What the hell was going on? I felt like I was trying to draft off a motorbike.

Then I saw the white jersey, Trek Segafraedo logo, red hair, Viking beard, and popping calves. Oh, that’s why –

This is Quinn Simmons.

Quinn was revving his pie plate like a feral dog, not really getting himself aero, just punching a gigantic hole in the wind at tremendous speed through pure, dummy power. 

It’s not every day that I get to race bikes with a World Tour Pro, but, like any cyclist who will throw away a Sunday morning to catch a live, illegal feed from Europe, you’ve probably wondered just how fast they really are. Sure, you’ve scrutinized their power on Strava and compared it to your own and know theoretically what the difference is, but you’ve never gotten to feel the difference up close, the stunning humiliation of your heart rate rising to zone a million just to stay in their draft, briefly. I marveled at the immense power and ferociousness, but he flicked his elbow and pulled off, breaking the spell.

The next guy gave one of the weakest pulls I’ve ever seen, surpassed only by the pull I gave directly after him. Then Quinn, clearly disgusted, got back on the front and continued pulling us at just under the speed limit for mile after mile. 

Then, something strange happened – I started feeling better. When I got to the front, I started pulling hard also, and when Quinn brushed his way past me to take a pull, he didn’t immediately regard me with disgust. We dropped the other guy, and the breakaway pulled into view. We were going to make it!

It seemed inevitable that we’d latch on to the group. Quinn would fistbump me, ask for my name, and invite me to the post-race Simmons family barbeque after the race as a thank you for helping him bridge to the front group, which I’d politely decline but make him promise to hit me up if he ever needed a place to crash in the Front Range during a training camp, or just to visit, and maybe, just maybe, we’d strike up a friendship that stretched through the decades and enrich both Gravel God Cycling and Quinn Simmons future world tour career.

Just as I thought that, the peloton behind swamped us, caught the breakaway, and then I got shredded before the first big climb and spent the rest of the race alone, completely pegged, putting out baby watts and braking like a baby giraffe through all the switchbacks, finishing in ‘you should probably quit’ place. Quinn won.

When I saw him after the race, he didn’t acknowledge me but looked through me like the no-talent thirty-five-year-old- never-has-been I am, which would have stung, but then I saw Airik.

I’ve known Airik since I was 12, and we played for the same club soccer team and would get in fist fights before games because he was a cocky, irredeemable jerk. Somehow, we’re still friends, and he lives in Ouray now, just over from the end of the Ironhorse Classic, which ends in Silverton. He road over that morning to watch me finish and, without prompting, even waited the 20 minutes after Quinn won to pace me to the finish, pretending to race me up while almost plowing into pedestrians.

Airk and I rode over Redhorn pass together from Silverton to Ouray. I was so cooked that even the slightest pressure I put on the pedals sent my heart rate to the ceiling, but luckily Airik didn’t seem in a mood to beat up on an old man.

When we arrived at his house, we were greeted by his little rugrats, and I immediately cast off my fatigue and launched into ‘Fun Uncle’ mode. My kids might not associate me with fun, but I did have a chance to brainwash these two.

After about a half hour, I was blown out and crawled to the couch, still in my chamois, defeated. Airik asked if I wanted to take a nap, and I used all of my willpower to crack open one eye and refuse.

Later my brother would somehow not crash my car on the drive from Durango to Ouray, join us, and we’d burn up the early summer night illegally drinking Moscow mules in the public park, downing grease-streaked takeaway while we laughed about our lives before children.

My legs and race strategy may be shit, but it was a great excuse to spend 12 hours in a car just to kick it with my friend.

Quotes of the weekend

“Humanity owes me a debt for listening to this garbled nonsense for the past four hours of driving.”

Me, to my brother, after I listened to his incomprehensible theory of life, which was probably the worst four hours of my life.

‘I love your articles, man.”

Fortunato Ferrara, finding me after the race (he crushed me). It turns out he does read my articles. 

“If I get a house, I’m going to have the barbecue I’ve always wanted: salmon spread, burgers with those special buns, chips, french fries, every type of mustard, watermelon, blueberries, seven-layer salad, fried pickles, bratwursts, cakes, cookies, several kegs, some wine, and maybe a pig on a spit.”

My brother, to me on the drive, discussing his dreams against my will.

How to ironhorse classic

y tho?

The Ironhorse Classic is a classic – it’s been around for 50 years and remains one of the purest road biking races in the country. You can’t hide – it’s high and hard, yet, not too long, so if you’re having a bad day, you don’t have to think about that all day – it’ll be over soon. 

Also, Durango is neat. After spending a few hours there, you’ll want to move, thinking maybe you’ve stumbled onto something no one else has, but then check Zillow and realize that Durango, like every mountain town in Colorado, is brutal to get into. 

Also, Durango is NOT the front range. There are few people, the mountains are savage, and the vistas are endless. It’s close to New Mexico and has a feel to it that other places aspire to but can never reach. 

It’s worth a weekend. 


The Ironhorse is, in some sense, a pure aerobic fitness test. There’s nowhere to hide – it’s not technical, it’s high in elevation, and you’re doing twenty miles of brutal rollers before two back-to-back hill climbs. Here’s the formula:


  1. Get lean
  2. Get good at riding at your threshold for 30 minutes at a time
  3. If possible, get acclimated to altitude. 


Beyond not crashing into the traffic cones as you leave Durango, this race is straightforward, except for the small matter of descending the passes you climb. 

The neat thing about descending the passes at Ironhorse is that the roads are completely locked down. Yes, completely, just like in a European race, so you can use the entire width of the road to pick your lines. Further, it’s not USAC sanctioned, so you can supertuck in long straightaways. It’s fast, fast, fast.

Of course, if you’re not used to this, you can lose minutes on people descending poorly. Or, if you’re like me, twenty seconds, especially as you clear the second pass and descend into Silverton, which is particularly steep and sinuous. 

Tips? The usual rules apply:

  1. Do most of your braking before you turn
  2. Look where you want to go, not where you’re going.
  3. Inside turning leg up, outside turning leg down and loaded with most of your body weight



This isn’t a gravel race, is it? Consequently, you’ll want the lightest road bike possible with the fastest rolling wheels. 



It’s not a super long race, but that just means it will be more intense. That, in addition to the altitude, means you want to shoot for 90 grams of carbohydrates an hour and at least one water bottle with 500-1000mg of sodium. You don’t want to bonk when trying to lay it down hard on the pass at 11,000 ft. 



The Ironhorse classic isn’t a crit – in the end, there are two mountain passes you have to get up, and assuming you make it to the bottom of the first pass with the group, there’s nothing else to do but throw it down and hope it’s enough to hang in there or pull away.

That said, if you get in the early breakaway and the peloton doesn’t chase, there’s a chance, not a great chance but a chance, that you’ll arrive at the first climb with a significant lead. If you can climb, well, you might just catch some hitters with their pants down and steal places or a podium from someone that, on paper, you could never climb with.

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