Hey everyone welcome to Episode 381 of The Outdoor Biz Podcast. The Iron Horse Bicycle Classic is hosting the 51st edition of this annual event Memorial Day weekend May 26, 27, and 28 2023! Today I’m talking with Event Director Ian Burnett. Ian was Born and Raised in Durango, CO, and became the Event Director in 2022.
How’d you get into the outdoor life and more specifically, mountain biking?
I was lucky enough to be born and raised here in Durango. so yeah, I was able to surround myself with bike racing and outdoors and getting to enjoy that. And that’s kind of just what this community’s all about is bike riding, but also just outdoor activities and really getting to be outside.
So, I grew up doing that and, race mountain bikes all growing up and then ended up racing professionally on the road for a couple of years and then have, kind of slowly. gotten into coaching and, race support stuff. And, this will be my second year doing the directing for the Iron Horse. So, yeah, it’s a pretty special race and then it’s a pretty special thing that I get to do, for a living.
You’re the second generation to, to be affiliated with The Iron Horse. Do I have that right?
It’s kind of had a couple directors throughout the years. the longest-running being, Ed Zink and Gaige Sippy. Ed was the founder and had run it, for many, many years. And then Gaige did another 18-year stint. Then there was a couple of other single-year, couple-year people throughout there. This will be my fifth year being part of the organization and then, my second year doing the full director role.
So for some of our listeners who might not know, tell us about the Iron Horse Classic. How it started, what it is, etc.
It’s our 51st year. The competition of it really started with two brothers, the Mayer brothers, one was a train engineer and the other one was a bike rider. And they bet each other candy bar on who could get to Silverton the quickest, Durango to Silverton. And, so they set that up one day, raced each other, and from there, Ed Zink, our founder, kind of was like, wait, that sounds like a pretty cool idea to, you know, race the train to Silverton every year. And Durango wasn’t in the tourism world as much. It was definitely coming out of that mining era still. And so tourism and trying to find something to bring people to town was a big thing for Memorial Day weekend. And, so it’s kind of grown from that.
So we can’t leave everybody hanging, that first one, who won the biker or the, or the train? The biker. He was very strategic in how he planned it and he pulled it off and, and he actually came back for the 50th last year and rode it.
So what kind of people attend, obviously bicyclists, but I’m sure now it’s kind of a full-on event, so I’m sure there are tourists as well right?
Yeah, we bring in a ton of people. Our largest category is our tour stuff that’s really going back to racing the train. All the people that race each other and do the race categories, you know, they race each other more than anything. And then the tour stuff is really the accomplishment of number one, getting to Silverton over two mountain passes, and then, if you can make it within the three and a half hours it takes the train to do it over those 50 miles. So, that, that’s our bread and our butter and really what we’ve relied on and what is historic about this event.
What are some of the other events?
We really kind of, started to get back to try and embrace that festival atmosphere after Covid, which really put a dent in our festival side of it.
We brought it back pretty quickly, just the race. But now that we kind of have that clear, vision, we’re back to hosting more of that festival side. We’re doing, a fun race for packet pickup, there’s a bike parade that’s part of a brewery. Friday night they launch a Face Pint Ale, which is an Iron Horse specific beer.
So yeah, we just, we have kind of have our fingers in as much as we can to really give back to the community and support the people that support us.
What kind of train was the original? Was it steam-powered or coal-fired?
We’re a coal-fired steam train here. They just converted them to some other, products so it’s not so damaging to the environment. It’s mainly our fire risk they’ve had. So they’re running oil ones a lot, which are, they look the same as the steam. They’re still a steam train. It’s a state steam train. It’s, really the big one for Durango. It’s a narrow gauge steam train. So it’s the only one the country still running that’s on the narrow gauge. it was kind of standard way back when. That’s kind of what really draws, The train enthusiasts on that side.
What do you think has driven the growth over the years? Obviously the growth in mountain biking, but is there anything else? Becoming a tourist destination, is that really putting you on the map?
Yeah, that’s definitely a big part of it. And, you know, it’s had some strong leadership. It’s really helped keep it fresh. And just not being stuck, you know, here’s the way we do it, and that’s the only thing we do, and to be able to kind of have those other fun things.
So I bet you’ve had some repeat attendees. What do you think keeps ’em coming back?
I think a lot of it’s just the community and the excitement of being able to come to Durango. We’ve started to really keep track of that. We’ve got two people that have done it 32 times, two people that have done it 29 times, and two people that have done it 28 times. There are some pretty diehard people out there, and I think it’s just really, the community, the fun weekend. That achievement of being able to make the ride. Right. You know, if it’s a beautiful day, it’s a pretty special place to be on a Memorial Day weekend.
Have you had some bad weather?
Yeah, and this year was a big one, the weather’s been on, on and off, but, we’ve had so much snow we’ve gotta watch out for avalanches or things like that.
That’s gonna be our big one really for both the train and the cyclists. The train I think is gonna do okay, but yeah, it is very much a possibility that they could have interruptions due to snow sliding
Does planning the following year’s event keep you busy the entire season? Once the race ends and everything’s done, do you take it all down, or do you immediately kick back in for next year?
We get pretty close. I’m trying to make it a little more that way. We’ve definitely relied on our community and our locals. I want to kind of branch out and kind of keep the word out about the event. You know, do more things like this and telling our story to the community through podcasts and other things. And just keep the excitement high
What other outdoor activities do you participate in?
We were lucky enough to have a lot of snow this year, so I got to get out and cross-country ski. Rafting, kind of just getting out to the southwest and be able to, you know, jump on the water, do those kinds of things. pretty open-ended.
Do you have any suggestions or advice for folks wanting to get into the outdoor industry?
Yeah, I think, a lot of it comes down to kind of what we were talking about of just like your inspiration and finding that clear vision of what you want your product or your, brand or event to be, and kind of what that represents, as an actual product and, and what people see the company as. And it’s the ability to give back or support things or help innovate things.
I think that’s the biggest thing that we try to do, is just kind of, look at all those things and, and make it better and try to make the community of events and bike racing better. Continuous improvement.
In all the years you’ve been doing this now, what do you think on the business side of it has been your biggest learning? What do you think’s been the biggest eye-opener for you and the most things you had to learn to make it happen?
Yeah. I mean the process is the process. Knowing your community and what its tolerances are. What they want so you’re not at a negative with your community off the start. But I think the most I’ve learned is really just kind of what your marketing is and what your story is.
So much of bike racing these days or events is getting people to come to them and really depends on you telling the story that. They should come because it’s, it’s a good story and a good feeling and a good, event. I think that that’s the biggest thing I’ve learned is what story you’re telling, what you want it to be.
What’s your favorite piece of outdoor gear under a hundred dollars?
For cycling it’s a lot of cycling computers have been the fun one. Really getting to explore new things. Having that accessibility to throw your computer on your bike and go explore a new route. Cuz you have that access now and you can wander, but you can also get to explore some new things that you’ve dug out through the maps and those things. I think that’s some of the fun things.
How about one of your favorite books?
David Sedaris, that’s kind of one of my, you know, big ones. Me and my wife read him quite a bit and he just came with a new book, so that’s been kind of top of mind recently. Happy Go Lucky. And really trying to just stay engaged with the cycling world too, in that same kind of footnote of magazines, you know, all the media. We have, a new media source that just came out through town, so yeah, it’s a, it’s an amazingly changing world.
As we wrap up, is there anything else you’d like to say or ask of our listeners?
Yeah, I think just, we’re excited to be continuing on past the 50th and looking forward to just kind of having that continued growth and trying new things and offering, you know, the new newest things in bike racing, whether that’s gravel or who knows what’s gonna be next, you know, so it’s a cool, changing world, and we like to change with it and kind of be a part of that.
So, be excited to see anyone come out and enjoy the four corners for Memorial Day weekend. It’s a beautiful place.
Follow up with Ian and the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic?