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The Dirt: Wildfire hits close to home for Durango mountain bikers

We talk to four pro mountain bikers from Durango about how the 416 fire has impacted them and their community.

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Welcome to The Dirt, the weekly news round-up on what is happening in the worlds of gravel, mountain biking, and all things rough and dirty.

Arguably, mountain bikers know forests better than anyone else. So when a wildfire rips through their area, it leaves a lasting impact. Of course, the importance of recreational trails pales in comparison to the homes and lives lost to fires.

Regardless, I wanted to check in with a few pro riders from Durango, Colorado to hear about how the 416 fire has impacted them, their families, and the community. The fire started June 1, and the Durango Herald reports that it is on track to be one of the largest wildfires in state history.

At the Carson City Off-Road, the third event in the four-race Epic Rides mountain bike series, I caught up with four Durango residents: Ben Sonntag (Clif Bar) — who ended up winning the race — Durango natives Levi Kurlander (Orange Seal) and Ellen Campbell (Pivot-Competitive Cyclist), as well as two-time reigning marathon national champ Payson McElveen (Orange Seal).

VeloNews: How have you and your friends and family been affected by the fire?

Ben Sonntag: I have some friends; I have been a few times out to dinner with them. … They just sold their Florida house this spring to move full-time to Durango. It’s one the areas where they’re still under mandatory evacuations [when this interview was conducted, mid-June -Ed.]. It’s pretty horrible for those families that have been out of their homes for almost two weeks.

Levi Kurlander: On a personal level, my parents live out on that end of town so they’ve been evacuated now out of their house for a week and a half. From a training standpoint, with all trails and open space closed in Durango, it’s real hard to get out and ride between the trail closures and the smoke; training in Durango is pretty inhibited these days. I also work for the junior development mountain bike program Durango Devo. We’ve been forced to cancel or amend our summer camps and summer programs. It’s been a pretty significant impact across the board.

Ellen Campbell: Most of my friends have been evacuated that live in the valley or up north. I haven’t had any direct impacts. … However, I work at a local bike shop and unfortunately, a lot of those shifts have been cut back. And a lot of those people haven’t been able to work because of how few tourists have come in.

Payson McElveen: The biggest impact has been from a training standpoint, and it hasn’t been too too bad. The smoke has a funny way of settling into the valley until noonish each day. And it seems to clear out pretty well, and you can ride in the afternoon, so it makes for hotter rides. When we go back it’ll be the first time that I’ll try to ride there with all the closures. That’ll be a big adjustment. This time of the year is when I start doing a lot of my intervals off-road and long rides off-road because mentally you’ve done a lot of rides on the road. … I think some of us may if possible spend less time in Durango.

VN: What trails in the area have been burned?

BS: Hermosa Creek Trail, that’s a Durango classic. I feel like if tourists come to town, probably every skill level can ride that trail, and that’s probably the most well-known trail affected. But then there are so many other trails … multi-use trails that motos could go on. They were really popular for those users. It will definitely take some adjustment after. I really don’t know how long this fire could burn. People say you might have to wait until the snow falls, which that sounds crazy, it sounds unreal.

VN: Are there any major events planned for the area where it is burning?

LK: There are definitely a lot of plans for events, especially up at Purgatory. With the stage 3 fire restrictions in the National Forest, a lot of the preparations for the Pro XCT, Scott Enduro Cup races, Rocky Mountain Race series events that are going to happen up at Purg, we’re not able to continue building trails due to the closures. We’re hoping the fire’s out before those events in the fall. … Even if the fire’s out before September for the Durango Pro XCT, the trails will be impacted up there for sure. What terrain is going to be available is really up in the air.

PM: I am a little concerned about those events that we were all getting excited for, the fact that Durango is starting to really make an effort to return to its roots — not just having great riding and athletes — but also having pretty awesome events, national-level events.

LK: You can look at Missionary Ridge, where we had a big fire in Durango in 2002. There used to be miles and miles of trails up there. The number of trails that have been rebuilt are probably a quarter of what was up there.

It’s taken years to rebuild those trails, it’s been 16 years now and a lot of those trails are just now getting ridden back in. The chance we’ll be able to ride Hermosa Creek point to point like we used to in the next five years is pretty slim.

PM: The one thing I’ll say is that with the size Durango is, economically, this has a massive impact on the town, regardless of bike riding and cycling, that’s only one small piece of the economics of Durango. And the way the town has banded together is pretty impressive. I guess that’s one positive that can be drawn.

Sage Anderson she and her husband opened a coffee shop, 81301 that I know is a lot of our favorites, and they’ve been giving away free coffee just as kind of a thank you to the town.

EC: A lot of restaurants are taking soft donations and canned food donations. Just for a variety of firefighters and supporting the evacuees.

LK: Durango Devo is a huge part of the cycling community in Durango. We have over 600 kids, and consequently, 1,200 parents involved in our program every year. With all the trail closures, we’re trying to do things that can help keep kids riding, keep that cycling community rolling through the smoke and through the trail closures. It’s definitely hard. We don’t have access to terrain where we’d normally ride. I’ve seen a lot of support for Devo. We’re issuing refunds for 90 percent of our summer camps, which as a non-profit is a huge hit for us. And we’ve seen a lot of support from parents and the community. But it’s hard to find the silver linings at this point.

MTB World Cup heads to Italy

Are you getting pumped for this weekend’s big race? No, I don’t mean the Tour de France … It’s the Val di Sole mountain bike World Cup in Italy! This weekend has a full slate of racing from Friday’s short track through Saturday’s downhill and Sunday’s cross-country.

American fans will have a number of riders to cheer for with Aaron Gwin (YT) atop the UCI’s men’s downhill world rankings and Kate Courtney (Specialized) 12th in the women’s XC standings.

You can watch all of the races live on

One minute at the Carson City Off-Road

If you want more, check out my recap of an awesome weekend of racing in the mountains above Lake Tahoe >>

Got some news you’d like to share in The Dirt? I’d love to hear from you. Please email me your news and updates on all things gravel and mountain biking.

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.