For many Twin Cities cyclists, winter is a frustrating 4-month long purgatory spent indoors enduring endless hours spinning on a bike trainer. When spring officially arrives, riders rejoice and register for the Minnesota Ironman. Held the last Sunday in April, the 48-year old bike ride serves as the kickoff to the local cycling season.
Jon Ridge, VP central region, Hostelling International USA, host of the Ironman recalls the event’s early years. “In 1967, the American Youth Hosteling Council in Minnesota needed to raise money for the Council. The new president Stan Bezanson knew about California century rides organized by the L.A. Wheelmen. He said, “If we can do this, we’ll be the first organized one in Minnesota.” So, why is it called the Ironman?” In Bezanson words, “The name fits when you consider “the time of the year, the lack of training time and the better than even chance of inclement weather.”
Pointing out that indoor trainers were rare 48 years ago, Ridge continues, “Eleven people signed up for the first ride and 7 finished. The last 15 years we’ve averaged 4,600 riders. To have that many people cycling in late April is amazing. There is a strong group of cyclists in this state that are really motivated about riding.”
The Minnesota Ironman’s early date motivates cyclists to stay fit over the winter. But getting into riding shape isn’t the only challenge. The weather in April is about as volatile as the stock market in a recession. Over the Ironman’s four decades, cyclists have enjoyed 70-degree blue skies and sunshine, endured hypothermia inducing freezing rain and braced headwinds strong enough to test the mettle of even the most hard-core riders.
Starting from the Washington County Fairgrounds, Ironman riders can pick from 58, 29, 27 and 15-mile loops through the surrounding communities of Stillwater, Afton, Lake Elmo, Scandia, Marine on the St. Croix and Oak Park Heights.
The Ironman has never been promoted as a race. Riders set their own challenge for the day. Small groups of friends may try finishing under a set time, others commit to finishing a century and first time riders enjoy the camaraderie found on the shorter loops.
“The Washington County Fairgrounds is the hub of all routes,” says Ridge. “Riders who want to reach a 100-mile distance can combine loops to reach their goal. “If people get back after finishing the 58-mile route and say I wanted to do more but I’m toast and exhausted, they can stop at the hub. Their cars are right here so they can call it a day without waiting for a sag wagon.”
Each year, more than 60 percent of the Minnesota Ironman’s riders are repeat participants. The event’s volunteers are a big reason for that loyalty. Throughout the day, hundreds of volunteers who staff aid stations, distribute food, ride the course in sag wagons and repair mechanical problems contribute to making it a good Ironman. The aid stations offer incredible banquets of nourishment; water, sports drinks, energy bars and gels are just the start. With apples, bananas, oranges, bagels, muffins, your choice of Snickers or M&M’s, plus coffee and juices it’s hard not to get your fill and vary the menu from one stop to the next. On cold, windy rainy days, a steaming hot bowl of spaghetti is a dream come true.
Each rest stop seems to come into view five minutes away from the moment “I could use a break” crosses your mind. The pace at the rest stops is never rushed or competitive. Riders come and go according to their own clock.
On the long loops, rest stops are located every 15-20 miles. Police officers man major intersections and the course is well marked. Riders with cycling computers can also follow a MapMyRide mobile app. “We provide rest stops strategically placed on the course,” says Ridge. “Radio operators are connected to GPS-equipped sag vans on the course. We’ve taken a very sophisticated approach to supporting the routes.”
When cyclists first hear their friends suggest, “let’s do the Minnesota Ironman” they raise their hands in “are you crazy” astonishment. Most people who hear the Ironman name think first of the legendary swim, bike, run triathlon events. Minnesota’s Ironman has an interesting relationship with the World Triathlon Corporation.
In 1996 Ridge wrote a letter to the editor of Bicycling magazine describing how event organizers had a responsibility to address safety. Ridge recalls, I wrote, “‘I’m the director for a Minnesota bike ride called the Minnesota Ironman. We’ve been doing it for decades and we take safety seriously. And here’s how we do it….’ I got published. Wonderful.”
Shortly after, that thrill was replaced with a much different emotion. Ridge continues, “Within a week I got a letter from an attorney that said you must cease and desist from using the name Ironman and you must immediately stop all use of that name because we own international trademark rights to the name Ironman. Three weeks out from the ride and this took me hard. What am I going to do?”
Sharon Freier, an attorney on the board of directors stepped in to address the issue. “Their quoted date of first use was after we had already been using the Ironman name for our bike ride. We had a bargaining chip. What it comes down to is the Ironman World Triathlon Corporation owns the global trademark rights to the word Ironman. We had been using this name for 30 years under their radar,” says Freier.
With proof of the Minnesota Ironman’s previous use, World Triathlon Corporation and the Minnesota Ironman negotiated a licensing agreement that benefitted both parties. The license agreement remains in place.
The Minnesota Ironman is a fundraiser for the American Youth Hostels Association, now known as Hosteling International. The 2014 Minnesota Ironman Bike Ride will be held on Sunday, April 27th.