Family, community honor Ed Zink (1947-2019)
Problem solver. Big-picture visionary. Wearer of many hats. Teacher. Risk-taker.
Along with all these qualities, Ed Zink had a “servant’s heart.” And that’s how he was memorialized at a standing-room-only community service at Fort Lewis College after his death in October 2019.
Born in November 1947, he lived an exceptional 71-plus years. Through his businesses, his friendships, his family ties, his entrepreneurial skills, and his volunteer work, he had positively impacted a great number of lives – not just locally, but on an even broader regional, state, and even world scale.
People will remember him in different ways, according to their own relationship with the native Durangoan raised on a family ranch in the Animas Valley a few miles north of town. But he’ll be most widely commemorated for a bicycle race or two.
The Iron Horse legacy
The idea for the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic came to him, which is to say that one day in the early 1970s a local rider walked into Zink’s sporting goods store and made him an offer.
That person was Tom Mayer, raised a little farther north of Ed in the Animas Valley at Honeyville, where his family raised bees and made a living selling the sticky sweet nectar the bees created. Mayer fell in love with cycling, and took joy out of proving to his stunned brother Jim, a brakeman on the Denver & Rio Grande Western, that he could beat the train from Durango to Silverton on his bike.
Ed listened as Tom Mayer explained the concept of a bike race between the cyclist and the train, and the wheels in Ed’s brain began to spin. This intriguingly brilliant idea needed a promoter, and it had found the right one.
From its 1972 debut, the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic became the baby of the Zink family and the community at large. The 50-mile ride over two 10,000-foot mountain passes blossomed from a small gathering into a sellout event that attracts thousands of participants every year.
The success of the Iron Horse allowed Zink and the community to think even bigger. With a trained team of volunteers and sponsors already in place, it was possible to host national mountain bike championships in the 1980s. And that led to the first-ever internationally sanctioned World Mountain Bike Championships gracing Durango in 1990.
With Zink at the helm, Durango organizers convinced the sport’s governing body, Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), that despite its remoteness from a major population center, Durango was up to the task. The local group chartered a plane to fly UCI officials from California to Durango, where 100 of the city’s government and business leaders met them.
“It was the whole town there to say we could do this,” Zink said. “The community’s enthusiasm is what made the impression.”
And then Durango made an impression on visitors from around the globe, cyclists or not.
“There is no doubt that it was his vision, hard work, and international influence that convinced the Euros to award the city as the venue for the first-ever UCI World Mountain Bike Championships,” wrote Zapata “Zap” Espinoza, the famed longtime cycling journalist.1“That, my friends, remains the most epic weekend of mountain biking that I’ve witnessed in my 30-plus years of covering the sport.”
“Events were crucial to the growth of the sport,” said Durangoan Ned Overend, who won the inaugural men’s cross country world mountain bike title in front of an ecstatic home crowd at Purgatory Resort.
Overend cemented his place in mountain bike lore with that victory. But just as Overend benefitted from Zink’s foresight and diligence in making the Iron Horse and Worlds premier cycling events, so too did thousands of casual cyclists, non-racers and even former couch potatoes beckoned by the challenge of man vs. machine to Silverton.
The Iron Horse is a big, exciting event, Overend said, and it draws people with that twist of racing the train over one of the most beautiful high-altitude highways in the world.
“It’s a physical feat that a lot of people would never attempt on their own,” Overend said. “And once they do and they achieve it, a lot of times it changes their life and their lifestyle.”
Just like the citizen riders, the Iron Horse lured Overend, then a local amateur athlete focused more on running.
“It may have changed the whole trajectory of my life and career,” Overend said. “I don’t think the people who promote events get enough credit for how impactful they are on people’s lives.”
The 1990 Worlds garnered attention not just from cycling media, but mainstream media as well. Sports Illustrated wrote about it, and most impactfully, ESPN presented an hour-long Worlds special in November 1990. After that, the burgeoning sport of mountain biking was in high gear, with Durango in a central role. The Iron Horse continued to flourish, and Durango hosted one more national mountain bike event in 1992 as well as a World Cup in 2001, and several national collegiate races.
Grassroots efforts have continued Durango’s status as arguably the country’s greatest producer of mountain biking talent. Zink and the Iron Horse were never hesitant about contributing to these efforts or at times leading the way. Iron Horse proceeds helped found and fund DEVO, a wildly popular local program that starts youths on bikes as early as age 2½. Since the 1990s the Iron Horse has donated to Fort Lewis College cycling, a program that has captured 24 national titles.
Starting in 1996, Durango produced a mountain biker for each Olympics up through 2020. The list includes Durango transplant Juli Furtado (1996), Durango native Travis Brown and transplant Ruthie Matthes (2000), Fort Lewis College rider Todd Wells (2004, 2008, 2012), and Durango-raised and DEVO participants Howard Grotts (2016) and Christopher Blevins (2020). Add to that Tour de France participants Tom Danielson (Fort Lewis grad, eighth overall in 2011) and Sepp Kuss (Durango native, stage winner in 2021), and the list grows more impressive.
Getting others involved
Racing is just one aspect of the Iron Horse. Involving the entire community has been an Iron Horse trademark and essential to its success.
“Ed got as many people involved as he could,” said Gaige Sippy, Iron Horse director beginning in 2007. “He wanted to make sure everyone bought into that belief, and he did that by leading by example. Without a doubt.”
He exemplified a hard work ethic that rubbed off on others, and spurred them to action.
“He was the kind of leader that people followed because they wanted to, not because they had to,” said his wife, Patti Zink. Race volunteers felt a sense of community spirit, a sense they were vital cogs, contributing to something important. That’s why they kept coming back despite the often long and arduous days around race weekend.
Patti was proud that her husband “left the world better than he found it.” He enjoyed doing good deeds. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of stories of how the Iron Horse helped people in their life challenges. Patti shared a couple of anecdotes, one about a mother who wrote to Ed, thanking him for his service. This mother’s young son was overweight and was bullied at school. He read about the Iron Horse, decided to train for it, and lost over 60 pounds in the process. The event became the vehicle to change his lifestyle. The end result, this mother wrote: “The new lean machine was no longer bullied.”
Ed helped organize an Iron Horse training program – a six-month-long guided plan designed to prepare the non-athletic, 50-plus crowd for the 50-mile road ride. Another email to Ed came from a man who used the event in his struggle to cope with life.
“He had lost his daughter to suicide and was suicidal himself,” Patti recalled. “His doctor suggested an exercise program. His email credited the training and the friendships from the other participants in turning his life around.”
After constant work and stress over several decades, contributing to multiple heart procedures, Ed wasn’t a paragon of health. So, after ceding some event organization duties to others over the years, Zink managed to find time to train for and ride the Iron Horse himself. In 2001, he and Tommie Peterson, owner of business competitor Hassle Free Sports, placed a friendly challenge bet on who would finish first. (Ed did, but who’s keeping track?)
“I loved that he wanted to ride it,” said his daughter, Kristi Zink. “It wasn’t easy to relinquish control of the Iron Horse, because it was his baby.”
The World Championships were a big stage, but Zink didn’t need a spotlight. He was still in many ways the ranch hand who rose with the sun to help his parents. He was an outfitter who served his clients. He was a husband and father of three.
From the time they were small, Ed’s children toiled at and grew with the family businesses.
Tim, his middle child, born in 1971, recalled as a small boy crawling through motorcycle tires at the Outdoorsman (now Mountain Bike Specialists), which then sold both motorbikes and snowmobiles. He climbed up on the shop’s high ledges to dust the trophy animal heads that his grandfather John Zink had collected.
Brian, born in 1967, credited his career path as a Certified Public Accountant to the lessons learned working for the family. Grandmother Ruby Zink spent many hours instructing him on the manual ledger systems used to manage the Outdoorsman. Later, Brian’s interest in accounting was solidified by his success at computerizing the shop’s manual accounting system.
“Dad exposed us to all aspects of running the business,” Brian said. “We attended business meetings, went to buying shows, and were allowed to provide input and make decisions that affected the business.”
Whether it was fixing fences, baling hay or taking care of horses at the ranch; or selling bicycles and accessories at the Outdoorsman, the family was together.
“Part of Dad’s parenting style was project-based,” Tim Zink said. Working was time together. “In hindsight, that was the time that Dad got to be with us, and that’s where he got to influence us.”
Although the kids were seldom if ever harshly disciplined, that didn’t mean there were no consequences to their regressions. If they missed a Friday night curfew, for example, “that pretty much guaranteed an early morning Saturday project that we didn’t necessarily know anything about until Saturday morning,” Tim said with a laugh.
Ed Zink challenged his children to think about their choices, to consider that the way they’d done something might not be the best way.
“Is that good judgement?” he’d ask, and the kids came to learn that Dad didn’t think it was.
“You knew what that meant,” Tim Zink said. “He never said, ‘Man, I’m really disappointed in you.’ But he always asked you: ‘You think that was good judgement?’”
It was from his father that Tim Zink learned the art of solving problems. There was a necessary self-sufficiency at the ranch handed down from Ed’s father, John Zink, who grew up during the Great Depression, to his children. If something was broken, you figured out how to fix it on your own.
“Dad was 13 before he knew you could go to a store and buy nails,” Tim Zink said. “If you needed one, you took it from (a scrap of wood), straightened it out and used it again.”
Brian Zink said his father lived by a code:
“Work hard, invest in the future, and serve your neighbor.”
This was Ed’s way, Brian said, of fulfilling the rule of good citizenship instilled by his Depression-era parents, John and Ruby, who taught: “Be self-sufficient, and when possible, give back to your community.”
A servant’s heart
“Jesus called them together and said, … ‘whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant.’”
“Dad didn’t have this posted over his desk, and he didn’t recite this,” his son, Brian, said during the 2019 memorial at Fort Lewis College. “But boy, did he live it. He lived with a servant’s heart.”
He gave to his community, to his family, to his employees – many of whom he treated as family – and to his neighbors.
Early on snowy days he would leave home and head up or down County Road 203 with his plow to clear neighbors’ driveways so they could get to work. Then he’d come home and plow out his own ranch.
If a neighbor needed help putting up hay, or a trailer to clear away a downed tree, or a backhoe to bury a dead horse, Ed would respond with the resources required.
“Never a grumble – about what was being interrupted, or how he’d have to change his plans, or his own personal inconvenience – was heard,” Brian Zink said. “If it was 2 in the morning, and someone was lost or hurt, ‘now’ was the time of need.”
In January 2002 a small airplane went down with three aboard in the steep and narrow Hermosa Creek valley. The pilot managed to extricate himself from the wreckage and hike uphill to a ridge where he found cell phone reception. A rescue helicopter was able to spot him and pluck him out, but they couldn’t locate the crash site in the dark in the vast wilderness. So the pilot was connected with Ed Zink, a member of La Plata County Search and Rescue.
Listening to the pilot describe the landmarks, a picture of the site formed in Ed’s mind. Although he couldn’t be absolutely sure at the time, it turned out he had determined the correct site. A nighttime rescue effort was mounted, and a military helicopter was dispatched from Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque. The story didn’t end there.
The helicopter crew found the plane crash site, but as it hovered to search for a landing spot at 3 a.m., it started spinning wildly and crashed too.
Ed then took matters into his own hands. He loaded up a couple of horses and his emergency medical bag (always at the ready), and drove up to the trailhead. There was little snow that winter, and via horseback, leading his team, Ed was able to access the crash site. He was the first person other than the scattered accident victims to get there.
He did what he could to comfort the victims until more help and another helicopter arrived. Despite the chill of deep winter, everyone survived.
Being outdoors lightened his often-serious mood. Said his daughter Kristi, born in 1979, “My favorite side of Dad was him on a horse in the woods. He sang silly songs he made up, and he’d hum.”
From the start, the concept of owning a sporting goods store tied in directly with being outside. Waterfall Ranch Outfitters, John and Ed’s father-son business, dovetailed with that. They took hunters into the woods up Hermosa Creek each fall to enjoy nature and camaraderie.
“There was a lightness to Dad when he was in the hills,” Tim Zink said. “He was more playful. I always remember that.”
Brian said he has treasured memories of birthday and Christmas celebrations, hunting and river trips, bike rides and camp-outs. But his favorite memories are working the ranch, volunteering for the Iron Horse, and helping neighbors.
Brian recalled that, when young, he did not always appreciate “the code” in the moment. Now, why am I doing this extra work, he wondered?
“Giving up my raincoat during a downpour to make someone else more comfortable, carrying my pack along with someone else’s, or finishing my job with the reward of taking on other jobs not yet completed, was not always appreciated at the time,” he said. But with maturity and reflection, the lesson sunk in that serving others often requires personal sacrifice.
“Thank you Dad for sharing the code with me,” he said at the memorial. “Thank you for showing me the life of one with a true servant’s heart.”
Ed Zink loved his work, and was fine with toiling from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. nearly every day. He was helping load hay for a neighbor when his heart gave out for the final time in October 2019.
“I knew he was going to die working,” daughter Kristi said. “He was never going to retire.”
The big picture
Ed Zink was an innovator. He’d consider something – from a bicycle race to a barn door – and wonder, how can this be done better?
“He loved to look at things from a 10,000-foot view,” Kristi Zink said.
And sometimes that meant he’d begin a project but let others finish it. He let others run Mountain Bike Specialists on a daily basis, but would be there to make major decisions.
John Glover managed Mountain Bike Specialists beginning in the 1980s. He discussed store issues – and much deeper subjects – with Ed every day for three decades or more. A long-lasting mutual understanding and trust developed that is rarely found in the business world. Glover still asks himself, “What would Ed do?”
“People were very motivated to work hard for Ed. To do a good job,” Glover said. “I knew him for so long and we’ve had so many discussions and I’ve asked him so many questions. I can use him as my little voice forever.”
Day-to-day operations were in Glover’s hands. Zink’s role was felt more when making big plans or changes to the store.
“There was always a bigger picture,” Tim Zink said. “He saw things so much bigger. He was a thinker. Dad never sat idle.”
Once he saw the big picture, his brain worked on all the angles to create something new, fix something. He’d started college planning to be an engineer. That’s what his older brother Nelson and younger brother Jerry both ended up doing. But starting a family at age 20 meant he needed some income. So he became a sporting goods store operator.
“Put him in any situation, he came up with solutions,” Tim Zink said.
Ed Zink played a large role in the creation of Trails 2000 (now Durango Trails), formed in 1990 to advocate for trails. Trails 2000, through efforts of enthusiastic volunteers, built dozens of miles of new trails – for cyclists and other users – within easy reach from downtown.
Building trails was one way to give people opportunities to participate, to enjoy the outdoors and to live a fuller life in Southwest Colorado.
One of the region’s greatest achievements over the last half-century was forming a coalition to support the creation of the Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection Area. This would likely never have happened without Ed Zink. As the disparate groups met to claim their own stake in the project, Ed put on various hats and helmets and helped these sometimes antagonistic alliances with clashing goals reach a compromise. Hunter, cyclist, horseman, fisherman, ditch company board member, motorbiker, rancher, skier – Ed understood them all.
Zink himself joked during the process that he donned so many hats “it wears my hair out.”
This act of Congress was carried through the U.S. Senate by Democrat Michael Bennet, and through the U.S. House by Republican Scott Tipton. Both lauded Zink’s efforts when it passed in 2014.
Dreaming of the 50th
Ed Zink married Patti McCarthy on December 13, 1994, at Wit’s End Guest Ranch at Vallecito Reservoir. For each it was a second marriage. As both life and business partners, they came to understand over a quarter-century what a special and valuable relationship they had.
“We traveled the world, we danced, we worked hand-in-hand on many projects, we went to concerts, we sang love songs to each other,” Patti wrote. “He was the light of my world and my best friend. I was so blessed.”2
They were a team. Although their skill sets complemented each other – Ed was more the visionary, Patti often the one who would implement those visions – they also overlapped.
“And we had complementary goals,” Patti said. “He wanted to leave a legacy. And I wanted him to do that.”
Ed listened to Patti’s suggestions. Ed’s main role model, his father, was stern, and corrected people when they made errors or didn’t live up to expectations. This style could strike some the wrong way. This came to a head when Ed began to talk sternly to his grandchildren. Patti recalled her “mean grandfather,” and how she never had a positive interaction with him. If Patti’s grandfather had been going for “tough love,” it didn’t work.
“I think you get more bees with honey,” Patti said.3 So she told Ed, “I don’t want your grandkids to have the memories I did. We talked about that a lot.”
Ed altered his style, and it worked.
“Grandpa Ed taught me to empathetically anticipate,” said Emma Zink, Brian and Shana’s daughter. “I think that was the source of his servant’s heart. He could put himself in someone’s shoes and knew what would make their life even just a bit easier. Then he acted on it.
“On County Road 203 it was plowing driveways. When I watched him help my dad with projects it was having tools ready to hand my dad before he needed them.
“I learned that you can’t help someone if you don’t understand their situation. Equally as important, I learned that everyone helping others is the future I want to be part of, and a future I can help to create.”
As the years went by Ed lost some of his hard edge – not all – the result of both Patti’s influence and a dose of maturity. To Ed, it was more important to be respected than liked, and in that way they differed.
Other incongruous life goals had to be worked out. Patti was unable to have children, and still had an urge to be a mother. Prior to her marriage with Ed she had begun a program with La Plata County Social Services to become a foster parent. Ed agreed to join the program with Patti.
In all, over a couple of decades, Patti and Ed fostered 30 children, sometimes for a couple of days, sometimes for as long as two years. Two sets of siblings, who lived with them for several months, still keep in touch. Although she worried that being foster parents would affect Ed’s relationship with his then-still-teenage daughter Kristi, she believes it worked out.
“It was very rewarding,” Patti said.
Nearly a year before Ed’s death, as a 71st birthday present for him on November 13, 2018, Patti began writing down something each day about Ed for which she was grateful. This turned out to be a gift for both of them, she revealed at Ed’s memorial service in October 2019.
“I’m grateful for Ed, my soul mate and my husband of 25 years,” she said. “I’m heartbroken.”
Ed’s absence is felt on many levels. After the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic took a pandemic-related hiatus in 2020, the 2021 event became the first without Ed Zink around to lead or consult. Talk about the 50th anniversary celebration, to occur in 2022, made Patti sad but grateful. Ed had been looking forward to it since the 45th running in 2016.
“He finished that (45th) milestone and started dreaming of what the 50th could look like and what it would do for the town from a publicity standpoint. He wanted to get Durango more on the map again. He saw the 50th and what is going on at Durango Mesa Park as a boost and a way to remind the world what Durango is as a cycling community.”
It was bittersweet when the Iron Horse returned to life in May 2021. “This is something he spent 48 years of his life volunteering for,” Patti said on the eve of that event. “I know he’s going to be excited and have a smile on his face when cyclists take off Saturday morning for Silverton.”4
Ed Zink, and his ability to organize, coordinate, and gather the enthusiasm and talents of the surrounding community, changed the course of Durango history. He served well, with inexhaustible energy, for 71 years. He challenged people, and helped others, always with the goal of improving their lives.
This legacy will not soon be forgotten.
1 Zapata “Zap” Espinoza, “In Memorium: Ed Zink, The (real) King of Durango mountain biking,” Mountain Bike Action online, October 2019.
2 Patti Zink, “Some thoughts about Ed,” written October 2021.
3 Interview with Patti Zink, December 13, 2021.
4 Durango Herald, “Iron Horse Bicycle Classic rolls on for first time without Ed Zink,” May 28, 2021.