Last week I returned from racing the Tour of the Gila in Silver City, New Mexico. If you are not familiar with the race, it is a five day stage race in the Gila wilderness in and around Silver City. There are UCI races for both men and women, so the top riders in the country are in Silver City for the week. The cool thing about it is that the USAC amateur races run concurrently and on the same roads as the pros. The Gila is the only UCI event that I know of with this feature, and it make the racing super-cool. With five days of racing, altitude, climbing, technical descents, and wind, the Gila is hands down the hardest amateur event in the country. It is also the best organized race I've ever participated in, and the residents of Silver City do a great job of hosting the race.
I rode for Cicada Racing Inc. in USAC Category 3 races with two teammates, Joergen and Gary. I had debated riding the Masters A category, but I was hoping the Cat 3 field would be larger and give me more places to hide from the wind, and Cicada Racing had planned on having a few more racers in Category 3. Both anticipated advantages turned out not to be the case: the Cat 3 field was about the same size as the Masters, and Cicada had the same number of riders in each. I went into the race fitter and lighter than last year, with more racing miles in this season and better crit skills, and it was a good thing; my Strava files showed I burned more energy and spent more time at higher heartrate zones than last year, leading me to conclude that the racing was harder this year than last. Joergen and Gary both did well; Joergen was just off the podium at 4th overall, and Gary was first in the 35+ competition and 10th overall. They are great racers and teammates and it was a privilege to race with them. I survived at 35th (out of 43). What follows is my impressions of each day of racing.
Stage 1: Silver City to Mogollon
Course: Big rollers out of Silver City for 68 miles and then a two-ramp climb up to Mogollon Ghost Town. The 2nd ramp is very similar to Pinecrest, a local climb I train on regularly, so I was hoping for a good finish . The false flat in between is generally windy so you need to be in the bunch before the final climb. The course is open desert and usually pretty windy but the day was relatively calm, with chilly (temps in the 50˚s and 60˚s for most of the day). The first 30 miles is generally downhill and fast. I started the day with my usual 2 goals: stay out of the wind, stay near the front.
Race: A single rider broke away just prior to the turn to Cliff and the feedzone just after. The group let him roll. After the feed 3 more riders went; one came back right away and the other 2 gradually pulled out a lead. The Cliff loop rolls and winds and is a good place to get away; the break always goes here in the UCI pros. The schools in Cliff take the day off and all the kids come out and cheer. So awesome. I took the time to wave. The closest I will get to having fans.
After the turn back onto 180, the lead rider had ~2 min and I started to get worried, so I went to the front with an El Groupo (Tuscon AZ) rider and we started to work. Not much consistent help from anyone else and a few guys kept surging and interrupting the pace. Stupid. We brought back Group 2 before Glenwood leaving one guy about a minute or so out.
After Glenwood, the Cat3s caught the Masters field and the group put the hammer down. I cramped badly (both legs, every muscle) for about 5 minutes and could not catch back on through the caravan and chaos of the mixed groups. Gary and Joergen were still well-placed in the bunch. Apparently the Masters and Cat 3 groups got to the turnoff toward the Mogollon climb more or less together, the single remaining Cat 3 guy got caught and shelled.
Joergen & Gary had good climbs and finished well on the day: Joergen 7th @59s and Gary 11th @1:59. Gary was 2nd in the 35+ competition @ 1:00. I suffered badly and came in at 37th for the day, more than 10 min down. The eventual GC winner Pier Pennoyer was 17th at 2:24. He did not climb the Mogollon particularly well.
Stage 2: Inner Loop Road Race
Course: Starts in Fort Bayard, climbs to Pinos Altos, descends, then a 2nd climb of ~1000 feet, then rollers before a hair-raising technical descent to the windy Mimbres Valley, with generally uphill rollers to the Continental Divide, then generally downhill rollers to the turn onto NM 152 and the final climbs back to Fort Bayard. Warmer weather and WSW winds, meaning (as usual) a cross-headwind in the Mimbres Valley, and headwinds on the climbs to the finish. Brutal.
Race: Gary instigated the break for the day soon after we got out onto NM180; guys were tired and it looked like he rolled off the front with 3(?) others without too much extra energy. I watched them gradually roll away and silently thanked Gary for taking the pressure off for the day and wished him luck; I was shattered from my cramps on Stage 1 and was worried about hanging on in the wind. The climb to Pinos Altos was fairly steady and I stayed near Joergen at the front. I was able to hold it near the front to the top of the "Inner Loop 2nd Climb" (Strava segment) and positioned myself well for the descent. Sometime during the climbs we caught all the riders from the break but Gary. Most Cat 3 guys can't descend; I saw two overcook the switchbacks and plow into the side of the hill. Everyone else brakes way too much and lets big gaps open up.
Joergen and I came off the descent in good position, I was in a small group a few seconds behind the front group containing Joergen. He did an excellent job of positioning himself through the climbs and descents to conserve energy. The two groups merged and I breathed a sigh of relief, thinking that I was safe until the base of the next big climb on NM 152.
Wrong. A bigger group coalesced as guys caught back on from the descent. It started surging through the windy rollers on the continental divide climb. During each surge I faded to conserve energy and then re-positioned myself near the front to be ready for the next one. Gary was still out front at the 2nd bonus sprint ($$). There were a couple more surges after the sprint, and on the very last one, I had not moved up enough. The group nailed it over the Continental Divide into the cross-headwind and I came unhitched. I needed 5 more seconds at max wattage and I didn't have it. Stupid legs. I found out later that the bunch could see Gary and were intent on reeling him in. They caught him at ~ mile 45.
Once my nose is in the wind I am finished. I was extra finished that day. Several other guys popped when I did, but they were bigger and could manage the wind and probably made it back on. One last chance: the wheel car came by pacing a rider up after a flat, but I could not catch on. I had to spend the rest of the day fighting the wind back home. I ended up with one other rider and we worked together (thanks David Preston). We held the gap until the turn and the big climbs; we could see the bunch in the distance for most of the way. So close yet so far.
Joergen and Gary stayed with the group in the winds over the final climbs. Joergen was 10th on the day and Gary 11th (outstanding after being in the break for more than 1/2 the day). No GC time lost by either. I limped in for 35th on the day (not last) at 16:06 down. Humiliating. Ugh. Climbing at 5 watts/kg in training means nothing if you are too shattered to hit it during a race. Joergen moved to 5th on GC @ 58s down, Gary 11th overall at 1:52 and into first in the 35+ competition. Eventual winner Pier finished in the front group, so he was still 2:24 down.
Stage 3: Tyrone TT
Course: Out and back with 1300 feet of climbing. Long uphill out, then down, flat, turn around, back uphill, then screaming downhill into the finish. Warm and sunny day with a cross-headwind on the way out.
Race: I started at 1:50 pm, Gary and Joergen after. I was racing Merckx so I buried myself on the climb out, knowing I would be at a disadvantage on the way back. I caught 2 riders ahead of me on the climb, but got caught by my 30-second man on the way back in. Joergen was 5th on the day at 1:50, Gary 17th at 4:27 (second in the 35+ at 1:22). I was 32nd at 6:28 (not last). Eventual GC winner Pier was first on the day.
GC after the TT: Joergen 4th at 26s, Gary 14th at 3:57, and me 35th at 30:59. Gary was 2nd in the 35+ at 58s. Eventual winner Pier moved himself into 2nd overall at 1s down.
Stage 4: Silver City Criterium
Course: The course was almost changed due to construction downtown, but work was postponed at the last minute so that the race could have the traditional 4-corner crit. It is wide and fast with a long gradual uphill finish, a double-bump uphill on the backside, with a fast downhill and a turn at the top of the 2nd bump.
Race: I warmed up well, staged wisely and was in the front row at the line. I followed advice from last year: "glide wide to the outside". The door would open up on the outside on the descents and into the turn before the finishing straightaway, so every lap I re-positioned myself near the front to leave a buffer for the surges. It went from the gun but nothing stuck. No crashes.
With 2 to go, I watched Joergen position himself well. On the last lap he was 3rd in line going into the finishing corner--perfectly positioned--but ended up 4th on the day. Gary was 24th, no time lost on GC. I stayed out of the chaos and gave up 18 more seconds on GC. Eventual winner Pier was 22nd with group time, out of the time bonuses.
GC after the crit: Joergen 4th @ 36s, Gary 13th @ 4:07, and me 35th at 31:27 (not last). Eventual winner Pier was 11s down (the crit winner Max Cronin was 1st overall on GC at the time and got a 10s bonus).
Stage 5: Gila Monster Road Race
"Sprint, sprint, feed, climb." -Joergen
Course: The Cat 3 route is the Inner Loop route in reverse, counter-clockwise, with the start in Silver City and the finish in Pinos Altos, turning the technical descent into a Cat 1 climb to Wild Horse Mesa. It was a bit chilly at the 7:30 start but clear and sunny for the day.
Race: With nothing to lose, I tried with Gary to instigate a break, but the group wasn't going to let it go without a fight; I gave up after 3 tries and tried to conserve energy and cover moves. Leo O'Neill from El Groupo was covering a move for their GC rider Max and got away with 1 other rider on the climbs out of town. After we turned off 180, David Preston (down on GC) got away with 1 other rider (I couldn't cover the move) and Greg "Dr. Watts" Foster got away. I lost track—I thought there were 4 riders in the break, but there must have been 5, because Pier Pennoyer must have been up. I did not see him go (mistake), but I was not too worried because everyone who climbed well on Stage 1 was in the group. After things settled in, I worked with Gary for the entire length of the Mimbres Valley into the wind to hold the break to about 2 minutes. Guys kept surging and ruining the rhythm. Stupid Cat 3 racing.
The ISU Centinel boys contributed a little before and much more after the Continental Divide summit; we screamed toward the base of the Sapillo Creek climb at 45mph. Gary was still working but I was holding on for dear life. I pitched in again as the road angled back up, and then we were around the first switchback onto the climb. I moved over for Joergen to come through and wished him luck, then settled in at a pitiful yet highly painful 250 watts.
I was faster on the climb last year, despite being fatter and less fit. Somewhere on the climb, I passed Dr. Watts. I caught a wheel on Dead Horse Mesa, waited for him up the final pitches and was working on the downhill. Dr. Watts caught on and rode through; I thought, "if I can stay on his wheel, the suffering will be over sooner," so I compartmentalized the pain and focused on his wheel. We dropped our companion and headed toward the finish. On paper it is downhill, but it rolls a lot and each little uphill pitch was excruciating. Finally the finish climb in sight. I let Dr. Watts roll away for his 2 seconds of fame. I rolled across the line alone, a few seconds back. An advantage of doing this is that I got called out: my name and a little publicity for Cicada Racing and Salt Lake City. I was completely shattered. Couldn't. Get. Off. My. Bike.
Looking at the stage results, it looks like what happened is that Pier Pennoyer stuck the break; Leo (El Groupo) finished with him but would not have worked because El Groupo's GC leader Max was in the group with Joergen. I did not expect Pier to stick because he did not climb well on Stage 1, and he would not get help from Leo. I left Joergen and the bunch with less than 2 minutes to the break at the base of the climb, so Pier must have climbed almost as fast as the bunch. Total surprise (at least to me). Pier ended up taking the stage, with the group containing Joergen, Gary and GC leader Max at about 1:25 back.
On the day: Joergen 7th @ 1:32, Gary 10th @ 1:46 (awesome climbing after all the work to hold the break in check), and 2nd in 35+ @ 7s. I was
Overall GC: Joergen 4th @ 2:07, Gary moved to 10th overall @ 5:52, and moved into first in the 35+! I survived in 35th at 42:07. At least not last.
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