The Gila Monster Road race was basically the first stage in reverse but instead of starting at Fort Bayard where we finished Stage 1 we started down town and cycled out past Fort Bayard before doing the 4th category climb out toward Mimbres. Unlike the first stage we stayed together out onto NM 35 and up toward the continental divide.
I placed myself in the middle of the pack and apart from one hairy moment where I switched off for a second during the neutral roll out of town the race was uneventful. We had a couple of little breaks off the front but they never seemed to get too far away.
As we made our way toward the continental divide we caught up with the women's pro race and they were neutralized while we rolled passed them. As we approached the continental divide we went through the feed zone and I grabbed a bottle off Wendy. At the top of the feed zone it was clear that guys at the front were going to use the feed station as an opportunity to force a break. I had been warned about this from a local rider who had done the race before but I still ended up working hard to catch back up with the front of the pack and I am sure a number of riders were dropped.
It turned out not to matter as the women pro caught us back up and we were neutralized for a long time while they allowed a gap to open up. Anyone who had been dropped caught back up and at one stage the peleton all agreed to stop and take a pee break which was a nice relief. Not far from the base of the Sapillo climb the referee gave us a green and the race was back on.
The Sapillo descent was scary but the Sapillo ascent was going to be a killer. The gradient went from a manageable 4% at the bottom to a leg searing 17% by the top. Unsurprisingly the group exploded and we all fell in to our own personal hell as we tried to make it up the climb after 4 days of racing. On this side of the mountain we were really exposed and I poured water over my neck to try and cool down. I had decided that I was going to ride at my own pace and not try to hold to anyone during the climb.
There is not much to say about the climb other than I knew it was going to be hard and it was. I did pass a couple of the pro women and when the road levelled out I was surprised how strong I felt. After the hell of the climb the fast descent through the Gila forest was a blessed relief and I really enjoyed ticking off the miles toward the finish.
This relief was short live because the last 2 miles to the finish were again up hill. Although I could put some power down on the descents any uphill gradient really, really hurt. I saw the 1 mile to go sign and then the 1km to go. Just after I had registered the fact that I only had a 1000m to go a car horn sounded and the Men Pro lead out car overtook. Here I was with only several hundred metres to go and I was possibly about to be overtaken by Lance Armstrong or Levi Leipheimer. I half entertained the idea of slowing down to try and get in the same camera shot as the winner but in the ended decided to keep going at what was by then a very slow crawl toward the line.
Kristin Armstrong wins the women's stage and GC
I must have looked like a drooling mess to the loads of spectators all ready to cheer Armstrong across the line. While they waited for the celebrities they were forced to watch the painful sight of this Cat 4/5 rider suffering slowly over the line. For me it felt great to be passing under the big SRAM finish arch with all those fans cheering and a couple of minutes after I got off my bike the winner passed me followed immediately by Armstrong. This was very surreal. I had just finished a major (for me) road race only minutes in front of the most famous and successful cyclist in modern times. I only hope that I can get hold of some video footage to prove the fact.
Me limping across the line
...followed by Lance......
Wendy and I hung around to watch the prize giving and I managed to get Levi's autograph on my Tour of the Gila jersey which already had Kristin Armstrong's and Floyd Landis's autographs. Taking stock of my body I felt pretty good. I was not as drained as I was at the end of Ironman but I am not sure that I could have cycled another foot uphill. I thought I had finished in the top 25 or so but it turned out that I had finished 40th on the stage. Still this was only 12 minutes behind the leader and several minutes in front of Lance :-). Just like stage 1 the times were again a lot faster than last year and that includes being held up for 10 minutes by the Pro Women repassing us.
In the GC I moved up yet another place to finish 34th overall, just under 25 minutes off the leader. Although I had managed top 15 finishes in the 3 other road races I had done those races had smaller fields and ended in much shorter bunch sprints. It was clear that the caliber of the other riders was much higher than anything I had experienced before at the Cat 4/5 level. So overall I am very pleased with the results. The whole experience was raised to a much higher level for me by the last minute arrival of Armstrong, Leipheimer and Horner. The presence of Armstrong gives me a story that I will dine out on for the rest of my life and I look forward to asking Ben when he is older whether he remembers when his dad raced with Lance Armstrong in New Mexico.
Unfortunately we were already checked out of the hotel so no ice bath today but I did have a craving for McDonald's and I had my first big mac in over 2 years. As always I have to say a big thanks to Wendy and Ben for helping me out so much with the race and acting as my support crew. It was hard work doing so much travel and Wendy had to keep Ben entertained as well as driving all over New Mexico.