Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Tour of the Gila Race Report


Since Ironman UK I have eased back on my training but have tried to keep up a reasonable level of fitness. My wife has started to catch the bug and has completed 2 marathons and her first triathlon. I have resurrected this blog for one last post as I wanted to do a race report for the 2009 Tour of the Gila (again like all my race reports it is very long).

Last year while training for Ironman I found I really enjoyed the bike riding, especially the faster group rides with local roadies. I also found that after a few weeks I was able to stay with the A group at most group rides. This all led to a desire to compete in a road race and having really enjoyed watching the Tour de France for several years I really fancied the challenge of competing in a stage race. Last year I was registered for a couple of rides but for one reason or another I was unable to actually race and most of the 2 day stage races on the calendar were not open to me as a Cat 5 rider. With only a short time to go before leaving the States I was determined to try and get in a big road race.

Trawling through bikereg.com I found the Tour of the Gila, a 5 day stage race for the Pros and a 4 day stage race for Cat 4/5s. The only problems were that:

1. It is in New Mexico (hardly local).
2. It is one tough course with plenty of climbing.
3. It is all done at elevation ranging from 5000 to 8000 ft.

Despite my reservations I soon decided that the potentially once in a lifetime opportunity to compete in a 4 day stage race outweighed any worries I had and I signed up. In order to train for the race I replaced some of my running sessions with bike workouts. I hoped to get in some hill rides at Skyline Drive but unfortunately I only managed to achieve trainer workouts with a bunch of phonebooks propping up the front wheel. Before I knew it Wendy, Ben and I were driving through the desert of New Mexico heading for Silver City. The race was Thu 30 Apr through to the 03 May but I managed to arrange a meeting in Tucson at the beginning of the week which meant that we could fly in the weekend before the race and I could preride the course and try and do a bit of acclimatization.

When we arrived in the host town of Silver City NM we found a very quiet little sleepy hollow. I picked up my bikes from the LBS, where I had had them shipped, and while I was there I overheard half a conversation about a local news story that someone famous was possibly coming to town. I didn’t think anything more of it at the time and went out to ride part of Stage 1. I was pleased to find that the altitude was not hitting me too hard. I did have a very slight headache and found oxygen a little bit harder to come by but I was still able to pedal away. The scenery was amazing but the climbing was relentless and the descents were by far the most technical I had ever seen and in places really scary. When we got back to the hotel I found out that the local news story was that Lance Armstrong and his team Astana mates had decided to make the Tour of the Gila his come back race in preparation for the Giro d’Italia. Needless to say this was very exciting and had the whole town buzzing.

Sunday I rode what would be stage 4 of the race, known as the Gila Monster. This involved the category 2 climb from Sapillo Creek to Pinos Altos which was a real bitch. That evening I again checked the news and it turned out that the cycling governing body, the UCI, had heard about Armstrong’s plans and had invoked a rare rule that banned international teams from competing at national class events. Oh well it was exciting while it lasted but I guess the ‘Lance Effect’ would not come to bare on this race. Monday morning I rode the Time Trial course (Stage 2) which again was far from flat with a cat 4 climb on the way out and a cat 3 climb on the way back. The first 4.5 miles of the TT were all uphill.

Monday and Tuesday were spent in Tucson before heading back to Silver City NM on Wednesday to register for the race. While we were in Tucson I ended up in TriSports.Com getting some supplies. Chatting to the manager he told me that he had heard that Lance was back in the race. Checking online it turned out to be true. Lance Armstrong, Levi Leipheimer and Chris Horner where all going to race but to get around the rules they had to do it as individuals and would be forming up as Team Mellow Johny’s (Lance’s bike store in Texas).

Stage 1 Fort Bayard Inner Loop Road Race 64.2 Miles

I lined up with the other 70 or so riders for the start of our first Stage. Looking around me I noticed that the group looked pretty serious. There were some very fit looking guys and a lot of nice bikes. The Pros were starting back in town and had to do another 15 miles on top of us. We started out at a reasonable pace but after about 10 minutes of climbing things suddenly turned nasty. The pace picked up significantly and before long the group started to split. I just about managed to hold onto the lead group but I was right at the back and my heart rate was already red lining. I knew it was only a matter of time before I got dropped and within a few minutes the elastic snapped and I was falling off the back of the group.

Here I was 15 minutes into a four day stage race and I was being dropped. I managed to keep going and before I got to the summit I could see some other riders who had been dropped. I decided to keep going at a steady pace and try and catch more riders on the butt clenching Sapillo descent. The plan worked and with a bit of a hair raising descent I found myself with about 5 other riders. I was still knackered and just held on at the back of the group trying to get my breath back. We had about 15 miles of steady ascent to go to the Continental Divide at 6720 ft and then 20 miles down hill before the final kick in the teeth, a 9 mile cat 3 climb back to 6800 ft. Before long I got my breath back and was able to start taking turns at the front. I was back in my triathlon comfort zone of high zone 2 low zone 3 heart rate. We started to pick up other riders who had been dropped from the lead group and before long we were in a group of about 20. About 14 of us organised into an effective pace line with about 6 guys loafing on the back. We really rattled along and before the start of the last climb we had the lead group in sight.

When we hit the last climb the same thing happened again. I made the initial split but was soon dropped again. I had a about 8 miles of solo climbing to go. This was a bit of a lonely time but I guess the Ironman racing helped as I didn’t feel too dispirited. After a while grinding out my own pace I started to feel stronger again and before long I caught the next two guys who jumped on my back wheel. When we go to the flats I felt really strong and pulled the two riders the last 5 miles to the finish. Rather disappointingly the guy I had just pulled for several miles decided he needed to sprint for the line and finished ahead of me putting me in 39th place overall.

Me getting dropped on the last climb

I felt pretty good. I finished the stage in 3:07:42. A lot of guys were saying how fast the stage had been and when I checked last years results I saw that the winning time for Stage 1 had been 3:12:00 so we had clearly been shifting. My Garmin told me that we had averaged 21.1 mph and with 4220ft of climbing that was not too shabby. About 30 minutes after we finished the Pros came in in a mass sprint.

Pro's mass sprint

After a giving a quick interview Lance and Levi jumped on their bikes and cycled the 5 miles or so back to their rental house. I am fairly certain that it is rare that you will find someone as famous as Armstrong cycling along the road like this, shooting the breeze and without a police escort.

I went back to the hotel reasonably happy with how things had gone and got myself an ice bath which I would come to hate by the end of the week. Tomorrow was the Time Trial and in theory this event would suit me better.

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