Monday, May 20, 2013

An Experience In Endurance... The 2013 Tour of Gila

I came into the Tour of Gila with a sort of mental expectation of difficulty. I had talked and thought about doing it pretty much since the previous year in May while the race was running. A friend from the Midwest had done it and my dad and I decided to look into it. Gila is a very, very tough stage race. In fact, the promoters claim it is the hardest stage race in North America! That's not a claim I will dispute readily has mountains. Real. Mountains.

Stage one (a point to point Road Race) ends with a mountaintop finish on a Category 1 climb,

 Stage two (on the right) climbs and descends over three Category 3 climbs. Pinos Altos is the first
climb of the three, then after a fast descent into a small town it pitches up again and goes up another climb! The third and final climb is closer to the finish. On the final stage of this race, (the picture off to the right) it gets even harder! The so called infamous Gila Monster Road Race. This stage has rolling hills leading into a high speed category 3 climb early on in the stage, a VERY steep (10 to 11% gradient pitches on the switch backs) Category 2 climb closer to the finish, and one smaller and less steep hill leading all the way into the finish.
  Anyways, my point in showing you all of this is when my dad and I saw how hard and hilly this race was I knew I had to go out and do it because of how much I love climbing!

After driving down to Milwaukee from doing the Kenwoods memorial race in Minnesota on Saturday, we flew out of the Chicago airport down to Tuscon, Arizona on Sunday. We then drove out to Silver City, New Mexico and got comfortable in the place we would be staying for the week during the 5 days of the Tour of Gila  -a lovely guest house up very close to Pinos Altos (so it was close to the course for Stage 1 and stage 3).

On Monday, I decided after looking at the elevation graphs for the three road races that I needed to pre-ride Meadow Creek, the second climb of Stage 2 and also the descent leading into the finishing climb on Stage 5. The roads were very twisty and turning!

Tuesday, I pre-rode the mountaintop finish of Stage 1, but I also wanted to ride the Time Trial course as it would play an important part in the overall. So my dad and I decided to do both. We drove to the TT course -which was very hilly- and I pre-rode that on my TT bike. I found out quickly from riding the TT course that the two downhills were steep enough I was extremely spun out in my junior gears. I knew this would make it more difficult for me to place a competitive result during the TT, so I really concentrated on working on my cadence while pre-riding the course. After I rode the TT course, my dad and I drove over to the finish of Stage 1 to pre-ride the Category 1 climb mountaintop finish. As I rode the climb, I was struck by how incredibly real it was! I felt like I was watching a ProTour mountain top finish while riding it. I was excited, I knew this would be a very difficult climb for everyone during Stage 1!

Stage 1:

On Wednesday morning I woke up, ate breakfast, and started  mentally preparing for the first day of my first big mountain stage race... I was excited! My dad and I drove out to the start of the race and as we did I was going through everything in my head. "It's a hard race, and it's hot today," my dad said to me as we drove. "Make sure you stay protected, hydrated and eat a lot!" I nodded, focused and ready for the first day. We (the racers) rode out onto the the course with the Referees giving us a neutral start to this 117.6 Kilometer (73.1 mile) long road race.

 The Cat 3 men were off. Throughout the stage I made sure I was up front, drinking, and eating as the weather was extremely hot at 90 degrees Fahrenheit! Remember, I live in "cold and snowy" Duluth, Minnesota where I had been training in low temperatures and snow for a few weeks leading into the Gila. Stage 1 was one of my first experiences of the year in some serious heat. The course led through a big valley that funneled a lot of wind into the pack, so despite many break-away attempts by riders (even one that had a 5:00 minute gap at one point of the race) no one could stay away from the aggressive field until we were around 30 kilometers from the mountaintop finish where an attack was launched from the field by the biggest, most well organized team in the Cat 3 race, Ziavelo Cycling. They had six riders going hard and rotating at the front when one of their riders -Marcus Toya- launched an attack that ended up staying away. He later won the stage, narrowly avoiding being caught by the shattered remnants of the Peloton. I suffered hard on the hill because of the heat, but my motivation to do well in the overall kept me going, and I moved up through the pack as we got farther and farther up the hill. My Result was 17th, 4:38 back on the stage winner, just 1:05 down on the rider who won the "sprint" from the Peloton to get third place, David Vaughn. Who is also of the Ziavelo Cycling team. To put things in perspective, my time at the finish line was Three hours and Thirty-Eight minutes!

Stage 2:

 Tuesday morning was Stage 2 of the Tour of Gila. Another road race, this one with a very fast technical descent called Sapillo Creek. This descent was steep enough that (despite many hairpin bends and switchbacks) I reached a max speed of 63.2 Kilometers per hour (38.7mph) without even pedaling down most of it! I had a lot of fun ripping this 10.0 Kilometer descent down to the bottom. As scary and dangerous as it was to go so fast down such a twisty descent, with a lot of riders around me, I was just thinking about how much fun I was having. Going through the valley Ziavelo went for a time bonus sprint, and after everyone crossed the line. (For said bonus sprint) I attacked the field, unhappy with how little separation there was. Hoping to get away, and get some time. I heard some one in the field behind me shout; "He's little! Just let him go."

 A minute or two into my attack, Ziavelo sent one of their men -Marcel Berger- to cover my attack. He asked me if I was a threat to his team leader in first place, to which I smiled and shouted across the wind, "No I'm not, I'm four and a half minutes down." He thought for a second as I broke the wind and he said, "Okay, let's work together!". Marcel and I continued to work together for 30.0k of the 54.5 kilometers I was off the front. He was very strong in the wind and the two of us were rotating so fast that I was spun out on the downhills in my junior gears. He dropped me at the 20km-to-go sign, wherein I got on the wheel of Matthew Rowe of Cycleton Denver- who had been trying to bridge our two minute gap to the field for about 25 minutes. Both him and I were very tired, so we worked out an agreement, "You chase down Marcel up ahead, and keep the gap down, I won't sprint you at the line." I said, through gritted teeth in between huffing breaths. Matthew nodded and said "Okay" was all he could say he was so focused on Marcel up ahead.

A smile of satisfaction after being in the break
I was cross eyed while I watched the kilometers tick down. 15k to go! The sign on the side of the road said, almost smugly to my tired eyes. When I saw the 10k to go sign, I thought, we're almost there! and I can see Marcel up ahead. after 54.5 brutal kilometers away in a break, Matthew and I crossed the finish line. I honored our agreement and pushed him across the line for a few extra seconds in the overall. Marcel finished 1st, 22 seconds ahead of Matthew Rowe and I. The field, whittled down to just 14 men by my aggressive attack, finished almost two minutes back on Matthew and I.

Stage 3:

Stage 3 was the Time Trial. A relatively uneventful day for me GC wise, I defended my 11th position in the Overall. It was a very interesting course for a time trail, it was difficult to not lose any time on the two big downhills in the course because of my limited junior gears (some of the riders I raced against ran a 54 front ring, I have to run a 52 by USAC ruling!). However, "What goes down, must come up!" and I was able to gain enough time on the uphills to have a decent Time Trial. It was fun to do! I love Time Trialing.

^A video Dad took of me in the TT^






 Stage 4:

Stage 4 was the Criterium, there was almost zero change in the overall that affected me. I just stayed at the front, made sure no one got any time in a break away and that I didn't crash, or expend too much energy. I placed 19th, with the same time as the winner.

 Stage 5:

I came into Stage 5 expecting it to be the hardest stage yet. The Cat 2 climb up Sapillo Creek was a very steep climb and I knew it would be a good opportunity for me move up in the overall. So when I did hit the climb, I went to the front and started to pound out a good pace. The group was whittled down to about seven riders at the top of the climb, then a few more caught on and others were dropped as Samuel Chovan attacked in a move that would later win the stage. On the downhill leading into the final climb, we rotated hard to prevent any more riders catching on and to make sure that we kept our gap to the GC leader, who had not made the selection was not in our group. Coming up the final climb, I drilled it to try and drop any riders I could, and attempt to catch Samuel. However, it came down to a sprint. I finished a great 8th place on the stage, and moved up into my final placing of 9th overall! I am happy I was able to move into the top ten!

Thanks to my parents for their ever loving support, and to our generous hostess Steph!

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