Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Tour of Gila

Tour of Gila is a special race. I've done it once before in the Category 3s two years ago. Unable to do it last year I was looking forward to it this year. There was a bit of a scare early on in the year, the main sponsor stepped out and it looked like it wasn't going to happen until an unnamed Masters rider from Colorado donated enough money to allow the race to continue. To who ever this person is, thank you very much!

The reason why the Tour of Gila is such an amazing race is it is so hard. This is the hardest amateur climbing stage race in the country, something very rare and hard to find since most people don't want to go through that much pain. In the Category 1/2 race, there was 21,000 feet (6700m) of climbing over 320 miles (516km) in 5 stages. Although this was an extremely early race for me (only my 3rd race of the season) I was excited and felt fairly prepared with all the climbing I did in California. In this race I guest rode for the Californian devo team Rokform. This put me in a nice visible bright orange kit, just my style.

The morning of stage 1 was pleasantly cool at 65F. The wind was also really mild so the 152 kilometer stage was very uneventful. There was quite a few attacks early on but only one breakaway made it stick. These two riders made it all the way until the final feedzone with 20k to go. At this point two riders counter attacked. One of the riders, Fortunato, had been attacking all day so I figured there was no way he would make till the finish. He won the stage and held the GC lead for the rest of the race. When we hit the bottom of the VERY short climb (6km) everyone was rested and sprinted at the bottom. The altitude and my lack of race fitness hit me really hard, I was dropped and lost 5:36 on the stage. This was my low point in the race, I felt very frustrated being put out of competition for the General Classification on the very first stage of a race that was supposed to be really good for me. It took a while to get things back in perspective and realize that not only were almost all the riders from a high altitude place, but this was the middle or even end of their racing season. Most of them were in peak form and I was only just getting started. Once I got out of my head and decided to just race I did far better.

Stage 2 was about racing for vengeance. Knowing that I was out of competition barring a miracle, it was time to make the race really hard for everyone. Right off the gun I got second in the bonus sprint, and going up the first climb I went to the front and set the pace with Fortunato, the race leader. While this didn't drop very many people immediately, it caused plenty of fatigue that came into play later on. The highlight of my day was one of the riders behind me yelling, slightly out of breath; "what the F***?!". This of course, just made me go harder.

 There was a short technical downhill into the next hill. A hard pace was set up this as well, and some of the riders started to show some fatigue. At the start of the fastest and twistiest downhill of the entire race -Sapillo Creek- I made sure to get up front. One of the riders had been pre riding this downhill since Saturday and set a vicious pace, flying through the corners. I stayed in fourth wheel, pushing my technical abilities to the limit trying to keep him within sight. When we got to the bottom, the whole field was strung out and a bit shattered. I turned to Fortunato and said; "There's that separation you wanted, lets get on it!". Fortunato and I had been trying to split the field all day and this was our chance. The two of us and about 6 other riders set up a rotating pace line at the front for about 20 minutes. Unfortunately it was not quite organized enough to cause any real damage and the field came back together. I sat back into the field, drank some water, ate, and rested. One of the other riders warned me that the last climb of the day was going be the hardest because of fatigue so I made sure to be prepared for it. While resting farther back in the pelaton, two or three riders attacked. The field had no interest in chasing them down so it stayed away. The motorcycle referee was giving us time checks. 1 minute. 2 minutes. 5 minutes. Then 7 minutes! At this point people started to panic and work at the front, the gap went down slowly. When we hit the final climb of the day, it was still at four and a half minutes. I made sure to be on Fotunato's wheel going up the climb knowing he would set a really hard pace. If no one else could follow, I wanted to get away with him. The next 20k or so were a blur of pain. There was a brutal head wind and rolling hills that teased with supposed endings before going right back uphill. Finally we were in the last 5k of the stage, and the front group had been shattered down to just 19 riders. The break away was hanging on by a thread just thirty seconds up the road. This is when the cat and mouse games began. People attacking, being chased down. Knowing I had one really good effort left in my legs that if timed right could win the sprint, I sat in. Two of the stronger riders attacked together. I reacted out of excitement, knowing as it happened that it was a mistake and went after them. Unable to get on their wheel I was pulled back into the field. With nothing left for the sprint I finished in the pack, happy that I had moved up into the top twenty overall with such a whittled down front group.

Stage 3 was the Time Trial, and this year I was prepared for it. With no junior gear regulations imposed upon me, I ran a 55 tooth chain ring in the front with a 12 in the back. This gave me a big enough gear to pedal the long descent down to the finish. 

One of the most important pieces of equipment in a Time Trial is an Aero helmet (since it's one of the first things to hit the air) and my Lazer WASP Air is one of the fastest helmets in the world.

 Most importantly I had a TT bike that I was familiar with and had trained on a lot, my Focus Chrono. I was fit to this bike, comfortable in the position, had my HED Cycling Aerobars set up correctly and knew how the deep dish wheels would handle. Time trialing is very different from normal racing, and spending time in that aggressive and different position is vital.
The TT it self went really well. I had a perfect warm up, passed plenty of guys on the hills, and was able to stay in my big ring the whole race without dropping below 90rpm. In the end I finished 11th place, just one minute off the podium. I have a lot of work to do on my TT skills, but it was encouraging to see all the work I've put in to this discipline start to pay off!

Stage 4 was the Criterium, which had little effect on the overall. I conserved energy, stayed safe (although I narrowly avoided a big crash) and lead out my Rokform Team mate Aubrey for second in the field sprint, with me finishing third. Unfortunately there was a small Break away a few seconds up the road so I didn't get any prize money but this gave me confidence in my sprinting abilities for the next day.

Stage Five, or the Gila Monster, was a beast of a stage. 103 miles, 9000 feet of climbing, 4 categorized climbs one of them 18 miles long, and a lowest elevation on the entire course of 6300 feet. This was real mountain racing. The race started out very easy, with three riders going for a break away and no one chasing. We knew what would happen to them on the climb. After a small Category 3 climb to begin the day, on which a moderate pace was set, we started climbing Emory pass. This was a complete monster of a climb that took us up to an altitude of nearly 9000 feet. On a climb this long you simply can't set the same pace possible up other, shorter climbs. But grinding up such a long mountain after so many stages at any pace will hurt. The pace set up this climb, while not all out at first, was still fast enough to make people suffer.

About three quarters up the climb I started to feel antsy. We had caught the break away, but not many people were getting dropped, the pace was not hard enough. While considering going to the front myself, the grade kicked up to a more difficult 7%. This was when people started to hurt. I had to pick my draft carefully at this point, a rider in front of me would look in control, and suddenly start pedaling squares, decelerating at an alarming rate. As I went by these riders, I could see the looks of defeat in their posture. They were utterly spent. By the time we hit the top at Emory Pass, there was only 12 riders left in the front group. We turned around and went back down the mountain on the same road, passing by the shattered remnants of the pelaton. However at the bottom, many riders had caught back up and the group size increased to 30. At first this irritated me, but then I realized they would be dropped on the final climb of the day just as they were on Emory pass. 

As we rode through the valley on our approach to the penultimate climbs, the pace grew slower an slower. Everyone was tired from climbing and had no interest in working. We slowed to a pace of just 15mph, Ridiculously slow. If we hit the climb at this pace, everyone would be recovered, and I would lose my advantage. I needed everyone to be tired hitting the climb so that no one would sprint at the bottom. Weighing my options, I decided sitting around was not doing any good. I made a solo attack at the feed zone with 51km to go. My intentions with this attack were not necessarily to solo all the way to the finish, but to get enough of a gap that if the field did catch me, it would be the small front group half way up or at the top of the climb and I could simply slot right in. Keeping this in mind, I set a good fast pace but didn't overreach. I quickly lost sight of the field in the winding, twisty roads. However, for some reason no one was giving me time checks. I had no idea how far ahead I was. Later after the race, some of my friends told me that the referee was giving time checks to the field despite myself not getting any. He said at one point I had 4 and a half minutes! If I had known this I would have gone all out up the climb and could have possibly made it to the finish solo. Not knowing this fact however, I set a moderate pace up the climb. After being caught three quarters up the Sapillo creek climb I slotted in to the pack feeling fine. After the top of the climb on the false flat following, the group accelerated and the person in front of me was a smaller rider. I couldn't get enough draft off of him and started to drift back ever so slightly. The group picked up momentum, riders started going past me and I didn't quite have enough energy to accelerate onto a wheel. The first 10 riders got away. I worked with the second group on the road and managed to bring the time gap down by a minute, but no one would work with me on the downhill leading to the finish and the front group got away. I finished with the second group on the road at 17th on the stage and the hard day moved me up to a decent 16th overall.

While The Tour of the Gila didn't not go perfectly for me, I'm happy with my performance considering it was my 3rd race and that I had no altitude acclimation. I gained a lot of race fitness and overcame some mental road blocks.

A huge shout out to the staff of this amazing race for making it another incredible year! Tour of Gila truly is an incredible race with amazing terrain, I hope to do this race again in the future.