Monster Race Report: Tour of the Gila 2015

The Tour of the Gila is considered one of America’s most challenging road stage races, where amateurs compete on the same courses as the UCI Men and Women level athletes. Every May for the past 28 years, racers of all backgrounds and stripes converge on southern New Mexico for the big race. In 2015 top continental UCI Men’s and Women’s teams included Kelly Optum, Hincapie, UHC, Jelly Belly, and Jamis. The race is held a week before the Tour of California so participating teams could compete at Gila before heading further west for America’s most prestigious professional race; this year’s Gila UCI men’s winner – Rob Britton – went on to place 10th overall at the Tour of CA.

Amateur racers from all over the United States and even abroad make the trek to the little mining town of Silver City for good reason. The local community embraces the event, welcoming competitors of all abilities, from elite level Cat 1-2 and masters’ racers to casual “citizen” categories. These same community members also make the tour possible. Hundreds volunteer every year to provide rolling SAG and wheel support (each category has its own caravan of vehicles), marshall key points of the race courses, assist with registration, setup and breakdown, and even host athletes in their homes.

After hearing for years about how Gila is a race you simply must do, and never managing to do it, I finally set out to make it happen in 2015. As a Cat 3 competitor my “Tour of the Gila” consisted of 5 stages: three hilly road races, a 16 mile time trial, and a 20 lap downtown crit. In order to prepare for five days of racing in the months leading up to the race, I focused my training and race schedule on back-to-back efforts.  In the fall and early winter I was able to put in 8-13hrs/week of saddle time on the road and mountain bike. That was followed by an early season race schedule consisting of mountainous road races and a few local stage races, including the 9 mile Omnium in the eastern Sierra and the San Dimas Stage Race.  I spent the final month before Gila focused on hill intervals and tempo-paced, back-to-back mountainous road rides in the San Gabriel Mountains, 3 to 4 hours in duration.  All went according to plan until my “rest week” prior to the race, when I came down with a bad cold that kept me at home and off the bike entirely.

 

Day 1: Silver City to Mogollon Road Race

  • 73 mile, point-to-point road race from downtown Silver City to the ghost town of Mogollon
  • 3,670’ of climbing, culminating with a 6.7 mile climb to Mogollon, elevation 6,800’
  • Total Time: 3:14:59, Average speed: 22.5mph

We arrived in Silver City Tuesday evening after the 700 mile drive from LA, and settled into our home-away-from-home, a cottage in historic downtown Silver City. My tour started early the following morning with a point-to-point road race. Stages like this were the exact reason why I came to Gila. For those unfamiliar with the SoCal road racing scene, there simply are no point-to-point road races. The best road races in our region are maybe 6-20 miles in length and require racers to do several loops. Not the case at the Gila. The first stage would start in downtown Silver City, a 5 minute spin from our cottage, and head 73 miles across rural roads to a mountain top finish at the ghost town of Mogollon.

The 2015 edition of the race saw smaller amateur fields than normal. Judging from results past, the Cat 3 field was about 20-30 riders smaller, with only 44 riders departing from Gough Park at 8am. This was due to the fact that the 2015 race was temporarily cancelled after a long-time title sponsor (SRAM) pulled its support only a few months before the race, forcing organizers to scramble to find $40,000. Thankfully the race has made a lot of friends and supporters over the years, and a group of former and current racers, calling themselves the “Gila Monsters,” made up the shortfall.

I was still congested and slightly under the weather as the group set off in the cool morning air with temperatures in the low 50s.  My game plan for the day, try to conserve as much energy as possible given my recent sickness, and hope the months of training would pay off when the road ramped up for the 6.7 mile climb to Mogollon. The ride started with a blessing from a local bishop, then climbed out of Silver City and descended the Continental Divide. Not knowing what to expect I sat in the back of the peloton and chatted up a few of the other 35+ racers (there were only 7 of us), while an assortment of very strong and talented high school ‘kids’ launched early breaks, eager to “race” rather than sit in like us old folks. This continued for almost 60 picturesque miles along open, rolling country roads.

Surrounded by graze land, open space and small towns, the highways we traversed in the first few hours were among the most beautiful I’ve ever ridden, let alone raced. Along the way we were greeted by several hundred school children who lined the streets in front of their school to cheer on the professional and amateur racers, and see the spectacle of the caravans of sponsored team cars covered with bicycles that accompanied the professional fields.  Like half of New Mexico, much of the terrain was at altitude. Silver City is at 5900 feet to be exact. For a bike racing tourist, this was a little fact I had largely overlooked in planning for the race. Luckily I tend to do ok at altitude, and it was something that most of the racers – with the exception of the teams from Denver/Boulder – would have to deal with on stages that traversed the Continental Divide and the 7000+ foot peaks in the Gila National Forest.

An hour into the stage I was feeling ok spinning in the back third of the field. Other than a Ritte-sponsored rider getting caught up in barbed wire while riding on the shoulder, there had been no mishaps in the peloton. By 9am the temperature was almost 60F, making the long-fingered gloves and arm warmers superfluous. My only issue was with two hours of racing still ahead, I had to relieve myself, yet was surrounded by a group of kids who didn’t need to stop. Since I wasn’t sure I had the fitness or extra matches to stop and chase back on, I sucked it up, conserved energy and left my water bottle mostly untouched. With about an hour to go it was clear I wasn’t the only one who had this issue; a high school racer from New Jersey went in his bibs in the middle of the peloton, during a descent, to the chagrin of the riders immediately following him. Thankfully I was not one of them, but it did beg the question why said rider would not simply move to the back or stop if it came to that.

As we neared the turn to Mogollon at mile 66, all but a solo break had been reeled in. It was around this point that the Cat 3 peloton caught the main chase group of the Masters A race, which saw us weaving around the A’s caravan of support vehicles and then past a group of A’s that had set off 20 minutes before the Cat 3s and did not seem pleased they were being neutralized by race officials.  Shortly thereafter, and despite the best efforts of follow motorcycles, both groups merged as we made the turn to Mogollon, becoming one large group of 80+ riders tackling the steep mountain top finish.

The large numbers of Masters A riders made it difficult to tell where I was place-wise among the 3s when the road pitched upward. On the first 2 mile section of the climb two groups of 10-15 riders formed at the front. I was able to bridge to latch on to the first just as we reached a one-mile flat section in the middle of the climb. The group sat up a bit at this point, allowing the chase group to latch back on.  After a brief respite the road narrowed to one lane and the climb began in earnest, pitching to double digits with sections as steep as 18%, according to race organizers.

As a heavy climber (I weighed in at a dainty 180lbs pre-race), I was not looking forward to this section. Fortunately none of the pitches felt as bad as the first half of Chaney Trail in Altadena, and I found myself moving my way up through the field and reeling in both Masters A and Cat 3 racers who had overdone their pacing.  No different than a workout interval, I set a pace I felt I could maintain for another 3 miles and just focused on my breathing and turning the pedals over.

150 meters from the line one Cat 3 rider I had caught earlier on the climb was dangling 30 feet in front of me. Unsure of my place among the 3s in the combined group, I decided to kick for the finish and was able to overtake the surprised rider at the finish. Unfortunately just before the line I felt something in my upper right calf tweak. I didn’t think much of it at the time as the first order of business was to find the nearest bush to water. That was followed by gratefully accepting two cold beverages and a banana from race volunteers.

When the results were posted later that evening I discovered that I had been in 6th place before my kick, meaning my sprint finish had netted me a top 5 placing, my best Cat 3 result since I resumed racing in 2014 after a 4 year hiatus. I also found out that of the 7 riders who were aged 35+ in the field, I had placed 1st by over a minute. This meant I was the early leader for the 35+ sub-category, which was eligible for General Classification (GC) awards at the conclusion of the 5 day race.

 

Day 2: Fort Bayard Inner Loop Road Race

  • 75 mile big loop road race from Fort Bayard through the Gila National Forest.
  • 5,854’ of climbing, with peaks over 7,000’ in elevation
  • Total Time: 3:31:16; Average Speed: 21.2mph

Day two found me nursing a painful pulled calf muscle. Before the stage I was hobbling about on two feet, and just hoping to hang in on two wheels. As a result the game plan was to spin as much as possible during the 75 mile loop and hopefully prevent the strain from getting worse or cramping up while maintaining my GC standing.  Complicating matters, the stage was hillier and more technical than the day prior. The big road loop would cross the Continental Divide twice and include a notoriously technical descent with blind turns, steep switchbacks, and off-camber S-turns from the peak of Pinos Altos to Sapillo Crossing by Lake Roberts.

The stage started and finished at Fort Bayard, former home of the Buffalo Soldiers, and as far as I could tell, now home to a lot of dilapidated buildings.  As I warmed up I reminded myself of a few other goals for the day, including to not overdrink before the start, eat regularly during the first two hours of the race, ride the technical descent conservatively (ideally avoiding any sketchy juniors, always a personal goal), and of course push easier gears than I generally do to save my calf.  Within the first 5 miles a break of 4 went up the road, prompting the race leader and teammates to set a reasonably tough pace to keep them in check. After an hour or so of sitting on the back of the peloton as we climbed the big rollers, we reached the summit of Pinos Altos.

At Pinos Altos the road turned down to the technical descent at Sapillo Crossing. The peloton was still together at this point and jockeying for position as we neared the most technical switchbacks. I was surprised to discover that many of the other racers appeared to lack descending skills, even the young race leader, whom I ended up directly behind entering the switchbacks of Sapillo Crossing. As we hit the series of steep switchbacks a gap opened up between the race leader and the two dozen or so riders in front of him. Although I would have been comfortable going faster, I decided to play it conservative, not try to pass. While the safer option, this choice resulted in me observing the New Mexico state champion easily ride off my wheel and bridge to close the gap when we hit the bottom of the descent. With the front group drilling it in an attempt to break up the field, I had no choice but to burn several matches and push my calf much harder than I had hoped to in order to close the gap. When I finally latched after a few minutes of hard work I sat in and tried to save my now angry calf.

The second half of the stage from Lake Roberts is a notorious wind tunnel. Thankfully we were spared on this day, and after 60 miles of racing the peloton reeled in the early break. With about 15 or so miles to go, the head of the peloton decided to take what the French call a “Besoin naturel”, and les Américains a “Pee-break”.  This was another race first for me, and much appreciated as things were about to get serious. After a few minutes of easy riding following the stop the group reached the first of several major rollers to the finish. I was warned before the stage that this was generally a spot where attacks were launched and the going got tough.

Sure enough the strong young climbers ramped things up accordingly when the incline hit about 7%, shelling over a dozen riders until the original group of 43 was only about 24 strong. I was among those who just barely hung on to the group. As we climbed by huge copper mines I was in my own personal world of hurt, just doing everything to keep pace and not get dropped. I’m not sure if it was my calf, my senior status in the group, or something else, but I was not a happy camper and working much harder than the day prior. Yet the thought of limping the last 10 miles to the finish solo was a strong motivator. And fortunately for me the fastest riders backed off after the first major climb. The next 8 miles or so were largely uneventful, with a few racers taking a flyer but nothing sticking before the final turn to Fort Bayard. With about 1k to go things got sketchy until a major attack was thrown down by several young riders and all bets were off. Happy to be done, I ended up placing 12th in the field, 2nd among the 35+ racers, dropping me to a tie for 6th in the GC after two stages. According to my Garmin, I had spent 3:31:16 in the saddle and averaged 21.2mph.

 

Day 3: Tyrone Time Trial

  • 16.15 mile out-and-back time trial
  • 1,188’ of climbing
  • Total Time: 44:45; Average Speed: 21.9mph

After icing and elevating my calf following stage two, I awoke on day 3 sore and ready to suffer. Today’s stage would send riders 16.15 miles on a rolling, out-and-back course with 1,188’ of climbing.  I knew it was going to be a tough day at the races for me, as time trialing is not a discipline of cycling I have spent any real time practicing over the years. Without a TT bike or any real TT prep in the months before the Gila, my number one goal for the day was to limit the damage.

Unlike on the first two days, my group would be one of the last ones to race on this day. I was told this was because professionals don’t like getting blown off the course by heavy winds, according to the locals a not uncommon occurrence when you mix a standard dose of Silver City wind with disc wheels and very fast individuals. The upside of this was I got to see some of the professional men and women on course before I had to get ready myself.  The downside was there was more wind when I started, and my personal aerodynamics are mediocre at best.

Due to my GC position, I headed out the gate 6th to last, among some very fast-looking guys on TT bikes. More uphill than down on the way out, I focused on counting my cadence and setting a pace I could hold for 40 odd minutes. On the face of it the plan was sound. In reality the execution left much to be desired. Within the first 10 minutes I was passed by a youth on a TT bike with disc wheel. A few minutes later another sailed by. And then another. At the turnaround I knew I was losing all sorts of time. My only consolation was that I was halfway done and there were only 2 more riders who could physically pass me on the road. So I took it in stride when a  4th rider passed me with a few miles to go.  After 44 plus minutes I finally crossed the line, thankful to be done, yet also 7 minutes slower than the top Cat 3 racers; earlier in the day Tom Zirbel stomped the UCI field in 33 minutes and change.

The carnage dropped me from 6th to 22nd in the GC, and from 1st to 3rd by 3 minutes in the 35+ category. The damage would have been even worse had PAA Race Director Nick Humby not let me borrow a TT helmet, shoe covers, and a set of aero bars, and PAA Sponsor Centric Bikes a set of aero wheels, to make my road bike at least somewhat more aerodynamic. With almost the entire Cat 3 field on TT bikes and kitted out in skin suits, I’m really glad I showed up with at least something!

 

Day 4: Downtown Silver City Criterium

  • 4 corner, 20 lap downtown criterium
  • 1500’ of climbing, 21.8 miles
  • Total Time: 48:42, Average speed: 26.9mph

Saturday was a new day, day 4 of 5. A proverbial fresh start, nevermind my precipitous drop in the GC standings. Treating each stage as its own race, my game plan for the 20 lap historic Silver City criterium was to: 1) keep the rubber side down, 2) nurse my calf by spinning as much as possible, and 3) conserve energy for the final Gila “Monster” stage.

Circling downtown Silver City, the 4 corner course featured a minor climb and several rollers. After watching a few Masters B riders crash into a hay barrel before my race, I did my best to say out of trouble, letting the young ones challenge for primes while I took it easy on my calf. I sat in for most of the race and did not bother contending for primes. On the last lap I moved up and finished mid-pack, the last man before the first time break. GC impact was negligible, although I dropped from 22nd to 23rd of 43 in the overall standings.

 

Day 5: Gila Monster Road Race

  • 69 mile, point-to-point road race
  • 5,610’ of climbing
  • Total Time: 3:12:26, Average speed: 21.4mph

The fifth and final day of racing consisted of a 69 mile point-to-point road race. Starting in Silver City, the route was basically a reverse of Stage 2’s Inner Loop Road Race, except with a mountain top finish on the Continental Divide at Pinos Altos. Riding counterclockwise meant Stage 2’s technical descent was now a steep ascent, averaging 7%, and notorious for splitting fields apart.

My goal for the day was to crack the top 20 in the overall GC and top 2 in the 35+ “old man” sub-category. In order to do so with a still angry calf, the plan was to: 1) spin as much as possible until the final, mountainous last 20 miles, 2) eat, eat, eat bananas and Powerbars during the first two hours of the race, and 3) hit the steep 3.5 mile climb at Sapillo Crossing hard and try to make the selection to the finish.

A 7:30am start greeted racers with a beautiful sunrise and pleasant temperatures. The first several miles were a very relaxed neutral start through town, until our moto escort sounded a horn and the racing was on as we headed east over rolling terrain and alongside massive strip mines.  While the majority of group was comfortable maintaining a steady pace, several break attempts were made until a group of 6, including several juniors and the 35+ leader, separated from the field less than 10 miles into the stage. With over 2.5 hours or racing ahead of us, I stuck to my game plan and sat in.

About 90 minutes later the peloton reached Lake Roberts and the start of the first serious climb of the day. As we approached the climb I worked my way to the front 1/3rd of the field and jumped up in the pedals as the pitch rose. The field splintered immediately as several of the top junior riders attacked the steep pitches.  Redlining, I once again focused on my mind on counting my cadence, a technique I often use to distract my mind when the going gets tough.

While I wasn’t able to match the short accelerations of the top few riders, their yo-yoing allowed myself and several others to latch back on, forming a group of about 7 as we crested the steep switchback section of the climb and reeled in the remnants of the disintegrating break, including the 35+ leader.  At this point the moto SAG informed the group that there were still 2 riders off the front, with about a 2 minute gap heading into the final 15 miles of rolling road to the mountain top finish at Pinos Altos. Unfortunately for me, the GC leaders in the front of the first chase group sat up at this point, allowing 5-6 dropped riders to catch back on, including the #2 GC rider in the 35+ sub-category.  My goal being to make up as much time on riders in front of me in the GC as possible, I knew I could not afford to sit up so I moved to the front to take over the pacing.

Over the next 12 miles I kept the intensity up in the chase group of 14 riders, especially on each uphill section. In the process the 35+ category leader who had been in the early break was dropped along with 1-2 others, leaving only 10 or so in the first chase group as descended to the final few miles to the finish. Unfamiliar with the course I pushed on this downhill harder than I otherwise would have, as the rest of the group tucked behind us and conserved energy. This ended up being a mistake. With junior riders attacking the undulating slopes to the final pitch, I struggled to hang on and was temporarily dropped until another few riders scooped me up. We were just able to catch the top 4 guys when we hit the 1K to go sign and they threw in another surge which splintered our group. From here on in I finished as strongly as I could, placing 6th among our group and 8th overall on the stage. As I watched riders trickle in one by one and in small groups over the next five minutes, it was clear that I had made up some significant time over the final 15 miles over some of the competition. When the dust settled, I had jumped from 23rd to 13th in the GC, and up one spot to 2nd in the 35+ category. All in all it was a gratifying way to end a tough five days of racing, and 8 months of training.

A huge thank you to PAA’s generous sponsors who helped make my Tour of the Gila a success, including Brandon Heflin at Centric Bikes for a set of fast Centric wheels, Rock Sanchez of Empire Bikes for the race tune that ensured everything was working as smooth as possible, the Powerbar gels and bars which kept me fueled during the long, arduous road races, and Race Director Nick Humby whose extra TT helmet, shoe covers and aero bars saved me some time on the TT. I would also be remiss if I didn’t thank my Cat 3/Masters teammates John Saliamonas and Terry Crouse for pushing me on training days in the months before the race. Those long days to the Baldy Lifts, Crystal Lake, Upper Big T and Mt. Wilson played a big part in reaching the fitness needed to hang in with the teenagers for 5 consecutive days.

 

If/When You Go to Silver City

Named after a silver rush in 1870, Silver City, New Mexico, is still home to major copper mining operations that employ about 10% of the town’s 10,000 residents.  It also boasts a charming historic downtown whose galleries interspersed among vacant buildings cater heavily to retirees and tourists, many of whom also make the one hour trek from interstate 10 to visit the nearby Gila National Forest.

Whether you’re a racer, cycling fan, or just a recreational rider who enjoys exploring new roads, Silver City and the Tour of the Gila are well worth checking out!

A few tips from a newbie.

  • Rent accommodations in historic downtown Silver City. It’s charming and walkable to restaurants, galleries, bike shops, and race start/finish locations.
  • Ride the Gila Monster stage loop which crosses the continental divide twice and traverses the Gila National Forest. It’s a beautiful ride and tough race!
  • If you race, stay out of the shoulder. I observed several riders flat and one becoming tangled in barbed wire after riding on the side of the road.
  • Check out the Silver City Food Coop on Bullard St. in downtown for snacks and refreshments.
  • If you want salmon for dinner during race week in Silver City, make an early reservation! I was literally told three times by three separate restaurants that they had sold out of the salmon by the time we arrived!