One of the toughest stage races in North America, the SRAM Tour of the Gila kicks off on Wednesday where it challenges riders with five days of leg busting climbing, arrowing descents and often brutal winds in New Mexico. And if the swirling rumors are true of Levi Leipheimer, Lance Armstrong and more from the Astana team showing to race, well it just got harder.
Who best to describe the race and the stages than the (only?) three-time winner BISSELL’s Burke Swindlehurst who also conquered the Gila Monster four times in his career … so far.
His overall victories came in 1996, 1998 and 2005, with the last one being the sweetest for Swindlehurst.
“I was on a team that was essentially falling apart at the seams at the particular time and I thought it might possibly be my last race as a professional even so to be able to come through and win and particularly to do it on the very last day was extremely satisfying for me.”
Obviously, the race has changed quite a bit in the past 13 years since his first win. The first major change was a move in the calendar as the race used to be held in late June in 96 and 98 making it much hotter which suited Swindhlehurst.
“I like the heat quite a bit, it was a little bit more tailor made for me back then than it is now. So I think the race has changed quite a bit mainly because of the change in the calendar and also it seems like every year the field gets a little stronger as well. This year is going to be ridiculous.”
Then in 2008, the organizers changed the order of the stages, moving the time trial from the first stage to the third stage to open the race, which Swindlehurst likes.
“In the past, it’s been possible for somebody to come out and just blaze the TT and then if he had a strong enough team around him, he can essentially ride through the entire race. I think that putting the TT in the middle makes it a little more wide open, particularly for racing on the first day. I think that going into the first Mogollon stage, there’s not necessarily a defined leader. “
While the order of the stages makes it more interesting, the last stage, the Gila Monster is still the defining stage of the race.
“It doesn’t matter how good a time trialist that you are, the Gila Monster is kind of the defining stage just because it has so much climbing, you have to be a climber to win the Tour of the Gila or at least pretty darn good at it. “
The combination of the altitude from anywhere from 4500 to almost 7000 feet and the winds makes this “one of the toughest races”.
“The wind has become much more of a factor, back in June, it didn’t seem like the winds were quite the factor that they are now, so the wind has definitely played a role particularly in Mogollon stage because you’re in there and it’s often exposed and there’s definitely opportunities to split the field in the wind because it’s always crosswinds instead of a straight on block headwind.”
The first stage, the Silver City-Mogollon Road Race is 94.1 miles (151.5km) long with 5,650′ of climbing. Most of the climbing comes in the final 35 miles with the finish atop a 5.5-mile category 1 climb on a very narrow alpine road which includes gradients of up to 19%.
“Generally, it can be a bit of a nervous stage because the climb doesn’t being right away so there’s still a good portion of the peloton is there for ninety percent of the race and being the first stage of a race, there’s always some nervousness in the peloton. You definitely need to stay on your toes, the terrain is pretty rolling but nothing too serious until you enter the town of Cliff and that’s where the climbing begins in earnest. Basically it’s about staying safe and staying out of the wind and then you come out of the town and make a right hand turn where you start the climb up to Mogollon, that’s a very difficult climb and it actually has two parts to it. There’s a bit of a false flat of about a mile halfway up the climb and then the final climb has some serious steepness to it and the roads surface is pretty poor as well, it’s a pretty dead road so you just feel glued to it no matter how deep you’re going. “
“Generally a break will get absorbed before or on the climb, but I have seen it a break stay away. In fact the first year that I won it, that’s how I took leadership of the race, I got in a break that stayed away and I think that all but two of us were absorbed by the peloton.”
The second stage, the Fort Bayard Inner Loop Road Race, is a 80-mile (129km) loop with 5,781′ of climbing.
“Shorter climbs and there’s actually some challenging descending as you come out of the Pinos Altos, some serious hairpins that will often catch riders off guard and they either misjudge their ability to go down a hill like that or they misjudge the turns so it can be a little hair raising. The terrain is pretty good, it consistently climbs with shorter climbs and wind can often be a factor especially near the end of the race, it’s out of the valley and opens up a little bit more. It’s another race that you have to stay on your toes, stay out of trouble and be aware of the wind and also positioning going into the final rollers to the finish.”
The stage includes the dangerous 3-mile Sapillo Descent, a very technical drop of over 1000 feet with numerous sharp corners, hairpins and two switchbacks.
“I feel that I’m a pretty good descender. Generally if you climb a lot you end up descending quite a bit too.” laughed Swindlehurst.
But it’s often the other guys that need watching.
“I often find though that you can be as good a descender as you want to but if the people you’re descending with aren’t good descender, then it doesn’t really matter how good you are if you’re surrounded by people that aren’t that good, you always have to stay on your toes. Unless you’re solo going down the descent, that’s the only time you can really let your flag fly if you’re a really great descender.”
“The Gila has some very challenging descents and I’m personally very comfortable with those roads, I’m not comfortable with riders that think that they are the newest incarnation of Paolo Savoldelli heading down a road they’ve never seen before.” laughed Swindlehurst.
The third stage is the 15-mile (26km) Tyrone Individual Time Trial on an out and back course with a total of 1070′ of climbing.
“The TT is one of the hardest time trials out there I think, at 16 miles it’s a petty long effort, the winner generally comes in around the high 30 minute mark which is pretty long for a time trial. You have to be able to climb really well and coming back, often the limiting factor is what kind of gearing you have on your bike. You’ll spin out a 55×11 coming back. I think it was in ’96, Steve Hegg somehow had a 10 tooth cog and used it very well and pretty much obliterated everybody coming back on that rolling a 10 tooth. Everybody talks about that mythical 10 tooth cog when they talk about the time trial at Gila.”
While it might seems that Thursday’s crit would be a time for the climbers to sit in but not in this race. The 43.2-mile (69.5 km) Silver City Downtown Criterium is a long one raced on a four 90-degree corner course with 80 feet of climbing per 1.08 mile lap.
“The Gila crit is actually one of the toughest crits because it does climb quite a bit. It has a nice little climb on the back and it’s a little longer too, it’s borderline circuit race. It’s not your standard cookie cutter crit where you can just kind of sit in and stay out of trouble. You definitely have to put some power into the pedals every time you go up that hill.”
And then there’s the Gila Monster Road Race, the final stage on Sunday. The 105.7-mile course with 5 categorized climbs delivering a total 9,131′ of climbing and some dangerous descents with steep grade and blind corners. Last year, Swindlehurst’s teammate and race leader Tom Zirbel crashed out of the race with a broken collarbone in this stage. Sadly, the same crash left Fausto Espanza Munoz (Tecos) paralyzed. Swindlehurst ended up winning the stage last year for the fourth time and finished second overall.
“I absolutely love that race. It has the long sustained climbs that I really like and you typically don’t get to see at too many races outside the Tour of Utah this year where you can be climbing to upwards of 45 minutes at a stretch. It also has some very challenging descending which unfortunately we saw the results of that last year. I’m really hoping that the riders will take that descending seriously and realize that the race isn’t won going down the hill but it can certainly be lost there. I’d say it’s probably one of the hardest stages I’ve ever done because you have pretty good elevation, I think you get up to 9000 feet at one point, and you must climb I’m guessing around 30 to 35 miles during the stage.”
Swindlehurst has tamed the Monster four times (so far) but there is no secret formula to winning the stage.
“It’s been different every time, that’s the beauty of it. I don’t have a particular formula for the Gila Monster, it’s just one of those races that when I get there , a switch gets flipped inside of me, I just have very special feelings towards the race. I’ve somehow have been able to find that extra gear and extra motivation and inspiration and I’m hoping for more of the same this year.”
The strategy for winning the overall at the SRAM Tour of the Gila is pretty simple – well to say at least – stay close and give it all in the final stage.
“Obviously you can’t lose too much time on any given stage to the climbers. I guess, for me, it’s always been to try and keep myself as close as possible in the GC going into the final stage and knowing that the Gila Monster is a race this is kind of custom-made for me and if I can get to that point without being too far down, that I just let my instincts take over for the Gila Monster. “
A strong field will be present and even stronger if the rumors of Astana’s presence led by Leipheimer are true.
“Well, obviously, if the rumors are true, Levi is probably the guy to watch based on the form I’ve seen in the last week or so. Mogollon, Gila and TT, he could sow up the race right there. I’m really excited to see that field that will be assembled. Obviously, he’s not going to be the only rider to beat. Aside from Levi and whoever is going to be showing from his team, it’s still going to be the best field assembled for the Tour of the Gila. It’s quite exciting for the event and I’m really happy to see it finally get the attention that’s been due to it.”
Leipheimer has raced at Gila before, when in 1996 he helped his then teammate Swindlehurst capture his first title when they both together on the same amateur team.
“Oddly enough he was actually, in 96, he was my teammate and helped me win that race. He has experience at the Gila. He was pretty instrumental in me winning that race particularly on the Gila Monster, he kept guys like Horner in check for me going up the Gila Monster, he’s certainly not new to the race but it has been thirteen years since he’s done it.”
The BISSELL team is not focusing on any single rider but will play on the strengths of its team going into the race.
“I think that Tom [Zirbel] is motivated for the race. I know that he was really disappointed to have what happened last year because I think he really wanted to test himself and see how he could climb on that last day and see if he could preserve the lead. I’m sure he’s keen to hopefully reproduce the same results he did last year and see what happens on the Gila Monster. Obviously, I’m really excited for it. Jeremy Vennell, I think he’s riding really well and I think he’ll be an asset to the team. “
“I think we have a few cards to play and I think we’d be remiss to count on any single rider, I think success this year is going to go towards the team that isn’t afraid to attack. I don’t think it’s going to be, for anybody except possibly Levi, it can’t be a formulaic race, it can’t be I’m going to out timetrial everybody or I’m going to out climb everybody because Levi can do both. I think it’s going to take some creative racing by the other riders to shake things up.”
Swindlehurst is ready. Already living at altitude in Utah, he’s been training on the larger climbs around his home to get anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes of sustained climbing at a time.
“The form is coming along. I was really encouraged with the sensations that I was getting at Sea Otter particularly in the road race, when I get aggressive in a race it’s usually because I’m feeling pretty good. I’m really happy with it, I’ve been following my same formula for success as far as getting ready for Gila, as far as doing the big climbs. Regardless of how I feel when I get to Silver City, something different happens, a switch gets flipped inside of me. I try not to get too worked over how my form is because just being at Tour of the Gila changes things for me.”
Speaking of Sea Otter, Swindlehurst also raced in the pro mountain bike cross country race and finished in the top 25. He added mountain bike racing this year, both for fun and to see where he can go in that discipline.
“I really enjoy riding my mountain bike, that’s generally how I spend my fall, on a mountain bike pretty much everyday. I started thinking last year ‘man I enjoy this so much, I might as well try my hand at it again’. I actually tried back in the early part of 2000 and 2001 to do a little mountain biking, I didn’t spend as much time as I do now and it didn’t really go quite as well as I’d hoped. I’m pretty encouraged with what happened at Sea Otter and I’d definitely like to see what I can do. I think it’s possible to race both the road and the mountain bike. The mountain bike schedule isn’t particularly heavy so I think it’s possible to throw a few in there.“
On a final note, Swindlehurst (aka TBird) has been quite active on twitter (@sltbird) and is enjoying the instant feedback provided by the twitterati.
“I had blogged for probably three years and I enjoyed that but I found that I wasn’t getting any feedback from people and it wasn’t until I quit blogging that people told me how much they enjoyed my blog, well ‘jeez I had no idea that anyone was even looking at it’. The twitter is a cool thing because you do get that instant feedback, you find out that people enjoy what you have to say or maybe they don’t but you don’t get that feedback mechanism and that’s something I really like, I like to interact with people. It’s fun, I’m really enjoying it. “