Astana’s Levi Leipheimer (yes he is riding with the Mellow Johnny’s kit but I will still use Astana) and Kristin Armstrong (Cervélo TestTeam) each soloed to victory in stage 1 at the Tour of the Gila in New Mexico.
A field of 156 riders lined up for the men’s 94.1 mile Silver City-Mogollon stage and as expected, the race started off nervously, as everyone wants to make it into the early break before the ‘real’ climbing starts. Finally, a break of 15 riders that included a representative of most teams except Astana and Planet Energy, was established. And that brought the Canadians to the front to start the chase, but according to DS Steve Bauer, no other teams provided assistance so his boys took a risk and sat up. When finally the gap went up to three minutes, the Astana duo of Lance Armstrong and Chris Horner came to the front and started chasing. Five of the six Planet Energy boys, wanting to keep François Parisien in GC contention, came back into the rotation and the gap started to go down to close to one minute as the final climb, a 5.5-mile Cat 1 climb on a very narrow alpine road with steep gradients loomed.
“Our team Planet Energy did most of the work with Lance Armstrong and Chris Horner to narrow the gap. End of story. You can quote me on that!” wrote Bauer in his team report.
At the bottom of the climb, BMC’s Chad Beyer hit the gas and splintered the break into a three riders but the remaining riders didn’t work well together which doomed the trio. Under pressure the main field had shattered, and Armstrong led a small group of 7 riders pass the remnants of the break. In the last 2 miles, Leipheimer hit it and was gone to take the win. Peter Stetina (Felt-Holowesk Partners-Garmin) tried to follow but “dialed it back down under the red zone” and rode with Chris Baldwin (Rock Racing) until the final 200 meters where he attacked to take second place.
“As we only knew since yesterday that we would participate here, we started with small ambitions, but when you feel good and you have a winner’s mentality, it is difficult to stay quiet in the peloton”, commented Leipheimer. “I like to win and Lance motivated me to jump away on the final climb. I have no team here to control the race for me, but I will try to defend this nice red leader’s jersey”.
Leipheimer leads GC with 49 seconds over Stetina and 1 minute over 2006 winner Baldwin. Matt Cooke (RideClean) had a great ride in the break and sits in fourth place at 1:12 down. In the final tally, two minutes separate 13 riders on GC, which include three-time winner Burke Swindlehurst (BISSELL) in fifth place, Rory Sutherland (Ouch) in seventh, Phil Zajicek (Fly V Australia) in thirteenth and the 3 BMC riders, Scott Nydam, Florian Stadler and Beyer.
Stetina is ready for a fight. “Levi may have the most talented domestiques in the race but there’s only two of them and there’s 4 days to go. They want a hard training camp, so we’ll give it to them.”
Bad news of the day: Andy Bajadali (Kelly Benefit Strategies) crashed early on in the stage and broke his scapula.
Tidbit: Nick Frey (Ciclismo) not only wrote a race report but provided a couple of power files from his ride today.
Tomorrow is the Inner Loop Road Race, an 80-mile loop with 5781 feet of climbing starting and ending at Fort Bayard. The course not only includes three cat3 climbs but the 3-mile Sapillo Descent, a very technical 1000+ feet drop which is one of the most dangerous areas in the Tour of the Gila.
View Fort Bayard Inner Loop in a larger map
“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.” described Swindlehurst.
Will Leipheimer be able to protect his lead with only 2 teammates? The BMC team, while outnumbered, is riding with fire after the UCI ruling cut down their team from 8 to 3 riders.
Team, shteam. Riding solo, Kristin Armstrong caught and passed the break in the final climb of the 73.1 mile stage to take the win. Unlike year’s past, the winds did not play a factor and the weather was warm and sunny. The first 20 miles of the stage were relatively quiet, as riders seemed content to save their energy for later in the race.
“We wanted to see whether other teams were going to launch attacks at the onset of the race,” said Value Act Capital team director Lisa Hunt.
Hillary Billington (Lip Smacker) pulled off a solo attack to gain over a minute to the field. Webcor’s Gina Grain initiated a very strong move and brought Colavita-Sutter Home’s Rachel Heal with her. It wasn’t long before they bridged up to Billington; and then Webcor’s Rebecca Much escaped and joined the trio.
“Once Gina and her group got clear, Karen instructed Nikki and I to attempt to bridge so we would have more numbers to start the final climb. It took a couple tries, but eventually there was a lull in the field and I attacked with purpose. I got clear with no troubles and spent the next little while bridging up to Gina who waited patiently for my arrival.” wrote Much.
“We weren’t too worried at this point,” commented defending champion Leah Goldstein (Value Act). “We knew we were getting close to the climb, and I think Armstrong started chomping at the bit!”
Armstrong went with about 4 miles remaining on the steep climb. One by one, the breakaway riders were caught, and Armstrong took the victory, with Webcor’s Katheryn Mattis claiming second, Alisha Welsh (PCIM) taking third and Colavita-Sutter Home’s Cath Cheatley claiming fourth. The ValueAct trio of Goldstein, Robin Farina and Chrissy Ruiter followed a few minutes after.
Can Armstrong win without a team? She’s did it before at Nature Valley. Less than two minutes separate the top 11 on GC which also include Alison Powers (Team Type 1), Anne Samplonius (Lip Smacker) and climber Tiffany Cromwell (Colavita-Sutter Home).
“The time gaps among the top 10 are very close,” stated Goldstein. “We’re in fighting mode now, and are ready to do battle tomorrow!”
Tomorrow the women face the 77.9 mile Inner Loop Road Race stage with 5854 feet of climbing.
Complete results here