We started off the Gila coverage with a conversation with 3-time overall winner Burke Swindlehurst of the BISSELL team and who better to give us the final word on the race than the gentleman (in the truest sense of the word) from Utah.
Four-time winner of the Gila Monster, Swindlehurst gave it his all in the final stage to get on the podium. He held on to the very select lead group driven by the power engine of Chris Horner (Astana) until the final kilometers.
“I was cramping like mad. I think my teeth even cramped today,” laughed Swindlehurst. “if I had a muscle, it cramped. Unfortunately, I came out of that group with about 2 k left and just had to ride myself in at my own tempo but it was an epic stage today for sure. Definitely, the hardest edition I ever remember. ”
It didn’t work out perfectly for him as he finished sixth on the stage and fourth overall and while a bit disappointed, he was pleased with his effort, his team’s effort and with the winners, Phil Zajicek (Fly V Australia) for the stage and Levi Leipheimer (Astana) for the overall classification.
“I’m very satisfied.” said Swindlehurst. “Having Phil win this stage today, we’ve been friends for a long time, that was very satisfying to me to know that he took it. And also Levi, he might not realize it, the guy has stood in Grand Tour podiums, but I think he was really happy to win this race, I could see it in his face, he looked like he was genuinely excited.”
Swindlehurst agreed that Leipheimer seems to be enjoying racing a lot more in the last few years, and he should know as the two raced together on the same team as amateurs in 1996 when Swindlehurst won his first Tour of the Gila.
“I think so and I think it’s showing in his results. I think that happens for all of us when you start to take yourself a little less seriously as you get older, things have a way of working themselves out, you find you put too much energy into stressing about things and when you finally come to the point when you relax a little bit, the results finally come around. ”
In the end, Swindlehurst did get to stand on the podium with his squad BISSELL who won the overall team classification by placing three riders in the top 20.
“I did get to stand on the podium today with all my teammates. It doesn’t get much better than that actually. That was really fun, they slayed themselves this week for me, it really satisfying for me to see those guys work so hard and I turned myself inside out more times that I can remember today knowing that they did the same for me.”
Tough start to the final stage when Scott Nydam (BMC) crashed violently in the first 20 kilometers of the stage. Nydam was part of the early break and the field slowed down and rode by him as he was still laying on the ground. Nydam was airlifted to the hospital where he was diagnosed with a haematoma after hitting his head very hard and a broken collarbone into a million piece.
“We had to slow down as we went past him, I honestly had a really hard time, I thought about getting into the car after I saw that. It didn’t look good so I’m really happy to hear he’s doing alright. I didn’t see him moving and he didn’t look good on the ground, I know I wasn’t the only one, Levi was really broken up over it, so was Tom Zirbel and I’m sure everybody else. You can’t ride past something like that and no let your mind get the better of you. It was really hard to get back into race mode after that.”
The riders went back to their jobs and raced their bikes to the finish.
Sandbagging? The presence of the trio from Astana was felt in the race, with higher speeds throughout the race. The overall time was almost 38 minutes faster than last year over the same course.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if every single stage was the fastest ever on record by a long shot. Today was just over the top, obviously you have the three huge engines which are the Astana boys and then you have everybody else which is just raising their level to try and get anywhere near theirs so it makes for some pretty exciting racing.”
The presence of Lance Armstrong, Leipheimer and Horner at an NRC race has brought up talk of sandbagging in online communities. Swindlehurst’s answer to the sandbagging question was an emphatic “No, I totally disagree with that.”
For Swindlehurst, the Astana presence at the race is fantastic.
“This race has been one of the toughest races for years and it’s never gotten the attention that it’s deserved. I’ve always felt that this was the hardest stage race in the country outside of Tour of California or something like that when it comes to the terrain and just the kind of racing that you get. For them to come to bring that level even higher. I think that’s kind of lame if people are going to complain about getting the opportunity to race against the best in the world. I was really excited when Levi told me a month out that he thought they were going to come and that made my day. Contrary to what other people think, I’ve had people say ‘oh you must be bummed out’, not even close mad, I’m really excited to get the opportunity to race with these guys. ” said Swindlehurst.
Break time. Swindlehurst is now taking a break from racing as the BISSELL team continues on to the Joe Martin Stage Race this week.
“We have a pretty large team and I really got myself keyed up for this race and wanted to do something special, and I feel that I did do that in a way. I don’t mind stepping back and letting some of the younger guys in the team that don’t get to race so much and give them an opportunity to race. We have guys like Morgan Schmitt on the team who has shown himself a real rider of the future, and it’s good to see him get the opportunity to get to race too.”
Schmitt who’s style brings to mind a younger Swindlehurst.
“Yes he does. I think he has a lot of potential, he’s done with school now and he’s able to focus a little but more on cycling and it’s showing in his results.”
The next race for Swindlehurst is scheduled to be Mt Hood Cycling Classic in June, another climbing stage race, just as he likes them.