The NRC goes up and up starting Wednesday at the 25th annual SRAM Tour of the Gila where 339 miles of racing, 25,231 feet of climbing will challenge the riders over five days.
Can anyone beat Francisco Mancebo? The RealCyclist.com rider put in a commanding ride to win Redlands Bicycle Classic and followed that up with the overall at Sea Otter Classic. And those two races were not really suited for him. What will he do when the roads go up and up? He is definitely the favorite going into Gila.
But he will have a much stronger field to contend with as many teams are ramping up for the Amgen Tour of California. Starting with the BISSELL team who’s been riding quite aggressively this year and have brought in a re-juvenated Chris Baldwin to provide more fire power. Ben Day (Kenda/5-Hour Energy) and the Jamis/Sutte Home duo of Luis Amaran and Tyler Wren are always a threat. Kiwi team PureBlack Racing were in the thick of things at Redlands and Sunny King Crit and will be gunning for stage wins. Team Exergy could be the joker in the bunch but can they continue their strong riding with a deeper field? Other teams and riders to watch include Kelly Benefit Strategies-OptumHealth’s Jason Donald, CalGiant’s John Bennett, and RideClean’s Logan Loader for those fast finishes.
The women’s race should also be aggressive. After a lackluster Redlands, last year’s winner Mara Abbott is returning to defend with her new team Diadora Pasta Zara, a team we haven’t seen race in the US yet. Leader of the team NRC, Colavita Forno d’Asolo is on winning streak with multiple stage wins at Redlands and the win at Sunny King Crit, they’ll be looking to Cath Cheatley for the overall. TIBCO/To The Top will look to Erinne Willock and Carmen Small while Sea Otter Classic winner Kristin Armstrong will be at the helm of Peanut Butter & Co Twenty12. Juvederm-Specialized and Primal/MapMyRide will continue to launch bombs to try and shake things up.
update: Erinne Willock is not starting for TIBCO/To The Top due to a broken scapula
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.
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.
“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 time 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. “