At the end of the women’s 73.1 miles (117.6km) stage 1 of the SRAM Tour of the Gila, there really wasn’t any question as to who was the strongest rider in the field. It was Kristin Armstrong (Exergy Twenty12). Armstrong and her teammate Jackie Crowell drove a break for most of the race, and then Armstrong powered away on the final tough climb to cross the finish line with over two minutes on her closest competitor.
Attacks started early in the race, especially from the NOW and Novartis team. Exergy Twenty12 was following the team plan.
“From the early part of the race, my team covered the breaks that tried to go up the road and our plan was to keep it together and to deliver me as rested as possible to the base of the climb so the team did a great job going into it.” Armstrong told podiuminsight.
Twenty miles into the race, the first sprint point, a likely spot for a break to be formed with attacks and counter-attacks. And that’s exactly what happened, The surprise to most was that Armstrong was in the move.
“My teammate Jackie followed the sprint points to watch for counters and I was on Jackie’s wheel so there was a diversion and I looked back , and everyone was sitting up and I told Jackie to drive it and she immediately drove it. At that point, I don’t think anyone really knew who was up there and there was just about a representative from every team.”
Along with Armstrong and Crowell, the move included Alison Powers (NOW and Novartis for MS), Jade Wilcoxson (Optum-KBS), Liza Rachetto (Primal/MapMyRide), Lauren Rowney (FC|Rouse) and Joanie Caron (Colavita-espnW). Crowell put her head down and pushed the pace with Armstrong taking pulls too. The gap went up while behind Tibco was chasing, having missed the move.
The gap was over one minute when the break went off course, turning left instead of right. “The lead moto wasn’t there anymore. At the intersection, nobody knew which way to go so the volunteer on the road was directing us to the left and the sheriff’s car was to the left going forwards. It was a mistake.” Armstrong explained.
Once the mistake was discovered, the peloton which had turned right was stopped to allow the break to be paced back in. Discussions between team directors and officials were held and in the end, the break was re-established with the same time gap and the racing started again.
“After we got started again, I thought people would be interested in pulling but it was Jackie and myself.” Armstrong said. The gap continued to creep up, to over two minutes.
One by one, Rowney, Rachetto and Caron fell off the pace. Meanwhile, other teams such as FCS|Rouse, Primal/MaMyRide and Optum-KBS added a few riders in the rotation. It became a question of managing the gap.
Crowell also fell off the pace a few times but crawled back. “She was the only one with myself that drove that break and she absolutely amazing out there. She fell off at one point, about 20 k to go and then all of a sudden, like the energizer bunny, she comes back and sacrificed herself again until finally she was done.”
By the time the break made the turn to start the finish climb, it was down to three riders, Armstrong, Powers and Wilcoxson. They stayed together on the first pitch but then Armstrong took advantage of the wind on the mesa, the flat before the final steep pitch to the finish.
“People weren’t interested but I thought there’s just too much work put in, I’m not going to give up now, I’m just going to keep driving it because it was pretty windy so when I put it in the gutter.” she said. “Jade and Alison were with me and they didn’t respond so I just kept going.”
She was off solo and her major concern at that point was the altitude, climbing to 6,704 feet. “So I settled in and I stayed within myself because when you get to these high altitudes you don’t want to tip over and all of a sudden lose a ton of time so I stayed pretty comfortable on that climb and wanted to finish it and put a little bit of time on the girls.” she smiled.
Armstrong has two minutes and 18 seconds on Carmen Small (Optum-KBS) who surged from the field to finish second. Obviously strong, she is using the Gila race as her final tune-up before the Exergy Tour in two weeks.
“I actually took a week off the bike, I’m just ramping it back up.” Armstrong said. “I want to be super strong at the Exergy Tour, it’s a hometown, it gives me goosebumps thinking about it.”
Racing continues on Thursday with the 77.9 miles (125.4km) Inner Loop Road Race which typically ends in a sprint finish. Armstrong will want to stay safe, at the front, and bide her time until the time trial and final stage, the Gila Monster.