Tour of the Gila 2011:
by Jennifer Kumbier
The 25th Annual Sram Tour of the Gila is an impressive and amazingly challenging stage race for any cyclist, amateur or professional. It is truly a stage race for the hill-loving masochist cyclist, and yes there are quite a few of these types out there, especially living right here in the heart of climbing country, Colorado!
The Tour of the Gila takes place in the lovely New Mexico town of Silver City. Silver City is a hidden gem accessed by driving through the Mimbres Mountains, on one the most sinuous roads (just think continuous yellow S-curve signs), climbing Emery Pass cresting at 8,828 ft and finally descending down into town. The good folks of Silver City were out in full force volunteering to make this stage race a great experience for all who participated. I was pleasantly surprised to see 29 other SW3/4 women who had bravely decided to take on the Tour of the Gila as well!
The first stage for the SW3/4 and SM4/5 was a 64 mile road race that included 4,595 ft of climbing and 4,394 ft of descending. The start was in the Pinos Altos nestled into the Gila National Forest just north of Silver City. Leading up to this day I had heard quite a bit about the gnarly descents and an especially nasty hairpin turn or two occurring right of the bat at this road race. I had not put much thought into it, or so I told myself, so I didn’t think it was going to be so bad. Oh how I was wrong!
So thirty women lined up at the start, nervously and happily chatting about staying safe (we all had jobs to go back to Monday morning), racing smart, and the partaking in well deserved libations when all was said and done. We had a neutral roll-out for about the first mile and then the racing began. The narrow forested road curved and twisted, descended and ascended, all within the first 18 miles. There was one particularly hairy section where in 3 miles we dropped down 1,000 feet with steep curves, switchbacks, and hairpin turns. My descending skills are sub-par to say the least, so knowing about this upcoming section I hesitantly hung on to the main group, trying to find a comfortable place in the pack to descend. And then, before I realized it, I was off the back and the main group was confidently cruising down and away, while I made many attempts to NOT grab my breaks every time the road curved this way or that.
I felt immediately defeated but told myself there was plenty of race left and began my rally to finish strong. My next goal was to join other racers so we could work together to get through the next 20 miles or so of rolling valley terrain. At the bottom of the descent I caught onto the wheel of another solo racer and the two of us worked together for the next few miles. Then I spotted another solo rider up ahead so I pushed the pace to catch her, not knowing that I dropped the racer who I had previously been working with. I caught up to that next racer, Jill Janov from NM Spokettes Racing, we exchanged hellos and how glad we were to see each other, and off we went. Together we worked hard and smart by alternating one minute pulls on the front.
Our hard work paid off, soon we caught onto the wheel of yet another solo racer, Nora Olsen from Primal/Treads out of Boulder. The three of us pushed the pace taking turns at the front and finally made it out of the valley and onto the final 20 miles of climbing. I just want to say that It was great to have Nora and Jill in the valley, and I’m sure my finishing time would have been much worse without those strong ladies helping to push the pace. I knew that I still had to make-up time so I put it into high gear and pushed it up the final climb as best I could. I felt strong and ended up breaking away from Jill and Nora, finally passing one other racer before heading into Ft. Bayard for the finish. I ended up finishing 18th, and was happy to be off the bike laying in the grass watching the pros and Cat 2 men roll in.
The second day was an ITT (individual time trial). The ITT was 16 miles out and back with, you guessed it, climbing. It included a category 4 climb on the way out and a category 3 climb coming back, with grades ranging between 4-7%. While driving down to the Gila, somewhere between Colorado and New Mexico, I realized that I forgot to pack any TT equipment! Now, I don’t have a TT bike, but I have some aero-bars and a TT helmet which would have been nice to race with at a TT! With a good amount of climbing this was not considered a traditional TT course so I thought it wouldn’t be a huge deal.
I rolled up to the start line Eddie Merckx style and found myself surrounded by follow racers in full TT gear, bike and all. There were a few other racers who didn’t have a TT bike, but I think nearly everyone had at least a TT helmet! The notorious Gila winds were with us on the day of the TT and you could definitely feel the cross winds the entire time while out on the course. I saw one racer in front of me, who had a full-disc wheel in the back, sail elegantly from the right side to the left side of the road before she decided it was a good idea to unclip and put a foot down before she was completely blown off the road. At that point I was glad to not have any aero wheels on!
Okay so my excuses for the day are as follows: I just couldn’t get into the TT mentality without those darn aero bars, and compact gearing just failed me as I spun out furiously on the descents. I ended up taking 21st place, which bumped me down a place to 19th in GC (general classification) standings.
The third day was a criterium in downtown Silver City. It was a pretty typical 4-corner race, but there was a nice little 80 ft climb on the backside and a fun fast descent into corner 4 before a straightaway into the finish. The SW 3/4 had to complete 12 laps and my main goal of the race was to finish with the pack so I wouldn’t gain any time.
The race was pretty mellow with a couple surges and attacks on the back hill climb. I kept myself positioned up front to prevent getting squeezed out from the back of the pack having to play catch up. I made a couple good attacks up the hill, stayed with the pack, and finished without adding any additional time so I was pleased with the day. I spent the rest of the day hanging out in my camp chair with Chad (husband) and Marley (pooch) watching the rest of the races!
The 4th day was the big 72 mile road race day, 5,610 ft of climbing including the Gila Monster! Basically, we did the route from the first day, but backwards and starting in Silver City, and added about 5 more miles. So remember the steep 1,000 ft descent in 3 miles from day 1…well now we had to climb up it! My goal for this day was to stay with the main group through the valley and finish strong so that I could bring my GC standing up into the top half, 15th place or better. To achieve my goal of staying with the main pack and not getting dropped I decided to go up front and stay there.
I ended up working in front, pulling the group, for the first twenty miles or so. Some might say, why in the world would you do this? I’d say it was because I felt that at least I was controlling the pace, and heck if it killed me it would inevitably make me stronger. Plus, I felt had nothing to lose and everything to gain.
Through the valley no one really wanted to work so we pretty much meandered our way to the base of the Gila Monster. One funny thing that happened I must mention because I have never taken part in this before. We, as a group, with the race leaders consent, decided to take a ‘potty break’. On the side of the road 29 women cyclists simultaneously jumped off their bikes, dropped their bibs or shorts and took care of business. Let me tell you it was a sight to see and I wish I had a picture. No, it wasn’t pornographic or anything (get your mind out of the gutter), just kind of one of those funny moments you want to capture!
Finally, we made it to the base of the Gila Monster and this is where the race really began. Everyone switched gears and took off, and immediately the group was spread out up and down the road. My heart rate shot up, my lungs burned, and I put everything I had into pedaling my bike up that darn climb. A few miles up the climb the SM 4/5 group leaders were starting to pass us and I lovingly got a “good job” and pat on my back as Chad (husband) quickly pedaled up the hill in front of me. Near the top of the Gila Monster climb I was ready to be in descent position. I was pretty certain I was in the top half of the pack. Susan Adamkovics, Primal/Treads, and I kept yo-yoing past one another so finally with her encouragement we worked together to catch some riders in front, and create a good gap to those behind us. Susan really got my legs going on those false flats and descents! In the end I placed 11th which brought my GC standing up to 14th place, mission accomplished!
Awesome job to everyone out there who raced this year in the Tour of the Gila, it was killer, congratulations on conquering infamous the Gila Monster!