The Tour of Gila is a 5-day stage race for the pros and upper categories, and a 4-day road race for the lower ones, including the SW 3/4. It is a UCI stage race, meaning that UCI pro teams can race it, and is infamous for steep climbs and winds. I was intrigued by its reputation as being one of the toughest stage races in the US, but originally decided it was not worth a 10-hour drive for all that suffering. Then I met Maria Santiago of Durango at our Moab training camp. Her passion and commitment were contagious, and within 5 minutes of talking to her I was back on board as her domestique. Getting a ride for the 10-hour drive from Denver with Drew Galloway of RacerX sealed the deal.
In our race, the NM Spokettes brought 4 strong racers and were clearly a force to be reckoned with. Laurel Rathburn, the 16-year-old phenom from Exergy21 was riding alone, but we knew to watch out for her after Dan Wouri’s Twitter post. She skipped her prom for Gila, and was clearly hungry for the win! There were many other wild cards in the field, but Maria remained confident. She is a talented climber, had dialed in her training and was mentally prepared.
Day 1 – Inner Loop Road Race
The first day was 61.3 miles with a climb at the beginning and one towards the end before a downhill led to a finish on a slight uphill. As we climbed out of Palos Altos, Maria went to the front to warm up, unknowingly putting many in the pack in some difficulty to keep up. That definitely included me! Halfway up the climb, I was trying desperately to send her telepathic messages from the back to slow it down. I managed to hang on, make it down the technical descent and reconnect with the group. Maria was still in front, so as soon as possible I moved up so she could take my wheel. The middle part of the course was a gradual incline to a middle sprint on the Continental Divide with bonus time to be gained for 1st/2nd/3rd. As we approached the sprint, I made sure I was at the front with Maria on my wheel so I could give her the leadout. With 500m to go, I picked up the pace gradually with a NM Spokette alongside, picking up the pace steadily until we were at top speed. I then left enough space for Maria get around me for the final kick and it came off perfectly! The Spokette got 1st with Maria inches behind. Any bonus points meant time – mission accomplished!
Immediately after the sprint, Maria and several others attacked and kept the pressure on. The field shattered. Maria was in the lead break with 3 others. My mission for the day complete, I found two other riders and worked with them to the finish, sprinting for 11th. Maria finished 2nd on Day 1 and with over 2 minutes ahead of the next group, putting her in great position for the time trial.
Day 2 – Dan Potts Memorial Time Trial
The Gila TT is 16.1 miles with over 1000 feet of climbing, which suits Maria perfectly. Her mental toughness was essential. She knew where she needed to suffer and was ready to do so. Thanks to her sponsor LAAF of Albuquerque, she had a great TT setup. She smoked it, finishing 2nd. Sarah Lough, a NM Spokette who won had about a minute on her, and she was very close to in time to Laurel Rathbun.
Day 3 – Downtown Silver City Crit
The crit course at Gila is a 4-corner course in downtown Silver City, NM with a hill on the backside and a fun fast descent around a couple of corners and a long flat finish. It’s not quite as technical as I like, but it certainly had potential for speed! As in any crit, positioning and energy conservation are essential. We stayed towards the front, and went for one of the primes as a tune-up. We were not able to get Maria the time bonuses for 1st/2nd/3rd, but finished with the pack and did not lose time.
Day 4 – Gila Monster Road Race
The final day of Gila is the hardest stage, 68.9 miles with two very tough climbs in the last 19 miles. There were two middle sprints with bonus time to be gained. The pace was very slow through the second sprint, when Maria and Laurel launched an attack. The NM Spokettes quickly chased to protect their leader and Maria and I found ourselves at the front. For the 15-mile downhill, I led the pack with Maria behind at a very moderate pace with everyone conserving energy for the climbing to come. At mile 50, the road went straight up. I turned to Maria, said “OK, go get ‘em”, and left her to do her thing. Five were in the lead climbing group: Sarah, Laurel, Maria and two others who were not in contention for the GC. A wild card racer from Phoenix attacked up the climb, and since she was not in the running, they let her go. She ended up winning the stage, but was not on the podium for the GC. The 3 leaders finished together: Laurel, Maria next, then Sarah who was caught up in a minor crash with a guy at the end.
What an incredible feeling to see Maria on the podium for 3rd! We had both worked hard, but Maria hardest of all. For a year, she trained, studied strategy and planned for success. She arrived ready to win, and she raced smart and tough. She is also a natural leader, and a very effective coach. I arrived with very little experience employing team tactics, sprint leadouts and following attacks. Thanks to Maria’s 4-day racing boot camp, I returned to Colorado a smarter and more confident racer. Gila was an invaluable experience, and I can’t wait for next year! Who’s with me???