Tour of the Gila
Some race recaps come easy while others entail staring at a blank word doc with the curser blinking and blinking, eagerly awaiting words yet nothing comes. This is the latter. There’s just so much that went into Gila and so much that happened during the event that makes it very difficult to organize these thoughts into a fun, easy to read post.
Gila had been on my ‘want list’ of races but as it is a UCI race; a race sanctioned by the Internationale cycling governing body to enforce professional level participation, rules and regulations. These races require a pro/domestic elite team and minimum of 4 racers (max of 6) to participate. Since my previous team imploded due to a director that couldn’t stop dating the female athletes which led to midlife crisis of him going MIA and abandoning the 2017 team… well let’s just say I was left a bit high and dry heading into road 2017. Anyways, since I couldn’t participate on a team of my own, I set out to guest ride and submitted my info to the Gila directors for possible spots. 2 weeks before I deleted GILA from my Training Peaks schedule because no leads had come across. Seriously the next day I got an email forwarded from my coach from the race director that a team was looking to fill a spot ASAP. This was crazy, the race was sooooo soon… could I make this happen? I couldn’t wait to figure out logistics, I had to reply: YES. Hard Yes. The logistics would come, although not easily. Silver City NM is a difficult place to get to. It’s in the middle of the desert, hours away from an airport. On top of that, buying airfare less than two weeks out isn’t a cheap venture. But the only way to get experience in these big stage races is to do them, so this was a chance I just couldn’t say no to, regardless of how hard it would be to get there. Saying yes on such short notice also means I wasn’t training specifically for this race. But still, I was thrilled to go. I would be guesting with Rise Racing from Toronto Canada. I seem to get lucky with Canadian Cycling.
Tour of the Gila is one of, if not the, hardest stage races in America. The race takes place at 6,000 ft and includes high speed technical descents, 9000ft of climbing, gusting winds and hot dry climate. If that information wasn’t enough to scare me off, it’s a good thing the rider roster wasn’t yet published when I agreed to this. If it were, I might have said no. Every team was legit and almost every was rider coming off a tour or nationals or worlds or European racing or something amazing. Seeing the blue train file out of their tour bus in shiny bright kits (they even have matching shiny blue team issue sneakers for off the bike moments) with super fit legs and game faces on was a fan girl moment. Seriously, I was listening to conversations in the pack of ‘She got a silver medal at Rio’ ‘oh I haven’t been racing in America, mostly Europe’ ‘oh this must be nothing for you after Flanders’, etc… This was my 4th ever stage race and first one of the year. I am apparently very, very behind schedule. Living the low, flat Ohio life and racing in local 10 woman fields would not be enough to prepare me for this race. Note to future self, this is NOT a race to just add to the schedule last minute.
I flew into Tucson late on Easter Sunday to meet up with Miriam, one of the team girls who also flew into Tucson that eve. The other two teammates, Jamie + Karlee, were already in Silver City training. We spent the night and awoke Monday morning to build bikes, pack up the rental van and headed over to Ben’s Bikes (because my bike does not travel well and needed a little fine tuning) then off to Saguaro National Park to do a spin before the 3-hour drive to Silver City. It felt great to be out in the sun, stretching out my travel legs.
Silver City is a strange place with a vibe somewhere between desert hippie hide away and Mexican ghost town. It pops up in the middle of nowhere and if you blinked hard you could drive right past it. The ‘city’ is a cluster of small houses, a Walmart, a main street consisting of a food co-op, several pottery shops and burrito cafes. The 4 girls were split between two houses right next to each other and ended up altogether in one house by the end of the race due to discovering the other house was overrun with roaches. Fun times in Silver City. But really, roaches or not, we were all very happy to have a place to cook and sleep. Big thanks to Diane, a sweet 70 yr old ex dance instructor, who let a group of strangers completely take over her house for a week. After unloading and settling in at our house (the roach free house), I got to meet the other girls. Everyone seemed super strong, confident and very experienced. The team was at Gila for the first time and very excited to make a good mark as the only participating Canadian team. While Gila was a huge race for me, it was just a stop on their American racing tour, Alabama first, Gila, Diana Point, Redlands… As the days went on I would learn more about how legit of riders they all were and how far behind I was. It was a bit demoralizing, but more on that later. Mostly it was inspiring and motivating to be part of a team with a focused goal, experience, and race smarts. Every day they gave me tips and suggestions for racing and included me in the team dynamic. We made a team shopping trip to Walmart and everyone had a cart full of food and it was great to see a team with such a healthy fueling outlook. I had packed a full carryon of food supplies including sport food, pancake mix, a rice cooker, rice, some pasta and bagels so my shopping was just to stock up on some fresh essentials. It takes a lot of fuel to power through 5 days of racing!! Look for a future post on the Rise Racing Team’s nutrition habits on Pretty Damned Fast.
Tuesday consisted of an opener style ride on the TT course for a preview and to wake up the legs for stage 1. That’s when things got super real. This TT course was legit. Hilly and exposed. The rest of the day was all about eating, stretching and reviewing race logistics for day 1. That afternoon we had to officially check in for the race. We were the only team that had each participant come instead of sending the team manager to take care of it. That would be the smallest of the disadvantages noticed over the next several days. Numbers were pinned, food laid out, bottles filled, tech guide read, and it was off to bed at 8:30pm. The time difference was a factor. In two days I gained 3 hours then lost 1. Confusing!
Wed I woke up at 5:20am, nervous, anxious and ready to ride bikes. The start was early, 8:24 am but close enough to ride to which was a big bonus. I showered, kitted up, ate a big pancake (okay half a pancake), drank an espresso and rolled to the start. Luckily the girls had found a couple locals to help us with transport and feed. Rise was the only team with no car in the caravan. Every other team had a huge advantage of additional support throughout the stages. I recently sat at dinner with a rider from Hagens Berman who gave a sob story about not having funding to fly out riders from Australia or have spare bikes for the whole team or a masseuse at each race…. #RichTeamProbs. Every day UHC’s uber tour bus rolled in and unloaded what seemed like a fleet of support staff. These teams had someone wiping down their hands and wheels before the start, collecting extra clothes, giving massages, etc… Sigh, someday? Haha. Ultimately those extras are nice, but racing hard doesn’t require those perks. The race rolled neutral and then descended a sweeping highway style descent for basically the first hour. I barely pedaled. There were two sprint points in the race and teammate Jamie would be going for them. She and Miriam played some good games and put in hard efforts to position Jamie to win the second sprint. Yay Team!! I stayed in the pack to conserve energy for the final climb, except for one attack up a roller to get things moving and another pull at the front to get my HR up. The race was very tame as we fought against a pretty solid headwind, no team was willing to make a move. Another long highway descent. This type of descending doesn’t bother me, I was staying comfortably close, but at the back of the pack. Mistake. The descent leveled off at a sharp right turn. I expected the right turn to be directly into the finish climb, but no, there was another quick downhill push before the climb began and the front of the pack just ripped it out of the corner. I was pinched in, stuck, and unable to catch on. The second group chased, but without success and things split apart quickly as we started to climb. It was a lovely climb. My favorite kind, although a bit short, only 2 miles? It was fun and twisty, not too steep. I picked off riders as I went up, but cresting the top led to another quick downhill where the tired riders I caught didn’t have the legs to push the down into the finish line and a group caught from behind. I ended up in 40th. Not really what I had in mind. I was super upset and disappointed in myself for getting stuck at a corner missing out on a good climb. Not how I wanted to start out this race. The drive was 90 minutes home so we loaded up bikes, had recovery food with us and headed home. I tried to shake it off. At least my team did well, a 30th place and sprint points. Not bad! Of course, this is a stage race, so there was more to come which meant more food, rest and prep.
Another early wake up despite not racing until 10:40am. Stage 2 was said to be the hardest day. I was ready. I had a plan. I was putting stage 1 behind me and looking to the future. My plan did not play out. The group broke apart at the first QOM point. I had the legs, but not the air. My HR hit 180 and instantly I just could not catch any air and was really struggling to breathe. I had to back off. Watching a group ride away because you can’t breathe is not a fun experience. After recovering, I navigated the remaining climb with a small group but lost contact with their wheels during the last U turn of a very technical and high speed descent. A problem of training in Columbus OH is the lack of exposure to such features. I rode solo for roughly 5 miles, trying to stay focused and moving. The sun was beating down and there was no other rider in sight. Not a fun way to race. When I could see a small group in distance behind me, my pace practically came to a halt to wait for them to catch me up and have a group to work with. The 6 of us rotated the remaining 40ish miles, into a hardcore headwind, to the finish. It was grueling and exhausting. The pack ahead had pretty much shattered and despite our small group we were only minutes behind the next group up. While this day was also not how I wanted the race to play out, I was less upset about it. I can be upset for getting myself into poor positioning, but not being able to adjust to the altitude wasn’t something I had control over.
This was mentally the hardest day for me. I woke up in tears. I wasted a lot of energy being nervous, depressed, and upset. I wasn’t performing well which is draining and the difficult TT course, with no TT bike, wouldn’t provide any relief from my sucking.
‘Why didn’t you bring your TT bike!?’ is the Q everyone is asking. I get it. I was just gifted an amazing Cervelo P3 TT bike. Of course I wanted to bring it!! However, this race wasn’t planned and the expenses were already exceeding my means. Spending another $300 to take an extra bike with me for less than an hour of use wasn’t in the cards. I was also hitching rides to and from Silver City and space to fit 2 bikes in the vehicles was also an issue. In the end, it just wasn’t justified to take the TT bike to Gila. I wasn’t at Gila for the experience, I had no delusions of doing super well here, so the TT was really just about survival; make the time cut and move on to the next day. Time trial riding is something I’ve only recently started to work on and remains a weakness. This was only my 4th TT ever and with poor positioning on a road bike with no helmet, skin suit and tired legs, even surviving was difficult. This was a course for TT bikes. The full set ups ripped down hills that I was spinning out on. While most women finished with a time btwn 42-44 minutes, Leah Thomas of Sho-Air and Tayler Wiles of UHC dominated the field by about a full minute. Impressive! Definitely motivated to take my new bike to all future stage races and work on this discipline more!! Since day 3 was shorter and day 4 also shorter, I was finally able to justify eating a bowl of kale. Kale isn’t great for providing race energy, but taking a break from shoveling carbs into my face was much needed.
Shake it off and keep going. Sigh crits. Again, not something I’m very experienced with. Until I decided stage racing would be my thing, crits were something I avoided. Riding around in a square at a high pace with high probability of crashes just seems like a lame way to spend time on my bike. I’ve done a handful of crit races and this would be maybe the 5th with more than a field of 6? Racing a local crit with a handful of girls waiting to sprint at the finish line does not at all prep one for racing at maximum effort for a full hour in a pack of 60. I spent the morning pre-riding the course which provided a lot of relief; the corners weren’t bad. The 2 downhill ones were at least wide and the pavement was good. There was one 90 degree corner, but it led into a punch climb. This climb on its own wouldn’t be bad, but doing it 27 times would definitely add up. My goal again was to just survive; make the time cut, do not crash. I struggled to stay secured in the pack, moving up through the climb and back on the descent. Lap after lap that type of riding is exhausting and not sustainable. I was strung out and ended up off the back with another girl. I wasn’t too upset, all I had to do was keep riding hard and not get pulled until I was within limits of moving on to stage 5. The problem is they don’t tell you if you’re being pulled and cut from the race, or pulled and given a finish time. I had to wait hours until the race communication was sent out to learn I was safe. As soon as I learned Stage 5 was in my future, I sat down to #carbthefuckup on a big bowl of rice and squash. My meals at this race were kept pretty simple. I didn’t want to spend much extra on food and also didn’t want to be wasting much energy on ‘what to eat’ or spending too much time in the kitchen. The rice cooker was a valuable tool, allowing me to put rice on early in the day and have it ready when returning from a ride. Boxes of gluten free mac n chz were consumed along with pancakes, rice, squash, and granola. To keep sane, and provide a balance of nutrients some kale, beets, seeds, nuts, chicken and salmon were thrown in. Stage race eating isn’t a fun task as food intake becomes a must over a want. The rest of the Rise team did well in the crit and obtained more sprint points for Jamie. I was pretty depressed about being the weak link on the team. Team needs beat out personal feelings tho and it was very exciting to work with a team that was in contention for the green jersey. We spent the rest of Saturday plotting out potential scenarios for how stage 5 would go down and how to secure enough sprint points to bring home the green jersey. The team even drove part of Sunday’s course to preview the first sprint and come up with a plan.
The morning started out chilly. We were eagerly very early to the race start and spend a lot of time huddled in the back of the van waiting and staying warm. There wasn’t a huge need to warm up as the race had a neutral start and there wasn’t expected to be any action until the first sprint. We predicted wrongly there as several riders attacked right away, trying for last day success and glory. The pack surged to bring back the efforts. A group of 3 went off the front. I used a ton of energy to solo bridge up to the breakaway. On any other day, I would have been thrilled to be in the break, but today, I sat up in attempt to thwart their efforts and let the main peloton catch us up. The breakaways instigator from Cylance wasn’t happy and yelled at me to pull through and keep going. Sorry Cylance, not this time. Why not get away? Because my team needed to get Jamie the sprint points and having 3 other riders ahead wasn’t acceptable. Things worked out according to plan. I was in position at the front with Jamie, Miriam and Karlee. All ready to do our jobs. Miriam and Karlee would lead out, I would peel off in attempt to cause a gap and Jamie would get the points. The sprint played out in a blur. It was so close at the line that the officials had to be asked to confirm the results. Jamie got it!!! The rest of the race would be for fun. Rise would have green jersey glory. There was an incredibly fast, slightly downhill and tailwind section for miles and miles and then suddenly we were at the base of the Wild Horse Mesa climb. The same technical descent from stage 2, this time in reverse. You all know I was much happier to climb this portion!! It was a long, windy, steep climb that lead to bit of fun downhill before the brief finish climb of Pinos Altos. I finished in 30th, my best placing of the entire race. I was happy to end on a high note, both personally and for the team. This stage, and most of the entire race, was dominated by UHC who swept the stage 5 podium and claimed 1,2,4 place on the overall GC. Rise Racing made their mark on Gila, standing on the final podium in green. They will go on to California for more racing and hopefully more success. I look forward to seeing them again (this time racing against them) at GP Gatineau May 20th. There wasn’t much time to process the event or celebrate as I had to immediately pack up my things to hitch a 4-hour ride with Emily from Trek Landis to Albuquerque where I would stay the night and wake up at 3am the next morning to catch my flight back home.
Overall, not the performance I was hoping to give. No one wants to do poorly or be the weak link. I have a list of things to improve upon, but also know that altitude, lack of experience, and the last-minute addition of this race were all solid and real disadvantages. While the end results 50th GC were not ideal, I did have an amazing experience! Second UCI race with a stacked field (racing against the best is extremely motivating!), technical routes, high speeds, tough conditions, strategic team efforts, sore legs, proper fueling, and a range of emotions. The race did not break me, it made me stronger and I’m super pumped for the races to come. Look out Gatineau/ Killington/ Johnson City!