Tour of the Gila – 2009
A play in 6 acts. Some shorter than others.
ACT I – Hope
It’s a 12 hour drive from the
I went with the former.
Riding Monday and Tuesday I felt great, especially scouting the Sapillo creek climb, the poison fang of the “Gila Monster” final stage.
“I feel good” I told the guys I was riding with.
ACT II – Desertion at the River’s Edge
Stage One, “Mongollon”, 72 miles. 5600 feet of climbing. 50 or so miles of flat, then a few rollers, until the right turn at mile 66 to start the final 6.7 mile category one climb.
Wednesday morning came with a 5:00 AM alarm and a chill in the air. Eat, catch another hour’s sleep, then put on the kit and sign in.
Before we roll out I have to answer nature’s call. Several times. We have a “natural break” (NB) during the early part of the race, which I use to full advantage. This is a bit unusual for me, I’m not a camel but it’s rare I need to go during the race.
Several brief attacks, then at mile 40 Steve Holland goes off the front followed a few minutes later by Tom Bain. Both begin to get some distance.
I ask Phil Sladek, Tom’s teammate on Geri Atrix and a member of our unofficial
No immediate response, so I go to work. In a couple of minutes I catch Tom, and we work together to quickly get to Steve. After we start rotating I can feel my legs just aren’t right. Like having a crimp in a garden hose, you know there should be more force there, but all you get is a weak flow.
The lawn still needs watering, so I keep my head in the break, and hope somehow the faucet gets turned up.
Some dude in a “Ride Clean” kit bridges up and as he begins to take his turns at the front, it’s clear he’s super strong. Both Tom and Steve are having trouble just hanging on, and the rotation begins to come apart. His presence also animates the field, Mike Carter, I was told later, goes to the front and begins to go hard.
A quick word on Carter. Won the Master’s class at Gila the last two years running. Rode professionally for Motorola, mostly in smaller races like the Tour De France, the Giro, the Vuelta, the Worlds…that sort of thing.
I later found out that the guy who Carter was chasing and who was ripping our little break apart was Jamie Carney. Carney also raced smaller stuff like the 2000 Olympics, where he missed a medal by two spots.
This would become a recurring theme. As my teammate Kevin Barton noted “Man, everyone you talk to is some kind of ex-pro, ex mountain bike pro, or PRO”.
We get gobbled up, and calm prevails. We’ve got 20 miles before the climb and are tooling along when my eyeballs begin to float.
I gotta go bad.
I see Carter pull out of the field start the slow one-handed roll along that indicates passing on the right might get you wet, so I pull out myself and take yet another NB. It takes a while.
I finish up and begin to ride back to the field when I notice they have sped up.
The field is strung out single file, and it takes me almost 10 minutes to finally get back on. When I arrive I find out both Carney and John Korioth (40-44 National road race champ) had headed up the road without me. Or “us” for that matter.
They would eventually arrive at the bottom of the climb with a 3 minute advantage.
Our group hits the rollers a few miles before the climb and attacks start in earnest. I still feel like how a baby treats a diaper but make the selections until I’m in a small group just a few seconds behind Carter and Roger Worthington.
A quick word on
We come through a throng of cheering spectators (Lance and I can draw a crowd) and brake for the turn to begin the climb. I stop pedaling as we start to corner and my right thigh muscle cramps hard.
Try to pedal.
My calf locks.
Then my right buttock.
Then my back.
I unclip and try to shake my leg loose. No luck.
I’m in agony. Pull out of the group and jam on the brakes. Spend several minutes doubled over in pain watching the race vanish up the mountain. Finally my leg unlocks, and I remount.
“Demoralized” is probably putting my mental state lightly at this point.
Months of prep down the drain. GC gone. As I roll I wonder if I should just soft pedal and deliberately drop time or try to get back what I can. I opt for the middle ground, and ride legs that have gone from bad to worse at tempo past people who are also suffering.
I pass one guy and we exchange a few words. I tell him I cramped at the bottom of the hill. His comeback, in accented English, stuck with me:
Carter wins the stage, Carney’s 3 minute head start puts him in second, Korioth comes in a bit less than 3 minutes behind Carter for 3rd.
I’m 24th and 8 minutes down. Kevin rides well for 15th.
ACT III – Escape
It’s pretty clear the altitude is hurting me. Fluids are a problem so I cut out the morning coffee, throw my usual caffeinated drink mix back in the suitcase and stop taking nervous sips of water prior to the race start.
The guys have bucked me up the prior evening and I’m going in like Old Lodge Skins in “Little Big Man”:
“Today is a good day to die”
We roll out and as soon as the race gets the green light I attack. A few rollers later I’m joined by Al Senft, last year’s 35+ runner up. We pound into a headwind up the first categorized climb, cresting at 12.5 miles alone. Phil tells me later that he started to bridge, but shut it down when the field jumped on his wheel.
Thanks my friend.
Al disappears backwards as we descend, and at mile 20 Carney and Carter rocket past me. I look back and there’s just eight of us, other than Al it’s all the top GC guys. We start the second categorized climb and it’s clear my volume knob still only goes to 8. Al has disappeared from the group at some point, he tells me later that he pulled over to vomit several times.
We go down the infamous Sapillo Creek descent, which we’ll be going up in the final stage, and I resurrect my old Moto GP skills to hit the bottom ahead of the group.
I’m taking any freebie I can.
The next 38 miles are a blindingly fast rotation, I have to sit out turns and explain to the guys that I’ll give them what I have, but that I spent most of the prior evening removing knots from my leg. Sitting between Carney and Carter at one point, I’m just grinning at how butter smooth a rotation can be.
The time checks are getting into the double figures, at 14 miles to go we hit the final feed zone and Carter rides off. I get detached, fight my way back on, and with 12 miles of rollers and nasty headwind to go, I come off for good. Put my head down and TT my way past what seems like most of the Cat3 field. Cross the line for 7th. Carter wins.
Later that evening I find I’ve gone from 24th to 7th, with 55 seconds on 8th place.
ACT IV – All by myself
Stage 3, Tyrone TT. 16.15 miles, 1050 feet of climbing
When the pros go off in the morning, there’s barely a wisp of wind. By time we’re ready to race it’s blowing so hard I pull off my 100mm front wheel and stick on my 46.
The top ten riders will start at one minute intervals, inverse order. I don’t feel great, but I slowly catch my one minute guy, who has just caught his one minute guy. Blow past several other riders on my way to the finish, using the 56 tooth front ring to hit 49 MPH several times.
It’s an even effort; only a few watts difference between the “out” and “back” legs. It’s 30w down from my better efforts though.
Damn knob is still stuck on “8”
39:05 is good enough for 4th, a scant 3 seconds ahead of Korioth, who is bumped to 4th on GC by David Zimbleman. Kevin drops the hammer on the new
4th on the stage, still 7th on GC.
ACT V – Can’t Dance That Dance No More
Hide for most of the race. Get caught out a bit on the last lap move; shoulda known better. Jump across two gaps to the lead group and blow like dyno-mite when they hit the gas. Volume knob slipping to 7, which is where I finish. Kenny Wehn, ex pro mountain biker wins our little chase group sprint.
Carney beats Carter.
Watch the Pro’s crash into the pavement like the best Cat5’s in their race, including my much respected Chris Horner.
7th on the stage, 7th on GC. Did gain a whopping 2 seconds on 6th.
ACT VI – Kill the Lizard
Stage 5, The Gila Monster. 72 miles and too much climbing to even think about
I’m in trouble: the knob is at “6”. Any acceleration hurts like heck. Fortunately only Phil is willing to take a serious flyer, he goes into the headwind 20 miles or so into the stage and is helped out when the field slows to let Korioth get back on after he flats.
It’s a nice bit of sportsmanship before we start slicing each other up with straight razors.
I can’t wish any bad luck on the guys ahead of me, which would be the only way I’d move up. 8th place is Bill Stalhuth, nearly three minutes down but he starts chucking out ill-conceived attacks that we have to answer right before we hit the base of the Sapillo climb. Things shatter here; I watch a large group ride off and pass some people looking pretty dead, including John Korioth, who’s fighting to get back to a podium spot. Stalhuth cracks also.
Kevin’s in the group ahead and I try to keep him in sight figuring we can work together if I can reach him.
I do, because as he said later: “The lights went out”.
Behind me Korioth, Stalhuth and two other riders have regrouped; as the climb flattens out they are reach me and we pick up a couple of stragglers.
Our chase rotation simplifies: John and the bigger guys drill it on the flats and downhills, I do the up stuff and the really technical downhills, then hang on by my teeth the rest of the time. At one point I see Stalhuth is in trouble and I hit it hard during one of the few moments I feel like the volume knob might be coming unstuck.
With a couple of miles to go we can see the front chase group, I ease off a bit knowing I’ve locked down my GC.
They’ve barricaded the last 200 uphill meters and people are lined three deep on both sides. I ride through a cacophony of cowbells and cheers across the finish line. The lizard stuck his poison fangs in, but I survived.
Carter won. Surprise surprise.
Kevin gutted it out and while he dropped to 16th on GC, a top 20 in this field is a big ride.
Oh, and remember that guy who went OTF 20 miles in? Captain Barbed Wire? We didn’t catch Phil until the top of the Sapillo, he hung with us all the way to the finishing hill.
I end up 7th on GC. Hardest race I’ve ever done, made harder by my vanishing form. Had my parents “gotten busy” two months earlier I would have taken 2nd in the 50+, so I guess I’ll have to give it a shot next year.
43 of 55 starters in our field finished the race.
Final GC Standings: http://www.tourofthegila.com/2009race/day5men40plusgc.html
Thanks to the Gila crew for putting on a great event, Lance for drawing the crowds, and SRAM for tossing in much needed funding.
Thanks to Phil, Tom, George, Frank, Kevin, and the Bicycle Heaven crew who were there with words of encouragement, logistic support, and vital race info. I got dozens of calls and text messages during the week from friends keeping my spirits up, which really helped to keep me going. And Karen was always on the other end of the phone reminding me that it’s only a bike race.
But what a bike race.