Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Tour of the Gila: A painful, star-studded homecoming

(Recent Portland transplant Josh Liberles writes for and edits the Cyclo-CLUB.com website and races for the Ten Speed Drive elite cycling team. Liberles recently contested New Mexico's Tour of the Gila with its celebrity peleton. He sent Cycling Action this report).

SILVER CITY, New Mexico -- This year's Tour of the Gila was a bit of a homecoming for me. Although I've never lived in Silver City, I spent the better part of the past seven years split between Taos and Albuquerque, New Mexico, before arriving in Portland this past fall. The Gila is where I cut my racing teeth, and this year marked my fifth consecutive edition.

The eclectic mining town of Silver City blends the stunning Gila wilderness with blue collar salt of the earth, outdoor enthusiasts, a growing artist and gallery community, and some folks who manage to blend several of those aspects. Somehow it all works and dodges the priciness and pretension of other southwest mountain escapes like Santa Fe. And, once per year, it hosts one of the coolest bike races in the country.

I've competed in the Gila as a Cat 3, 2, and 1. It's a breeding ground for dominant racers to come at all levels, with the 3's race affectionately dubbed the "Cat 2 world championship." My first year I watched Tom Zirbel power his huge-for-a-cyclist body up and over mountains and past all challengers; and Scott Nydam show glimmers of his still untapped potential. The next year, in the 2's race, it was another larger than life rider, Taylor Phinney, who after five days of tremendous mountain racing lost his leader's jersey in a dead tie on the final day, with finishing order on the final stage determining the overall. This after Phinney took 2nd in the time trial, overspinning his junior gears all the way down the four-mile descent to the finish.

Of course the Pro/1 ranks are always rife with stage race superstars – Jeannie Longo, Jane Gagne, Scott Moninger, Bart Bowen, Jonathan Vaughters, Burke Swindlehurst, Kristin Armstrong and Mara Abbott. But 2009 raised the bar with the best field ever – Lance Armstrong, Levi Leipheimer, Floyd Landis and Chris Horner.

With the celebrity riders came unprecedented coverage. Satellite trucks were feeding the images around the world while mainstream media such as Sports Illustrated, ESPN, and even the New York Times featured daily articles about the race. Thousands of additional spectators made the trip for the time trial, criterium, and Gila Monster finale road race. Little Silver City and the Tour of the Gila, which almost didn't happen this year for lack of sponsorship dollars, was on the map.

My own race was less glamorous. My body went into full revolt at altitude and I just wasn't putting out the power. I was forced to race conservatively just to make it to the next stage and wanted to quit several times – most notably in the crit where I died 1,000 deaths to remain attached to the strung-out pack.

Somehow I kept making it through "one more stage" until it was me vs. Gila Monster. I fell off the pace of the lead group on the first serious, Category 2 climb about 53 miles into the stage, but actually pulled myself together and was feeling pretty good on the final 20-mile twisty stretch to the finishing climb up and over Sapillo. This year, just finishing was an accomplishment: Dead-center, in 84th of 168 starters... with only 104 finishers.

Other Oregonians fared much better. When Levi Leipheimer rolled a tubular while attacking through corner two with less than two laps to go in the criterium, causing most of the peloton to skid to a stop or crash, Roman Van Uden (Land Rover/Orbea) capitalized on the situation and took the win in front of speedster sprinter Lucas Haedo. Evan Elken raised the Land Rover/Orbea banner again on the final stage, rolling in a ten-man break that went early in the race and survived until the grueling Category 1 Cliff Dwellings climb some 80 miles into the race. And Chrissy Ruiter of Bend had consistently excellent days in the saddle to take 6th in the overall in the Pro Women's race. Her Value Act Capital teammates Leah Goldstein and Robin Farina claimed 5th and 7th – good enough to win the overall team GC prize.

(Photos courtesy of Gay Fayhee).