A friend once said "The Tour of Gila, this race is the hardest race ever, it will literally make you hate cycling."
A week later, the Monster has passed and the stage race is now over.
Do I hate cycling? Not at all. Was it the hardest stage race ever? Pretty much.
Taking on the Gila Monster
After a strong April, with some good results in California I was excited to be invited to ride on a Canadian National project for the Tour of Gila (TOG). The TOG is part of the UCI American Tour as well as the USA Professional Road Tour. All of the big North American pro teams send a strong women's roaster to compete at the TOG. The TOG takes place in Silver City New Mexico, approximately 3.5 hours east of Tucson at an elevation of ~1650m (5500ft). This stage race is renowned for its beautiful and long tough stages. These stages boast massive climbs, high temperatures, and fierce winds. In many of the stages you climb to well over 1980m (6500ft). Tough stages and altitude combined to create the "Gila Monster ", but I like a good challenge so when this opportunity arose , I jumped at it.
The Struggle is Real - Stage 1
To allow your body to acclimatize to altitude, it is best to go really early (about week or more before competition) or at the very last moment. Do to my work schedule I had to choose the last minute option. Arriving a day before stage one , at first I didn't really notice the elevation, that was until I got on my bike. At altitude the easiest of cycling efforts are met with super high heart rates and low low power. I was warned that if you go into the red it takes way longer to recover - so while racing it is important to conserve and choose your moves wisely.
Stage 1 was a 114 km stage with rolling hills and finished with a 10 km category 1 climb. This finishing climb had grades in an excess of 19%. As with many not so neutral, neutral roll outs, the neutral was blazing fast and to race was in full swing from the line. The roads were awesome, wide open and in good condition. Things started to get crazy at the first intermediate sprint point lines. Notable craziness ensued on the second sprint as teams jockeyed for position there was a massive crash, probably about 70% of the whole field was caught up in the crash that went right across the road. Several riders in front of me laid it down and I had nowhere to go except over the handlebars. My one saving grace was that I saw it coming and was able to break so when I hit the riders on the ground in front of me it was at 20km/hr rather then the 50 km/hr we had been doing moments before. From my gymnastics days I have perfected the drive roll, and turtle combination. So when I was flying through the air I landed in a somewhat comical roll followed by the "turtle" . The turtle is when you tuck into a tiny ball protecting your head and limbs from others who and literally riding/ crashing into you. The dive roll turtle combo was a great success and I survived with minimal road rash. After the crash I quickly jumped up and located my bike, which appeared to be rideable, I then started chasing back on. Right away I noted my handlebars had been knocked to an odd angle, still rideable I thought. I caught my teammate who was also caught up in the crash and shortly after our team car caught us and paced us back to the group. Once back in the group I realized that the group had split and there was a large break of 15 riders up the road. To make matters worse my bike was shifting weird and my teammate noted that my derailleur hanger was super bent and there was no way I could get into my climbing gears. So I dropped back to the team car and got on a neutral bike. I was on that neutral bike for about 50 km and it was less then ideal. The bike was way too big and saddle was to high and it was killing me. I realized that this situation was not getting better and probably was only going to get worse as the 10 km climb approached. As soon as we hit the climb it was carnage the peloton exploded riders were everywhere. I managed to make the selection over the first kick of the climb and got shed on the second kicker.
Cycling is hard, sometimes it gets a lot harder especially when you throw in a crash, a ill fitting neutral bike and a 10 km climb into the mix. The climb wasn't my best by any stretch of the imagination. I felt gassed from the altitude and in a considerable amount of pain from the neutral bike. Sometimes that just how it goes. I knew I could ride better, but there wasn't anything I could do about the day's events. My only job was to now recover the best possible for the next four stages.
A Note on Cycling Canada's Fantastic Support: we had an outstanding mechanic who fixed my bike up like new after the stage one crash. Dan our mechanic was super diligent in cleaning and tuning our bikes and ensuring mechanically everything was working perfectly. This support was outstanding and went a great distance in minimizing the stress of racing.
Deep Breaths - Stages 2, 3, 4
At altitude it is important to focus on the breath, more specifically the exhale. Exhaling actually forces you to breath in helping provide you with the air your body is lacking. Stages two road race, stage three time trial and stage four crit were all about focusing on that breath. Stages 2, 3 and 4 all went considerable better then the first day. To say the least I was super happy to back on my Trek Emonda race bike.
Was another big road race with huge climbs and fast technical descents. With sprint points available in the first 9 km and 2 QOMs in the first 20kms the race got off to a blazing start. The field shattered after the sprint and I managed to hold on through the first sprint and onto the first QOM. Over the top of the QOM I got separated from the main field, but I remember what our director told us. Keep chasing on the downhill. The descent is very technical and the peloton won't be able to descend that fast. I joined up with a chase group of about 7 and worked with them over the rest of the climb and down the descent. The descent was actually super fun, fast and technical with major cliffs drop offs throughout - really freaking cool. My descending confidence has been growing over the years. Notably I was super happy with the tight and responsive handling of my Easton Aero 55 race wheels. The chase group I was with reconnected with the front peloton of ~20 riders shortly after the descent. I was pretty shocked with how small the group was and how few had rejoined after that huge selective climb. I knew this next section of the race was where a break could go and sure enough attacks started flying. I followed a couple of moves but unfortunately none of those moves stayed away. However, a small group was able to get away with all the leading teams represented. The peloton was happy to let that break roll. Personally, I was slightly saddened that I couldn't connect to the break despite my efforts, however in bike racing that is some times how it goes. I road with the main group for the rest of the race and contested the crosswind strung out-group sprint.
What Altitude? Stage 5
Altitude does put only wreck havoc on your watts it messes with your sleep. The whole stage race I found my self going to bed nice and early but just laying there in bed awake heart racing. Probably at least half of the nights I would lay awake until 2 am with a 8:30 am start time. Apparently this is normal, you are somewhat oxygen deprived so your heart rate spikes to pump more blood leaving you feeling restless. Funny enough some of my best races have been on minimal sleep.
My teammates and I were dedicated to animating the final stage. We wanted a break. This final stage had 2 climbs and the final Gila Monster, a 20km climb at the end. We wanted to launch someone and give them a head start at that final climb. Apparently we weren't the only team with this thought. Pretty much from the gun it was attack after attack after attack. You would launch your attack , get chased down recover then follow another move. There was a harsh crosswind section where a team was driving the pace and absolutely guttering the whole field. The gutter was no problem; thanks to my sweet Spring Series Racing I am right at home in the gutter. I was able to get away once but it didn't stick. My teammate Steph on the other hand launched a wicked countered attack and she was able to break free. Now my job got tricky, I had to protect her break and let no move get to it with out me in it. Not a super easy feat when you are the only team member protecting a break against the whole peloton. So I chased and chased moves down, there was a lot of chasing going on. About 3 km from the start of the climb one team had enough of all these attack and were keen to position their lead rider for the climb and went to front and started pulling the break back. We caught the break right at the start of the climb. Once we hit that final climb, fireworks. The whole field blew up, riders were all over the road. Your only hope is to surf the wheels and pace your self as best as possible so that you don't blow up in the first portion of the climb. I jumped from group to group and chased down some riders who had not paced their climb better. In the end I finished in a chase of 4 riders a couple minutes down.
This stage was hard but fun and gorgeous. It was by far my best race of the whole TOG.
Thanks for the support!
A huge thanks to each and everyone of my amazing Trek Red Truck teammates. The well wishes and speedy thoughts went a long way to keep those wheels spinning. To all of our fantastic sponsors your support is instrumental in keeping me going. Also a big thanks my amazing employer Perkins + Will Architecture who is dedicated to supporting me in my work, life, bike balance. Also a huge shout out to the Cycling Canada athletes and support staff. The national team elite women are nothing short of pro it was great fun racing with all of them. Furthermore, thanks to all of the Cycling Canada management and staff they are simply fantastic.