For a race that came within days of being canceled two months ago, the SRAM Tour of the Gila has rebounded in spectacular fashion, now boasting its largest and most star-studded pro fields in history as it begins Wednesday.
The race achieved high stature — and the perhaps inevitable resulting controversy — with the appearance of Lance Armstrong, Levi Leipheimer and Chris Horner, three Astana teammates who, under agreement with the UCI, will race the Gila in the Mellow Johnny’s kit of Armstrong’s Austin, Texas, bike shop.
But even without the three, the race boasted its best and largest lineups ever, for the men and women, with stars like Olympic medalist Kristin Armstrong (Cervelo TestTeam), OUCH’s Floyd Landis and defending NRC champ Rory Sutherland, track world champion Taylor Phinney (Livestrong) and his former teammate Peter Stetina (Felt-Holowesko Partners-Garmin), a young stage racing phenom. Defending women’s champion Leah Goldstein (ValueAct Capital) faces challenges from Armstrong, Alison Powers (Team Type 1) and others.
With the Tour de Georgia on hiatus, the Gila slots in nicely between last weekend’s Vuelta de Bisbee in Arizona and next week’s Joe Martin Stage Race in Arkansas, allowing NRC-points chasers to skip across the Southwest for a few weeks.
The five-day Gila gets going with a stage (94 miles for men, 73 for women) that finishes near the ghost town of Mogollon after a steep three-mile climb on a crumbling narrow road.
The preceding miles of rollers and wind could easily produce a breakaway, especially as the 170-rider men’s field squeezes down the sometimes narrow New Mexican back roads.
The Mellow Johnny’s team’s aspirations are unclear: Armstrong arrived in Silver City late Tuesday, after a SRAM news conference. The team is using Gila as a low-key tune up before next week’s Giro d’Italia.
If Leipheimer is racing to win, the climb could provide a stage win and an early GC lead. But Mogollon also could be a springboard for top climbers like Fly V-Successful Living’s Phil Zajicek or Kelly Benefit Strategies’ Andrew Bajadali.
The stage also could be an opportunity for the three BMC Racing Team riders in the race, Scott Nydam, Chad Beyer, Florian Stalder. The three will race in plain jerseys, but with a lot of fire, because of the same UCI/USA Cycling compromise that allowed the Astana riders into the race.
The compromise was emotional for BMC, which came to the event with high hopes, team director Mike Sayers said.
“We are just going to come out and try to win the race with three guys,” Sayer said. “Instead of a Sherman tank, we have a couple of bazookas.”
OUCH”s captain, Tim Johnson, said the team would like to isolate the Mellow Johnny’s threesome and put an OUCH rider into a breakaway to gain critical GC seconds to carry into the stage 3 time trial. In that 16-mile test the smart money has to be on Leipheimer, although Sutherland, Landis, Fly V’s Ben Day and Bissell’s Tom Zirbel and Ben Jacques-Maynes are also contenders.
In the women’s race, Goldstein, who won the Mogollon stage last year, has been in Silver City for about three weeks, acclimating to the area’s altitude. Goldstein said she’s ridden Mogollon about twice a week and is fully recovered from a rib injury that knocked her out of the Redlands Bicycle Classic.
Olympic time trial champ Kristin Armstrong is racing without teammates, but Goldstein counts her among the favorites. “She doesn’t need a team,” she said.