SILVER CITY, N.M. (VN) — Controversy gripped the Silver City’s Tour of the Gila Thursday after officials relegated would-be stage winner Jonathan Clarke (UnitedHealthcare) and handed the men’s stage 2 victory to Arnaud Grand (BMC Development). In the women’s race, Janel Holcomb (Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies) rode a long breakaway and survived to take a solo victory at Fort Bayard.
Shelley Olds (Tibco-To the Top) won a field sprint for second in the women’s race, ahead of Optum’s Jade Wilcoxson.
Clarke was second in the men’s tilt, with Max Jenkins (5-Hour Energy-Kenda) third.
Janier Acevedo (Jamis-Hagens Berman) and Mara Abbott (Exergy Twenty16) successfully defended their general classification leads in the men’s and women’s races, respectively. Despite the day’s drama, the overall standings in both men’s and women’s races remain mostly unchanged two days into the five-stage National Racing Calendar event.
A GC assault launches the men’s breakaway
Though it ended in controversy, the men’s race began routinely enough. An early breakaway of four riders escaped on the twisting descent after the day’s first categorized climb. Jenkins initiated the move a day after a mechanical derailed his chances on the Mogollon climb.
“The main GC guys went really hard up the first KOM, and when I saw them go, I took it a little easy, because I knew they were going to sit up at the top,” he said. “When we went over the top, I just attacked on the side.”
The move also included Clarke, Grand, and Jamie Driscoll (Jamis). The foursome took a maximum advantage of around four minutes.
Behind, Driscoll’s Jamis teammates rode tempo on the front in defense of Acevedo’s race lead, and eventually, Driscoll dropped back to assist with the chase. According to Jamis director Sebastian Alexandre, the team was never really put under pressure by the break and was content to let the threesome stay out front. When Driscoll went back to the field, Clarke began to think the break had a chance, despite its reduced numbers.
“When we came off the climbs, we had a roaring tailwind,” said Clarke. “About halfway through the stage I thought we had a chance. You have a chance, but then you have to stay fresh for the sprint, so it’s a bit of a conundrum.”
At the top of the final climb, the break still had three minutes in hand. Jenkins was not convinced of their chances, however.
“My opinion of it working was going in swings, but either way, it was going to be touch and go,” he said. As they turned into Fort Bayard, the leaders still had their gap, and while there was no time to mess around, the leaders were free and clear.
Best known for his climbing, Jenkins jumped early in the hope of catching Clarke and Grand off guard, but they were not fooled. Clarke opened the sprint at 200 meters to go on the left, then veered right toward the barricades. Though UHC’s road captain crossed the line first, the judges subsequently ruled that he had strayed from his line and closed the door on Grand.
“I started my sprint at 200 meters to go on the left, and I chose my line to move to the right, and I didn’t think he was on my right,” said Clarke. “I guess he was, and I pinched him on the barriers. This is cycling. I haven’t won a race in six years, and I finally get one and it’s back to second. This is a hard sport.”
Grand was happy to receive the race victory, and believed that there was little ambiguity about his protest.
“It was … I think I was faster than him, and he knew that, and he tried to block me on the barrier. And the first time, I said, ‘Hey!’ And the second time, I went past again, and he comes again on me,” said the Swiss rider. “I think it was a normal decision from the jury of the race that I was first.”
Grand, who is in his first year with the BMC Development team, also took home the points jersey after his long day out in the break.
Acevedo still leads the general classification ahead of Friday’s hilly time trial. Chris Baldwin (Bissell) sits second, while Lucas Euser (UnitedHealthcare) is third.
Holcomb goes on the march for Fort Bayard
In the women’s race, Holcomb and Chantal Blaak (Tibco) attacked the field early in the stage. The two stayed away together until the day’s final climb. There, Blaak could not hold Holcomb’s tempo and dropped off the break. Swept up by the field, Blaak finished the stage in tears of disappointment.
For Holcomb, who won the NRC individual title in 2011, the tears were joyous at the finish. After her long day out, she had a stage victory to show for it. The up-and-down terrain made for hard racing on the Inner Loop course, and blustery winds added to the challenge of staying away for Holcomb.
“After being off the front basically for 80 kilometers, 90 kilometers, something like that, I’m really happy,” said Holcomb. “The team from the very start was amazing. Yesterday, everybody worked so hard, and we didn’t have the results to show for it. So today, it’s so great to be able to bring home the result.”
Though she crested the final climb with nearly two minutes in hand, Holcomb did not believe she would win until she reached the finish straight.
“I knew I had to get to the final straightaway before I could really get to feel confident about it,” she said. “I just kept on the gas and worked my tail off.”
Behind Holcomb, a small group escaped the field. It included Olds and her Tibco teammate Joanne Kiesanowski, Robin Farina (NOW-Novartis for MS), and Jade Wilcoxson. With Holcomb up the road, Wilcoxson sat on, while Kiesanowski drove for Olds.
“It was a prefect situation,” said Wilcoxson. “I jumped Shelley with 600 meters to go, because there’s no way I’m going to the line with her. It turns out she can sprint from 500 meters to go. She’s just a bullet.”
Though she would have preferred to sprint for the win, Olds was happy to take the sprint for second ahead of Wilcoxson. Olds said she was looking forward to Saturday’s criterium stage, which will suit her characteristics to perfection.
“At the end of the day, we’re happy, we raced aggressively,” said Olds. “We tried, and that’s what we have to do here. We don’t want to race for second, we want to race to win.”
Abbott defended her race lead ahead of Friday’s stage 3 time trial. Kristin McGrath (Exergy Twenty16) is currently second, while Kathryn Donovan (NOW-Novartis for MS) is third, both at 1:57.
“This stage is never easy,” said Abbott. “It’s all up and down; there’s climbs, there’s descents, and there’s a really, really long time across a really windy valley. Our team raced strong. And we still got that red thing [leader's jersey].”
Friday, the Tour of the Gila continues with an individual time trial. As befits the mountainous character of the race, the time trial is hilly and not necessarily for the crono specialists.