Stage 4 - April 30: Downtown Silver City Criterium, 40/35 laps
Stage 5 - May 1: Gila Monster Road Race, 102.6/71.8 miles
A long time coming
It has been a while since I have been in a leader's jersey. In fact, I honestly can't even remember when I wore a leader's jersey last. But it is a nice feeling! Especially when it's your team colors!
Saturday was criterium day, and Kori's birthday as well. The crit announcer even had our whole field sing happy birthday to her before the start of our race. I love birthdays, especially my own, of course. So I really wanted Kori to be able to show her stuff in the crit and go in a break. But that wasn't the plan. Here we have a team of great criterium riders with Kori, Lara, and Ina. So needless to say, I felt a bit guilty when the plan turned out to be that we let all breaks go that weren't threatening to us. Silly Kimberly needs all five of her riders around her at all times! Kori even attempted to go in a break once, and Ina immediately called her back. So I made sure I stayed near the front so the girls could see me.
Almost from the gun, Anna Milkowski of Lipton made a solo break. Since the crit course is a bit difficult (nothing in this stage race is easy!) the field didn't really react to her move. Then a few laps later, about four more girls attacked and bridged up to Anna. One by one, almost every team in the peloton had at least one rider bridge up to the break, without much reaction in the field. Every team, that is, except T-Mobile. I had all my girls with me. We were very content to let the break go, as the only time bonuses in the race today were at the finish. The only problem was that the criterium is the best-attended stage in the whole race by fans. And we didn't want this criterium to seem super boring. But hey, we had a long stage the next day and we didn't want to over-extend our legs too much. It was the perfect race for me. I stayed steady the entire time. I only needed to jump a few times.
Genevieve was watching Gaggioli and I was watching Genevieve. So the three of us basically just followed each other around the whole race. It seemed a bit odd at the end without any T-Mobile girls sprinting it up for the win. But we didn't want to be too greedy, and we had a leader's jersey to protect. Cat Malone from Webcor took the win for the stage. And when we asked our host family, who had been watching, if the race looked really boring, they assured us it had not.
I've got to hand it to our director, Andrzej Bek, for hanging in there this week. At first, Andrzej thought he had come down with a serious case of food poisoning the morning of the Mogollon stage. But he stuck it out and drove the caravan car every day even though at night he looked like death warmed over. He finally went to the doc-in-a-box Friday night and was given a strong dose of antibiotics. Even though I know he felt miserable, he never let on to the girls. He never backed out on his job and for that we are very thankful.
We all had to get up early Sunday morning for our early start to the stage. I made a particularly strong pot of coffee, even though I really didn't mean to. Even Ina had to put more milk in her coffee than usual! And even though we were all still full from Kori's birthday cake the night before, we tried our best to choke down breakfast at 6am.
We had 72 miles of racing ahead of us...basically the Inner Loop stage backwards. So everything we had descended on Friday we would now be ascending, giving us almost 6,000 feet of climbing. I knew that there was only so much my team could do for me on this day, and then it would ultimately come down to just me. After seeing all of them race completely out of their skin the last three days for me, I did not - could not - let them down.
One of the biggest breakthroughs I saw during Tour of Gila was with our youngest team-mate, Rebecca Much. Rebecca took the silver medal at the Junior World's time trial last year in Verona. So T-Mobile picked her up for our roster, and I think she's had a bit of a rough go this season. Kind of like a rabbit being thrown to the dogs. But not this race. Rebecca has absolutely shined. She's ridden harder for me this week than I have ever seen her ride. I can tell by the salt that is encrusted on her face after every stage! Having Ina on the road to direct her has made a world of difference. And Ina can even tell her what to do in German since Rebecca is fluent as well. Rebecca's like the younger sister I never had, even though sad to say, I could just about be her mom!
The race was aggressive from the start, with teams searching out a hopeful stage win. And the course wasn't easy. We hit the big rollers heading out of town straight away, and then hit even larger rollers as soon as we turned left onto Hwy 152. A break of about four girls was slowly climbing away from us before the first time bonus sprint at 10 miles. Perfect. Ina's always got my back for those time bonus sprints if I need her though. We really wanted to get someone in the break this time and the girls kept up a flurry of attacks trying to bridge. Ideally, we wanted Kori up there, but she was obviously too big of a threat. No one was letting her go. Then I heard Ina tell Rebecca to go for it, and she did with just one Basis-Ford girl on her wheel. She hit us just at the right moment when everyone was a bit gassed, so the field let her go. The Basis girl was Chrissy Ruiter and since Chrissy had a team-mate up the road, she just sat on Rebecca and let her do all the work bridging up to the break.
Back in the field, it was still aggressive with girls trying to make a break. But finally things started to settle down and we waited to hear time splits of the girls up the road. At one point, the break had a gap of over five minutes. This was too much to Andrzej, and he had Ina, Lara, with Kori as back-up, go to the front and start setting tempo. I tucked in behind them, as it was a strong headwind through the entire valley. Brooke stayed on my wheel, as she was to be my second lieutenant basically once we hit the steep three mile climb at 20 miles to go. I kept focusing on my SRM, looking at the mileage. Mile 52 was where it would go down. That's where winning this race became my responsibility again. Ina and Lara brought the gap down to three minutes by mile 51.5. Lara backed off and Ina and Kori went to the front to drill it up the start of the steep climb. The final 20 miles of this race are tough..climbing and descending, but mostly climbing throughout the Gila National forest. The finish line was in the town of Pinos Altos at 7,000 feet.
I stuck to Kori's wheel and as Ina charged away, as usual she started to drop me. Good grief girl! I need to hang on! Ina pulled as hard as she could and then made way for Kori. Kori is so used to being the final lead-out girl for Tina Pic, who she raced with for years. So Kori's idea of leading me out on the climb was to stand up and sprint. We still had 20 miles to go! Ina yelled to Kori to look behind her and keep me on her wheel. Once Kori pulled over, I didn't look back but just kept climbing. When I stood up to pedal, I looked below me to see if I could see anybody's shadows. I didn't.
I looked around and saw that I had a gap, which enthused me to no end. Andrzej had told me before to keep my effort to 80 percent. He didn't want me to blow up this first climb and be caught on the descending part by a chase group and not be able to go with them. So I forged ahead at my 80 percent, knowing that if I could reach Rebecca, who was still up the road in the break, she could help me out. I wasn't hearing anything from Andrzej in the radio and figured he had gotten stuck behind the field on these narrow national forest roads. But I needed to know who was behind me and where!
I saw Genevieve behind me and it looked like she was alone, which was a good thing. If she had been in a group, I'd be in trouble. I reached the break after about three miles up the climb. It was the end of the steepest pitch and we were hitting a bit of a plateau before it climbed again. I couldn't have asked for better timing. By this time, Andrzej was behind me telling me I had a gap over Genevieve of 28 seconds. He then radioed to Rebecca telling her I was coming and to wait for me. Like a pro, she looked behind her and started picking up speed just as I caught on to her wheel. We went flying by the break and Rebecca once again rode out of her skin just long enough to let me fully recover and catch my breath. As soon as the pitch went up, Rebecca started coming off. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry," she kept saying, but I was SO grateful for her effort. It was exactly what I needed. I left Rebecca and the rest of the break and went back to my "80 percent".
It was a bit unnerving when I saw the 15 miles to go sign, and I'm still climbing. Good Lord, that's still a long ways to go. But after a few more miles, there's a descent and then the miles start clicking off quickly. I tried my best to descend as fast as possible without putting myself in the trees. That would not be good. When Andrzej told me I had over a minute, I finally let myself relax a bit. It wasn't our goal to win the stage, but hey, if this insured the overall GC, then we would certainly take it. The final gap to second place was 1'30, I believe, and I couldn't wait for the rest of my team to cross the line so I could hug and thank them. What a fantastic feeling. I've never been so proud of my teammates before. After absolutely killing themselves for me all week, all I want to do is be able to give back to them. So I owe you girls. I've got your backs.
At the podium presentation, I was awarded with this beautiful bowl, hand-crafted by a local artist in Silver City. What a treat... this is a trophy I will actually display! After downing some recovery drink and giving the girls, Andrzej, and Steve my utmost appreciation, Lara and I headed for a shower and were on the road home by 2:15pm. Normally, my pattern at this race is to stop at Taco Bell on the way out of town, but today was different. Lara and I had a date in Albuquerque at Cracker Barrel. My husband was meeting us there on his way home from Arizona. This was shaping up to be a really good day.
Now, I have a week of rest at home and then it's on to Tour de L'Aude in France with the U.S. National team. Kori, Kathryn Curi of Webcor and I are really hoping that all this fitness we gained at Tour of Gila will carry over to L'Aude. We are going to need it.