The 24th annual SRAM Tour of the Gila kicks off on Wednesday, April 28 with stage one's Mogollan Road Race, a point-to-point 151km stage for the pro men and 115km for the pro women. A handful of odds-on race favorites from each respective field assembled for a pre-race press conference on the eve of the official start to discuss team strategy, ambitions and the highlighted six ProTour riders in attendance this year.
Garmin-Transitions confirmed three riders, Dave Zabriskie, Tom Danielson and Tom Peterson, who will be represented under Zabriskie's company DZ Nuts. Likewise, Team RadioShack will field seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong and defending race winner Levi Leipheimer along with Jason McCartney who will race under Armstrong's Austin-based bike shop Team Mellow Johnny's.
Leipheimer expressed fond memories of his first experience at the Tour of the Gila back in 1996, as a domestique working for the former overall race winner Burke Swindlehurst who will be racing as the sole rider for his new program Teamgive-Blackbottoms. Leipheimer acknowledged Swindlehurst's achievements throughout the years and recently nicknamed him "Mr. Tour of the Gila".
"From that year  on, I've always kind of followed his results and he has won the overall or the last stage, which is typically known as the queen stage," Leipheimer said. "He's a good friend of mine and I know that he has always risen to the occasion here at the Tour of the Gila and I thought Mr. Gila was appropriate."
When asked if members of the assembled peloton have acknowledged and approached him and his ProTour teammates to express their gratitude for participating in the NRC level event, Leipheimer said, "Yeah, actually I run into that a lot. It's just really gratifying and humbling when guys come up and say its an honor to race with you. I never thought of myself like that but, I know there was a time when I looked up to someone who was in the Tour de France and at that level of racing so I can understand it. It's a great feeling."
Last year, the race was close to being cancelled due to a lack of funding in light of the nation-wide economic struggle. SRAM stepped in to offer a title sponsorship.
"I came here in 1996 and from that moment I learned what the Tour of the Gila was about. The Tour of the Gila was modeled after European cycling: it's got the big climbs, big time trial, large field and pretty good distances," Leipheimer said. "There aren't very many of those races in the US and that is what we need in the US to strengthen the next generation and provide them with the basis to move on to the next level riding the Tour, the Giro. For SRAM to step in not just saves the Gila, but really saves generations of American cycling."
Leipheimer and his two teammates along with the DZ Nuts team of three will be short-handed for the five-stage race. UCI code 2.1.009 prohibits ProTour and Professional Continental teams from participation in national ranked events. However, the teams are permitted to send a maximum of three riders wearing non-ProTour team clothing.
"We have to sort of just do our best really," said Leipheimer. "And we have to be willing to lose because there are full squads here with Fly V, Unitedhealthcare and the list goes on. They are definitely looking to take us down.
"We are here for the training more than anything. I think that in reality we can become allies [with the DZ Nuts riders] because if both teams miss the break for example, that doubles the size of what we had last year. If there is a break up the road and there are no DZ Nuts and no Mellow Johnny's then there might be a mixture of those two teams pulling."
National Racing Calendar (NRC) series leader Ben Day (Fly V Australia) and Rory Sutherland (UnitedHealthcare p/b Maxxis) look forward to competing with the ProTour riders. "If you look at the caliber of the riders here this week, there is Lance and Levi, Zabriskie and Danielson and so it is going to be a really hotly contested race," said Day. "We, the Fly V Australia team, want to come back and be successful again and we will find whatever it is we need to do whether it is with me or with Phil, we are all riding strongly."
"It is definitely one of the hardest races on the calendar in the US," said Sutherland. "There aren't too many races with big climbs and such a big field as well. It's a great way for the younger guys and for us, the guys like Day, Phil [Zajicek] and myself and the others that are generally at the top of the group can test ourselves against some of the best riders in the world."
Powers brings Vera Bradley Foundation fundraiser to Gila
The women's race is the second event of the four-round Women's Prestige Cycling Series. Last year's overall series winner Alison Powers (Vera Bradley Foundation) placed second at the SRAM Tour of the Gila to the current UCI World Time Trial Champion Kristin Armstrong. Armstrong has now retired from professional bike racing but has taken a role in directing the Peanut Butter & Co. TWENTY12 team.
"I think this year is really unique because this race is apart of the Women's Prestige Series and I don't know that it ever has been before," Powers said. "Because of that, this might be the strongest women's field here and I think this year will be quite hard to win."
"Being part of the [Vera Bradley] Foundation means we also have to raise money for the foundation," said Powers who noted that 100 percent of fundraising proceeds goes directly to the Vera Bradley Foundation for breast cancer awareness. "Our goal, by the end of the year, is to raise $22,000 as a team. It's really cool to me because I'm not just going to a race to race my bike around in circles, I'm going to raise money for breast cancer research. I know that almost every one of you has probably known someone who has been affected by breast cancer and so it is cool to be riding bikes for a good cause."