Preview: Tour of the Gila attracts star-studded field

Abbott, Gaimon look to repeat Redlands results

Although Tour of the Gila has just barely eked out an existence in the second poorest state in the USA, frequently teetering on the brink of extinction, the race has an undeniably charm and pull on the North American peloton. Thanks in part to its remote location, the Tour of the Gila has not been choked off by rampant development or relegated to a series of short circuits. It's one of the last events to host both amateur and pro fields on courses that sweep across the countryside, offering relentless climbs, white-knuckle descents, a challenging time trial and a high-speed criterium.

It's an ambitious model that is enthusiastically supported by the community, but one that tends to outpace the generosity of its sponsors. This year an anonymous donor stepped in to replace a lost sponsor, saving the race and dedicating part of its efforts to supporting the Amy D Foundation, a non-profit aimed at supporting women's cycling in memory of Colorado native Amy Dombroski, who was killed in a training accident in Belgium in 2013. The most successful rider in Tour of the Gila history, Mara Abbott, will headline that all-star squad with the aim of winning her fifth title and third in row.

Abbott has been splitting time between Europe with her Wiggle-Honda trade team and racing on composite teams in the US. She showed that she is still top of her class on the climbs, winning the Redlands Bicycle Classic and taking the lead in the National Racing Calendar.

Expect to see Abbott challenged by Tibco's Lauren Stephens, who won the Joe Martin Stage Race with an impressive display over UnitedHealthcare's Scotti Wilborne and veteran Amber Neben.

The defending champion on the men's side, Carter Jones, has moved on to the WorldTour with Giant-Alpecin, but his old team Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies will be amply represented by Redlands winner Phil Gaimon and his teammate Michael Woods, a climbing specialist. The Jamis-Hagens Berman team will be out for revenge after Gregory Brenes was denied the overall victory in Joe Martin on the final stage after being caught behind a split in the criterium. There will be plenty of altitude gains to separate the climbers from the criterium racers in Silver City.

UnitedHealthcare will be hoping to parlay its momentum after John Murphy's win in Arkansas into a top result in New Mexico, and they're bringing a top-notch team with former Astana rider Janez Brajkovic and Colombian Isaac Bolivar. Drapac also brings a strong team with Tour Down Under stage winner Wouter Wippert, but the dark horses have to be the Colombian Orgullo Antioqueno team, which stacked the top results in the uphill time trial at Joe Martin.

Chris Horner will be back in action with the Airgas-Safeway team, while TTT national champions Hincapie Sportswear, Axel Merckx's Axeon team and Jelly Belly-Maxxis all bring formidable line-ups to Silver City. Team SmartStop returns to the race with a roster that includes Rob Britton, third at Gila last year.

The racing begins in earnest on Wednesday with a 148km stage from Silver City to Mogollon with a 10km finishing climb, followed by the Inner Loop road race, which climbs over the Continental Divide before swooping down a long, steep descent toward the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument before turning back to Bayard. Even the stage 3 time trial in Tyrone traverses the Little Burro Pass twice in 26.6km. The riders get a break from the major climbs in the stage 4 criterium in Silver City before heading out for the grand finale on Sunday, the 162km stage from Silver City to Pinos Altos known as the Gila Monster. With five categorised climbs and an uphill finish, it's a real sting in the tail.

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