The 31st edition of the Tour of the Gila promises to be a wide-open contest for the coveted custom trophy bowls as North America’s top domestic teams and a few international additions compete April 19-23 in Silver City, New Mexico.
With 2016 women’s winner and six-time champion Mara Abbott enjoying retirement, and 2016 men’s winner Lachlan Morton having moved from Jelly Belly-Maxxis to WorldTour team Dimension Data in the off season, the race is ripe for picking by new a new set of opportunists. As the fourth stop on USA Cycling’s Pro Road Tour, the five-day UCI 2.2 race has once again drawn a field of top Continental and women’s UCI teams.
In the men’s race, current PRT leader Robin Carpenter (Holowesko-Citadel), winner of the recent Joe Martin Stage Race, will be on hand after skipping legs two and three of the PRT to train for Gila at home in California. Carpenter has been transitioning into a GC rider following his win at last year’s Tour of Alberta, and Gila will be a good test of his climbing legs.
Carpenter will be going up against a strong field that also includes, among others, Axeon Hagens Berman, Aevolo, Cylance, Elevate-KHS, Holowesko-Citadel, Jelly Belly-Maxxis, Movistar Team Ecuador, Rally Cycling, Silber Pro Cycling, UnitedHealthcare and Canyon Bicycles with their new signing Francisco Mancebo.
The Axeon riders are hungry to prove a point after missing out on the Tour of California invitations this year, but team owner Axel Merckx is sending a relatively young squad as his heavy hitters are currently racing – and winning – in Europe. Circuit des Ardennes International winner Jhonatan Narvaez will lead the young team’s charge.
"Jhonatan is clearly riding super well," Axeon Hagens Berman director Jeff Louder said of the Ecuadorian rider. "He lives at 10,000 feet, so elevation is not an issue at all. This is his kind of terrain, so I expect him to have a great overall showing."
Jelly-Belly-Maxxis may have lost Morton to the WorldTour but his brother Angus is still on the squad and will be in New Mexico. Serghei Tvetcov also returned to the team this year after two years in Europe and will no doubt be looking to pick up where he left off.
Rally Cycling will bring 2015 Gila winner Rob Britton, along with Joe Martin runner-up Adam de Vos and 2016 Redlands Bicycle Classic winner Matteo Dal-Cin. Climbing talent Sepp Kuss will also get a shot at the Gila Monster.
“I’m going to the Tour of the Gila this year to win and get back my title from 2015,” said Britton, who was third behind Morton and Alex Cataford last year.
“With the relocation of Gila on the North American calendar, now three full weeks before the start of Tour of California, it is even better preparation,” Britton said. “I'm looking forward to it and hope to get the overall win we missed out on at Joe Martin.”
UnitedHealthcare has not yet released details of its roster, but with talent like Cataford, Travis McCabe, Joe Martin third-place finisher Gavin Mannion and Daniel Jaramillo to choose from, director Seba Alexandre will have plenty of options.
The real wildcard in the men's race will be Mancebo, who is back racing with an Amercian team after three years with Skydive Dubai.
The women’s race is equally as wide open as the men’s, with current women’s PRT leader Ruth Winder – who dominated Joe Martin with three wins in four stages, then backed it up with a win at the McClellan Road Race – likely on hand to defend her series lead.
Winder and her UnitedHealthcare teammates will have to defend against top teams that include Abbott’s former Amy D Foundation composite team, Colavita-Bianchi, Conade-Visit Mexico, Cylance, Visit Dallas DNA, Hagens Berman-Supermint, Rally Cycling, Sho-Air Twenty20 and the Tibco-Silicon Valley Bank team of current PRT runner-up Lauren Stephens.
"Because of its high altitude and strenuous climbs, the Tour of the Gila is a special race,” said Tibco-Silicon Valley Bank director Ed Beamon. “Every day is a challenge and you need to be a strong all-around rider with great climbing skills to stay competitive.
“The long individual time trial should play well for us and I hope it will put us in a position with several riders to contest the overall GC,” Beamon said. “Lauren Stephens and Brie Walle have had good results on this course, and I expect Kate Buss will feature in the time trial as well.”
Stage 1: Silver City to Whitewater Mesa
The biggest change for the 2017 race will come on the first day when riders tackle the Mogollon Road Race – minus the finishing Mogollon climb. Construction at the top of the 4.9km climb has left the road in disrepair, and so the stage will finish on Whitewater Mesa instead.
Mogollon has traditionally set up the pecking order for the rest of the week, with the riders who are climbing well rising to the top of the general classification and the battle lines for the following four stages clearly set. Expecting a sprint finish this year, organisers have added time bonuses and sprint points on the line, but a short 13 percent climb with about 5km to go could make things tough for the fast finishers.
Stage 2: Inner Loop Road Race
This familiar stage starts and finishes at the Fort Bayard historic site north of Silver City. The race features two intermediate sprints and three categorised climbs for the men and the women, but the relatively flat day often ends with a bunch sprint. However, some short, punchy climbs near the end of the route and a slightly uphill run to the finish at the former military hospital provide an opportunity for cagey riders to catch the peloton off guard and slip away.
Stage 3: Tyrone Time Trial
This 26km race against the clock in the Village of Tyrone about 7km south of Silver City is a staple of the Gila. The out-and-back course is often buffeted by strong winds that test the riders’ power.
The route climbs steadily for the first 7km before descending and traversing some rollers before the turn-around point. Then they do it all in reverse, taking on the rollers again then climbing to the summit before a screaming 8km descent to the finish.
Stage 4: Downtown Silver City Criterium
Although it is a fairly straightforward four-corner, rectangular course, the Downtown Silver City Criterium on Saturday is not for the faint of heart.
The roughly 1.7km counter-clockwise course starts on a slight rise that gains steepness until topping out halfway through the backside. From there, the peloton gains speed all the way into the final 90-degree turn that leads into the slightly uphill finishing straight. Turn four has caused a lot of heartbreak throughout the years, but for those who can handle the climbing and the cornering, a boisterous crowd is ready to celebrate the victory.
Stage 5: Gila Monster Road Race
The final day never disappoints at the Tour of the Gila as riders tackle the infamous Gila Monster stage that often decides the overall.
The women take on 1,710 metres of elevation gain over 110.9km, while the men climb 2,853 metres over 161.9km.
The stage starts in downtown Silver City before making its way to the Cliff Dwellings in the Gila National Forest, then turning around and heading for the finish in Pinos Altos. Along the way, the riders will tackle the categorised climbs of Black Range at Emory Pass, Sapillo Creek, Clinton Anderson Vista and the final climb to Pinos Altos, where a southwest barbeque provided by the local awaits.