Evan Huffman and his Rally Cycling team will make the annual migration to Silver City, New Mexico, April 18-22 for the 32nd running of the UCI 2.2 Tour of the Gila, the third stop on USA Cycling's 2018 Pro Road Tour.
Last year's women's winner Tayler Wiles moved to the Trek-Drops team in the offseason and is racing in Europe, but her former UnitedHealthcare teammate Katie Hall, second last year, will take the team reins this week with hopes of climbing a step higher on the podium.
Huffman claimed the overall lead last year during the stage 3 Tyrone time trial, then he held on through the criterium and fought off all challengers on the Gila Monster on the final day to take his first UCI stage race win. He went on to win two stages at the Tour of California and then ended his season with an overall win at the Tour of Alberta.
Huffman will have the backing of a strong roster of teammates who opened their 2018 seasons in Europe, including 2015 Gila overall winner Rob Britton, who was fifth last year. In fact, Rally will line up with five riders from the 2017 top 10, including Matteo Dal-Cin [ninth], Adam de Vos [seventh] and Kyle Murphy [10th].
If he wants to defend his title this year, Huffman will have to fend off a challenge from 2017 runner-up Serghei Tvetcov, who moved from Jelly Belly-Maxxis to UnitedHealthcare in the offseason. Tvetcov will have the backing of Gavin Mannion, fourth overall last year with UnitedHealthcare.
Holowesko-Citadel, whose TJ Eisenhart finished third last year, won't be at the race in 2018, but a slew of UCI squads among the 17-team field will easily fill the void. Hagens Berman Axeon returns for 2018, along with Jelly Belly-Maxxis and start-up U23 development team Aevolo. Elevate-KHS and 303 Project round out the US Continental teams. Other UCI teams include Silber Pro Cycling and H&R Block of Canada, along with Canel's Specialized from Mexico and Mobius Bridgelane from Australia.
Hall, who is coming off an overall win at the Joe Martin Stage Race in Arkansas, will also benefit from a deep and experienced UnitedHealthcare roster, which includes 2017 third-place rider Leah Thomas. Hall will need the firepower against a women's field that features 10 teams, including five UCI teams, one national team and four club teams.
Rally Cycling will figure into the mix this week in New Mexico, with a roster led by Kirsti Lay, Emma White and Sara Poidevin. Twenty20-Sho Air features perennial contenders Allie Dragoo, Jasmin Duehring and Chloe Dygert, fresh off her world record performance at the UCI Track World Championships. Hagens Berman Supermint will also up the ante in the women's peloton. International teams include Roxsolt Attaquer of Austalia, Swapit Agolico of Mexico and Team Colombia, among others.
The familiar haunts around Silver City once again comprise the race. After a one-year absence caused by road construction, stage 1 will once again finish on the Mogollon climb just below the namesake ghost town. The stage is mostly flat - with the wind providing the biggest challenge - until the final 7km climb, which features pitches of up to 15 per cent.
The race returns to Fort Bayard on the second day for a lumpy stage that starts and finishes at the historic military hospital. Despite the day's climbing, the stage often finishes with a bunch sprint if the opportunists can't figure out a way to steal one from the fast men.
Stage 3 features the Tyrone time trial on a 26km out-and-back course. The route climbs steadily over the first 4.5km before descending over undulating roads to the turnaround. From the halfway point riders go back over the rollers and climb back to the course's highest point before the fast rush back down the finish. It's a power rider's course that is often buffeted by high winds.
The stage 4 criterium in downtown Silver City takes place on a four-corner course but is hardly straightforward. A climb on the back stretch leads to a fast descent into turn four and the slightly rising finish. Escapes are hard to stick on the wide-open course, but the climb on the backstretch tempts plenty of opportunists.
What remains of the general classification battle will be decided during the 'Gila Monster' stage on the final day. The route takes riders from Silver City to the historic Gila Cliff Dwelling National Monument and then a climb back to Pinos Altos for the finish. With more than 2,783 metres of climbing on the day, the winners will have proved their mettle in the mountains.