Mara Abbott: My love of Gila and the Mogollon Mountains

The first few months of 2016 seemed somehow to be filled with more international hospital visits than victory salutes. That's not to say that I didn't end up with some good stories. There was the midnight-shift Brussels ER doc who, upon finding out I was from the United States, immediately asked me "So… Donald Trump?" Almost as comforting was the young Yucaipa Urgent Care x-ray tech who threw open the door exclaiming, "Alright! It's time to go get zapped!"

If I am honest, charming stories were not actually what I was going for there.

Fortunately, the beginning of May and Tour of the Gila awaited me. I covered general notes about my love affair with this race in my recap from last year's edition, so for 2016, we will get a bit more intimate. We shall discuss Mogollon.

To begin with - properly speaking that's Moh-goh-Yohn (though Muggy-own is accurate for local vernacular). It is a ghost town that sits at about 7,000 ft (2,100 metres) of altitude at the end of a pot-holed canyon road in the absolute middle of nowhere. Its region, Catron County, is recognised as one of the least populated regions in the continental United States. The first year I attempted Gila I ended up far back off the bunch on Stage 2, giving me ample time to seriously consider the fact that if I stopped, there was a good chance that no one would ever find me. It's sort of like that. At the last count, Mogollon itself had 18 permanent residents. For myself, however, it is the road to get there - the ol' NM159 - with which I have more familiarity.

Gila's traditional opening stage is a primer for those uninitiated in high-altitude desert racing. The predicted high for the day might approach 80 degrees Fahrenheit, but the early morning start and the dry air's cool nights often means it is closer to 40 when the gun goes off. This presents difficult clothing choices - as well as an opportunity to forget that advice about the importance of sunscreen at 6,000 feet. The sunscreen lesson, though, does seem to be the sort of lesson you only have to learn once.

Mogollon next instructs you in patience. In general, bike racing tends to reward the quietly watchful, which can be a bit exasperating for those of us who do not naturally embody those characteristics. In this respect, Mogollon stands in a class of its own. To get to this finishing 10km climb, you first have to endure about 100km of a very long, mostly straight, sometimes windy, and wholeheartedly remote road. Should you be the type of rider tasked with making a difference on that climb, you are supposed to wait, not wasting energy, counting down kilometres until that one right-hand turn. It's the only turn on the entire course. It can be genuinely maddening, yet worth it.

This climb is remarkable. It ticks all the boxes - startlingly steep pitches and switchbacks. It features more cows (and their cattle guards) than spectators. The barren solitude of the terrain lends a surreal nature to the experience. Honestly, each unique mountaintop victory seems to surpass the last as the most surreal and ephemeral thing I have experienced on a bike. I believe a post-race swoon once led me to say in an interview that mountaintop finishes are like your children - you know, it's impossible to pick a favourite.

Except, perhaps, for Mogollon.

The last two years I have raced Gila on a composite team for the Amy Dombroski Foundation. To have this as an opening stage with a newly formed group of riders is a particularly extraordinary experience. It has been astonishing that some girls I was meeting for the first time or had never raced with before, still had the faith in me to work and control the race until the climb. Quite humbling.

Nonetheless, my highlight this year came, as it always seems to, post-climb on the drive back to Silver City. The tradition of stopping at Glenwood's Buckhorn Trading Post started because it is literally the only gas station between Mogollon's summit and Silver City. Yet I now mandate this stop regardless of the fuel gauge because I have somehow forged a friendship with the woman who owns the shop. She started to remember me coming in year after year and now waits for me on race day, eager to hear how the race went...whether I won again? One year, it was some family member's birthday, and she gave me a piece of the cake. This woman and I see one another for maybe five minutes each year, but we both seem to look forward to it. My motivation to win up the Mogollon is increased because I hate the idea of telling her that I didn't.

This year, when I asked her how things were in Glenwood, she looked at me directly and said, "It hasn't been easy, there aren't so many people out here anymore." Amid the show and charade of a week of bike racing, she showed pure honesty and reality. Not an easy reality either.

Still when we decided to take a photo together, the picture so clearly revealed how delighted we both were at our annual meeting. It may be one of the most blatantly joyful photos of me ever taken.

I absolutely love the Tour of the Gila because of the courses and the competition - the bicycle parts. Yet, a part of me also feels linked dispositionally to this crazy community and to its wild and lonely landscape. I know one day I will stop bike racing. Harder to imagine is stopping my annual pilgrimage to Silver City.

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