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Virtual Tour of the Gila to provide a platform for North American teams

(Image credit: Project Echelon)

After a successful virtual Redlands Classic, Project Echelon Racing is following up with a virtual Tour of the Gila, creating a second opportunity for North American and international men and women's elite teams to compete and give their sponsors publicity amidst the coronavirus pandemic. The invitation-only race will be held from May 22-24 and have a unique feature - a virtual team time trial.

Project Echelon Racing director Eric Hill hopes to build off the success of the virtual Redlands Classic which drew 20 of the top North American teams and almost 100 riders to the virtual start line.

"Not only did the event draw in the nation's top talent, but it inspired cycling fans from across the globe to continue to pursue their passions no matter the circumstances and share their stories with us on social media," Hill said in a press release. The live stream, produced by Nathan Guerra and Dave Towle at Zwift Community Live, was watched by over 25,000 people.

The virtual Tour of the Gila is open to USA Cycling registered domestic elite, UCI Pro and USA Crit teams and will differ from other Zwift races in that it will require riders to complete every stage in order to start the next day and the race forbids the use of power-ups. Riders must weigh in before the stage by photographing themselves on a scale and be prepared to weigh in again as a further control after the stage.

The team time trial takes advantage of the third party Zwift Power. Riders use regular bikes in allow drafting in the virtual realm as Zwift's time trial bikes prevent the benefit of being behind another rider. Teams will be given specific start times and communicate verbally over voice chat. The app gives a 30-second countdown during which riders cannot pedal, then all start together. The time is, like in the real world, taken on the fourth rider across the finish line.

The team time trial will be the opening stage, being held on the Sand to Sequoias Watopia course. The women's teams kick off the racing at 6:45PM Central time with the men following at 8:00PM.

The second stage will be a 67.4km circuit of the Big Foot Hills in Watopia with an early intermediate sprint bonus after 2.6km to get the race rolling. Further bonuses come at two KOM points at 22.5km and 35.2km and a second sprint at kilometre 50. The course is reminiscent of the Tour of the Gila's Fort Bayard stage with a fast, flat finish.

Stage 3 is a 72.6km route on the Medio Fondo course that finishes atop the Epic KOM - a solid approximation of Tour of the Gila's queen stage to Piños Altos. There will be a sprint 13.6km into the stage and KOM points at 19.5km and at the finish atop the Epic.

Men and women will compete on the same courses and the same distances, with the men racing first on stages 2 and 3 at 11:00 CDT and the women at 1:00PM CDT and will be streamed on Zwift Community Live.

"Project Echelon Racing is excited to have the opportunity to bring these events to the elite women's teams across North America and to give them the same opportunity as the men to show their talents and represent their sponsors and causes. Having their presence will only help to bring the cycling community even closer together and ensure the growth and sustainability of our unique and beloved sport."

After USA Cycling suspended all racing, camps and clinics through May 31, forcing races to be either cancelled or postponed until later in the season, teams faced a conundrum on how to provide value to their sponsors. Hill runs Project Echelon Racing and its affiliated non-profit Project Echelon that aims to empower veterans and help them heal and become more healthy by facilitating and promote physical activity, and he's had to get creative to keep fulfilling both missions.

The team is sponsored by Saris, who also support a professional eracing team Saris-The Pro's Closet, and that relationship and Hill's friendship with Nathan Guerra of Zwift Community Live helped the virtual Redlands and now Tour of the Gila come together in just a few weeks.

"Pulling together these events hasn't been easy, but the effort has certainly been worth it," Hill said. "It has been inspiring to see how the cycling community has come together in this unique way and how we have been able to help close the gap between e-sports and "In Real Life" competition. It's always good to be agile and think with an open mind. I truly believe that there is an opportunity for cycling to come out on top of the current COVID-19 situation if we do this right."