Flying Zajicek shows V means victory

Phil Zajicek (Fly V Australia) captured the biggest victory in his cycling career, breaking away from seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong (Mellow Johnny's) and his teammate Levi Leipheimer at top the infamous Gila Monster ascent. The Boulder native received a congratulatory hand shake from Astana team director Johan Bruyneel after beating his riders in their specialty: climbing. Zajicek won the final stage with his proud parents and wife amongst the spectators - a podium photo that will no doubt hang on the wall for life.

"This is unbelievable," said Zajicek, whose wife watched the stage from SRAM follow car and witnessed the race unravel. "This is the best day on the bike ever, the best. It was so fast from the start and then [Chris] Horner was absolutely lighting it up, just flying.

"I've been working so hard on my climbing and everything just came together," he added. "I knew Levi wanted to give Lance the win and he went so fast into the last kilometre. I just had to follow and give it everything I had with 200 metres to go."

Leipheimer's commanding victory in the SRAM Tour of the Gila's general classification is a good indication that he will arrive to the upcoming Giro d'Italia in top condition. Armstrong moved into a well-deserved second place after a weeks worth of endless domestique duties. Zajicek's stage win, combined with a stellar fourth place in the stage three time trial, earned him the third spot on the overall podium.

"Its always nice to win no matter what race it is," Leipheimer said. "There is no easy race. I won the overall, two stages and I set the course record and I think that is something to be proud of. I think of all the great time triallist who won it over the years. This is one of the more prestigious races in American history."

Team Bissell won the best overall team general classification based on the times of the three highest placed riders from each stage. "As long as we had good climbs on the first day and today we were good," said Bissell rider Ben Jacques-Maynes. "Obviously the time trial shakes out real nicely for us. We have a good time trial team. It wasn't a goal coming in, but it stuck out as a goal after the first couple of stages. We had five guys with really good rides today so we are happy."

Domestique underdog beat Grand Tour contenders

A group of six riders made it to the base of the final and most notorious climb of the Tour of the Gila. After pulling the break away for nearly the entire last half of the professional men's 168-kilometre road race Chris Horner (Mellow Johnny's) started to show signs of distress mid-way up the final climb. But he kept coming back for more.

He kept the pressure on while Leipheimer, Armstrong, Zajicek and Chad Beyer (Team B) planed their individual bids for victory. Two-time event winner Burke Swindlehurst hung on to the front group for as long as possible, but began to show signs of weakness over the last few rollers.

"I felt like I didn't have too much acceleration in my legs today," Swindlehurst said. "I focused on trying to diesel it all day and on the last climb my legs just locked up on me."

Horner put forth one last effort toward setting up Armstrong for victory and Leipheimer took over the driving. Several coy attacks came from Beyer but no move was strong enough to hold off Leiphiemer's consistent speed up the climb.

Zajicek sandwiched himself between Leipheimer and Armstrong and patiently waited for one of his two competitors to make the first move. The pair attacked and Zajicek responded, pouncing on the pair and pulling out a 12 second margin at the line. The defeated team-mates shook hands to the end of a successful week and crossed the finish line together. Beyer, Horner and Swindlehurst rolled through several seconds apart respectively.

"This is one of the hardest road races in North America," Zajicek said. "It also comes at the end of five days of really hard racing."

The chase group included two riders Baldwin and White who dangled between the leaders and a second five-man chase group, Zirbel, Stalder, Darren Lill (Team Type 1), Davide Frattini and Anthony Colby (Colavita-Sutter Home).

Horner dies a thousand deaths…but keeps on pushing

The tired men's field lined up in the early morning to start what is arguably known as the toughest stage. Three significant climbs played a big role in the outcome of the stage, where tactics were key but attrition was everything. An early move of 16 riders set sail on the long winding descent out of SIlver City.

The men included Scott Nydam (Team B), who was the highest placed general classification rider in eighth, Francois Parisien (Planet Energy), Elkan Evan and Mike Northey (Land Rover Orbea), Sam Johnson (Hagens Berman), Jacob Erker, Neil Shirley and Dan Bauman (Kelly Benefit Strategies), Ben King and Michael Grabinger (Fly V Australia), Nick Fey (Ciclismo), Ben Jacques-Maynes and Paul Mach (Bissell), Ian Holt (RMCEF), Chris Jones (Team Type 1) and Bradley White (OUCH-MAXXIS).

An unfortunate crash on the descent out of town saw Nydam air lifted to the Thompson Hospital in El Paso. Nydam's accident was one of many that included Cameron Evans (OUCH-MAXXIS), Matt Cooke (Ride Clean) and World Pursuit Champion Taylor Phinney (Trek-Livestrong). The break away reluctantly continued on to gain more than a three minute lead, 50 kilometres into the race.

"He reached down to grab his water bottle and his foot unclipped," said Jacques-Maynes, who was descending behind Nydam at 70 km/h when he crashed. "I really didn't want to race after I saw that. I wanted to pull over and call it a day. I never want to see something like that happen in a bike race, especially such a good guy like Scott."

The large front group reached the first of three climbs where pain on some of their faces began to show through. Stronger climbers in the bunch set a fast tempo and several riders fell off pace before they reached the top. The first sign that super domestique Horner was on the hunt to catch the break was seen when the break away made its way through the turnaround and back out toward the Copperas Vista climb of the Gila Cliff Dwellings.

The chasing peloton started the demanding 11-kilometre climb in tact but when Horner was through setting tempo, there were only six survivors left. The original members of the chase group include Horner with Leipheimer and Armstrong in tow, Zajicek, Beyer and Swindlehurst along with Tom Zirbel (Bissell), Florian Stalder (Team B), Peter Stetina (Garmin-Holowekso Partners-Felt), Chris Baldwin (Rock Racing). As the pace quickened Baldwin, Zirbel and Statina fell off pace and never recovered back to the lead group.

The six climbing specialists caught remnants of the initial 16-man break away before cresting the top. White managed to hang on the longest but he too fell off the leading pace shortly after. "That climb out of the Cliff Dwellings was so painful and Horner would not let up," Zajicek said. "I was hurting so bad there. I just knew I had to make it to the top of that one because that was the most important climb of the stage."

Horner continued to drive the pace on the front down the descent and up the next climb. The most dedicated domestique rider in America.

Armstrong conquers the Gila Monster and the overall

Kristin Armstrong (Cervelo) proved she is in a class of her own when it comes to climbing. The Boise, Idaho native set a tempo on the final ascent into Pinos Altos until she was alone and headed for victory. Catherine Cheatley (Colavita-Sutter Home) won the small sprint for second place and Alison Powers (Team Type 1) took third.

"At the base of the climb we were two and half minutes back from the break and I just set my own pace up the climb," Armstrong said. "I didn't have to work today at all."

Armstrong won the overall title by nearly five minutes ahead of second placed Powers and third placed Katheryn Mattis (Webcor-Builders). "This was a successful Tour of the Gila for me," said Armstrong. "I'm preparing for the Tour de l' Aude and now I get to go there and have a whole team with me. I'm so excited."

The front group behind Armstrong re-shuffled as riders began to settle into their own rhythm. Mattis set a strong tempo on the uphills and Powers, a former downhill skier, blazed through the short winding descents. A group of 15 sprinted to the finish line at the top.

The break almost made it to the top of the Gila Monster

A break formed early into the women's 115-kilometre road race. Rebecca Much (Webcor-Builders), Rachel Heal (Colavita-Sutter Home, Nicole Evans (Value Act Capital) and Hillary Billington (Lip Smackers) worked well together gaining a maximum of six minutes making Much the virtual leader on the road.

"I was okay with the break because I was up by three and a half minutes," Armstrong said. "I was happy that I could be a little bit more defensive today. I sat back because I knew I was going to go hard up that climb. There were only seconds that separated second place through sixth place in the overall. That is where the race was on."

Armstrong's mellow presence back in the field sent a signal to the other teams that she was not interested in bringing the break back. Chances were that Armstrong would reduce the time to Much on the last climb but riders wanting to hold their GC positions needed to start working together to reduce the hefty time margin.

" I was definitely nervous when the break got up to six minutes," said Powers. "But after that everyone started to help out and work at the front to try and get that down."

Colavita-Sutter Home, Value Act Capital and Alison did the majority of the work to reduce the time to just over two minutes at the base of the climb. The break splintered on the climb and Armstrong caught the last rider, Evans mid-way up the climb. Evans rode in second place for the majority of the climb before being caught by the bunch sprint within the final kilometre.

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Kirsten Frattini
Women's Editor

Kirsten Frattini is an honours graduate of Kinesiology and Health Science from York University in Toronto, Canada. She has been involved in cycling from the community and grassroots level to professional cycling's WorldTour. She has worked in both print and digital publishing, and started with Cyclingnews as a North American Correspondent in 2006. Moving into a Production Editor's role in 2014, she produces and publishes international race coverage for all men's and women's races including Spring Classics, Grand Tours, World Championships and Olympic Games, and writes and edits news and features. As the Women's Editor at Cyclingnews, Kirsten also coordinates and oversees the global coverage of races, news, features and podcasts about women's professional cycling.

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