Abbott returns to defend SRAM Tour of the Gila title

The 25th annual SRAM Tour of the Gila is the second stage race on the National Racing Calendar (NRC) and the Women's Prestige Cycling Series and have once again attracted top domestic racers to participate in the five-day race scheduled from April 27 to May 1 in Silver City, New Mexico.

US National Road Champion, Mara Abbott (Diadora-Safi Pasta Zara) will return to defend her title, however defending champion in the men's field Levi Leipheimer (RadioShack) will not be present this year. With the International Cycling Union (UCI) enforcing code 2.1.009, ProTeam and Professional Continental level teams and riders are prohibited from starting the race, unlike the previous two years which saw Leipheimer win two consecutive overall titles.

Of the 164 Pro-Cat 1 men registered to compete, some of the riders who will be in contention for the overall title this year include NRC individual points leader Francisco Mancebo (, who recently won the Redlands Bicycle Classic, and his teammate Cesar Grajales.

"Obviously we want to continue to try and win races," said directeur sportif Gord Fraser. "It is also important that younger riders continue in their development. While it is very nice to be leading the [NRC] competition currently we are not placing any importance on it as a goal."

Other riders to watch out for are defending NRC winner Luis Amaran (Jamis-Sutter Home) and his teammate Tyler Wren, Ben Jacques-Maynes and Paul Mach (Bissell), Ben Day (Kenda/5-hour Engery), Tom Faiers (Wonderful Pistachios), Andrew Bajadali (Kelly Benefit Strategies-OptumHealth), Matt Cooke (Team Exergy) along with Darren Rolfe (V Australia), among others.

Time trial specialist Tom Zirbel was a late registrant and will be competing for the Hotel San Jose/ACME squad as a guest rider. This will mark his first NRC stage race following the completion of suspension for an anti-doping infraction, of which he maintains his innocence.

"I've met Barry Lee a few times and he contacted me to ask if I'd like to ride with Hotel San Jose for a few races," Zirbel told Cyclingnews. "At this point, I'm just guest riding with them for the Tour of the Gila. I mostly just want to get back into the groove of racing at the NRC level. I don't have big ambitions, though I do feel somewhat fit at the moment. I guess I'm capable of winning [the stage three time trial] though I wouldn't call myself a favourite. I don't know how I'll be feeling on day three of a stage race. I don't have a lot of kilometres in the legs at this point."

The event also marks the second round of the Women's Prestige Cycling Series (WPCS) for the Pro-Cat 1,2 women's peloton. Defending Champion Mara Abbott (Diadora-Safi Pasta Zara) will be present along with several of her teammates including former German national champion and Tour de l'Aude winner Claudia Hausler.

Although NRC and WPCS individual leader Amber Neben (HTC-Highroad) will not be participating in the event, other strong overall contenders are former overall winner Kristin Armstrong and her teammate Alisha Welsh (Peanut Butter & Co Twenty12), Alison Powers and Erinne Willock (TIBCO-To-the Top), Cath Cheatley and Andrea Dvorak (Colavita-Forno D'Asolo) and Denise Ramsden (Team Juvederm), among others.

Canadian Clara Hughes (Independent) was notably present on the registered list of riders to compete at the SRAM Tour of the Gila. She is a six-time Olympic medallist, four in speed skating and two in cycling. Hughes announced her return to road cycling this season with a goal of competing in the 2012 London Olympic Games.

The five-day race will kick off with the first mountaintop at the Mogollon Road Race, won by Leipheimer and Abbott last year. Stage two's Inner Loop Road Race has traditionally come down to a small group sprint, won by Amaran and Carmen Small last year. Stage three hosts the gruelling Tyrone 25 km time trial won by Jesse Sergent and Powers. The stage four Downtown Silver City Criterium is a day for the sprinters where Taylor Phinney and Shelley Olds stole the show. The event will conclude at the stage five finale on the Gila Monster Road Race won by Darren Lill and Abbott last year.


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