Defending champions Mara Abbott and Rob Britton return for the 30th edition of the Tour of the Gila, one of the last sprawling stage races available to both elite and amateurs alike. Situated in the heart of mining country, the Tour of the Gila has five stages in or around Silver City, New Mexico that challenge all of a rider's skills. With highly technical descents, an out-and-back time trial that is often held in gusty winds, soaring climbs and a high-speed criterium in downtown Silver City, only a complete rider can stand at the top of the podium at the end of the Gila Monster final stage.
The race begins from the heart of Silver City, and heads up toward the ghost town of Mogollon, ending on a steep 10.8km climb that kicks up to 19 per cent in parts. Last year the peloton mistimed their efforts and the breakaway stayed clear, but the minute the stage winner put into Britton came at a cost - later in the week Colombian Rafael Montiel cracked in the mountains and tumbled out of the race lead. Abbott, on the other hand, began her commanding start-to-finish domination in this stage and never let up.
The second stage begins and ends in historic Fort Bayard and heads up the daunting Pinos Altos climb in the first 20km. Riders then continue up to Meadow Creek for a second KOM and then face a hair-raising descent to Sapillo Creek before taking a relatively flat, scenic trip down NM35 to San Lorenzo, giving plenty of time for the peloton to chase down any escapees. A final chance for the climbers to distance the sprinters comes on the way up past the Santa Rita copper mine, but a wide-open descent usually allows for a reduced bunch sprint at the fort.
The Tyrone Time Trial is a 26.6km out and back that heads up and over Little Burro pass at the start and finish, with a flat section tucked in the middle that can be extremely windy. The following day, the criterium offers a chance for the climbers to rest up for the big finale - the "Gila Monster".
The Gila Monster is similar to stage 2, but runs in the opposite direction from Silver City, past the Santa Rita Mine, hits a category 3 ascent, then takes a quick descent to San Lorenzo followed by the rolling route along NM35. The pro men then head north, hitting a category 2 ascent to Anderson Vista before the steep descent to the Gila Wilderness Visitor's Center, then turn around, head up the category 1 climb back over the mountain, down to Sapillo Creek and rejoin with the pro women's route, which heads south to the final climbs from NM35.
The climb to Meadow Creek, a category 2 from this direction, is followed by a quick descent then a small leg-breaker to the finish line in the town of Pinos Altos. Last year, seven riders sprinted for the stage win in the men's race, with Britton tucked in behind stage winner Michael Woods. This year, Britton has moved from the now-defunct SmartStop team to the stacked Rally Cycling squad, who aim to win the race with either Britton or newcomer Danny Pate, who stepped back from the WorldTour in the final years of his career.
The pro men's stage races have been hotly contested this season, with Jamis' Janier Acevedo twice being dethroned from the race lead by lesser known riders. He will be out for revenge. At Redlands it was Matteo Dal-Cin of Silber Pro Cycling, and in the Joe Martin Stage Race it was Neilson Powless (Axeon-Hagens Berman).
The Axeon team will be reinforced by U23 Liege-Bastogne-Liege winner Logan Owen, Tao Geoghegan Hart and Portuguese rider Ruben Guerreiro, who are coming off a successful European campaign, and will be a force, as usual.
UnitedHealthcare is ramping up for the Tour of California, and will be looking to establish itself atop the standings with Daniel Jaramillo, last year's best young rider, and Matthew Busche, who joined this year from Trek's WorldTour squad. Jelly Belly is always aggressive, and Lachlan Morton showed his prowess in the high altitude climbs in last year's USA Pro Challenge.
And let's not forget Chris Horner, now with Lupus. He has yet to show that he's shaken off the lung infection that has hampered him since 2014, but if healthy he cannot be underestimated.
On the women's side, it will be all about who can beat Abbott, and that one person could be Kristin Armstrong (Twenty16-Ridebiker), whose strong suit in the time trial could play into her advantage. Armstrong got the better of her in the Redlands Classic, although Abbott fractured her collarbone in the queen stage but then kept racing. Abbott will be out for revenge, and with five titles to her name, this is her stomping grounds.
UnitedHealthcare's Coryn Rivera has had a hot streak as of late, winning the Joe Martin Stage Race and the Charlotte Criterium, but although she's shown herself to be more than just a sprinter in the past year, the high mountains have not been her strongest suit. Her teammate Katie Hall will be the likely leader and has shown herself in this race before.
Lauren Stephens (Tibco-Silicon Valley Bank) has been a consistent contender, and tops the riders to watch column along with Kathryn Donovan (Colavita-Bianchi), Jasmin Glaeser (Rally Cycling), and up and coming Japanese rider Eri Yonamine (Hagens Berman-Supermint).
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