The 28th annual Tour of The Gila began today. The race started in downtown Silver City with the neutral roll out including a climb to get the legs ready for the day. The UCI men raced 92 miles on a challenging course, finishing on the Cat 1 Mogollon climb. It’s a narrow steep climb ending on a day of exposed roads and rolling/climbing terrain.
Once the flag dropped the attacks began right away. Yannick Eckmann of California Giant/Specialized was particularly active getting into several early attacks but the peloton was not willing to let anything go. The speeds were high, making it very difficult to get away. However, The UCI men ride two circuits through the town of Cliff and these roads can create opportunities for riders to get away. As the race turned onto the small secondary roads, they were greeted by the elementary school kids who come out every year, cheering with their cowbells. This seemed to charge the riders, as hard and frequent attacks began. Optum decided enough was enough and began to drive the pace. The peloton remained together, as it joined the main road again.
The second circuit through Cliff was again quite active and a group of 4 got away, containing Connor McCutcheon of Airgas Cycling, Steve Fischer of Jelly Belly p/b Maxxis, Coulton Hartrich of Marc Pro-Strav, and Max Korus of Astellas Cycling Team. They took advantage of the hilly narrow roads and committed themselves to the break. The peloton seemed to hesitate and that was all the four needed, as their gap steadily increased to 4 minutes as they hit the main road again.
The break riders rotated through consistently and with a healthy tailwind, their gap grew to 10 minutes by mile 67. At this point 5 Hour Energy p/b Kenda Pro Cycling, and UnitedHealthCare Pro Cycling assumed the front and set, what race radio called, ‘a hard tempo’. At 33 plus mph this was quite an understatement and the breaks gap consistently dropped from this point on. Unfortunately, the race took a turn for the worse, perhaps the effects of such a strong pace for many many miles and the resultant fatigue were the cause … The reasons aren’t clear but the crash that occurred was devastating.
The crash occurred roughly around mile 75 with the gap around 8 minutes. Approximately, 20 riders remained together with small groups chasing and ultimately building the ‘peloton’ back up to 40-plus riders. The race was in a state of chaos as medical personnel and team cars all focused on the downed riders.
As the break of 4 took the right hand turn for the Cat 1 Mogollon climb they had to know that their gap wasn’t enough, but they continued to ride fully committed to the break. As the peloton made the turn the gap was down to 2:35. Race radio was still in a state of chaos as the crash was justifiably spreading personnel across the course, but Jamis-Hagen Berman seemed to be the team that came though relatively unscathed with the most riders represented in the front group.
Max Korus of Astellas, was almost immediately dropped as the first part of the Mogollon began. The remaining 3 rode well to reach the plateau with a gap of 1:20. Jamis-Hagens Berman team got to the front as they reached the plateau and drove the pace to 28 mph. The break was caught for the final steep pitches of the Mogollon. Matt Cooke of Jamis-Hagen Berman took off and immediately got a gap. He had the numbers behind to help protect his attack so the move seemed like it could stick. The peloton went through a process of elimination as the pace remained high and riders were popped off the back. Cooke seemed to have the win but with 30 meters to go, teammate Daniel Jaramillo, overtook Cooke for the win. Gregory Obando Brenes of Jamis-Hagen Berman took third to make it a sweep for the team. The rest of riders crossed the line looking utterly cracked from the intense day.
Th finish area took on a distinctly different feel for what is typical. There weren’t hoots of congratulations but rather subdued racers who appeared to be thinking of their teammates and friends who were involved in the crash. Kirk Carlson of Jelly Belly had this to say, “I was right behind the crash but just barely made it through. It was one of the most devastating crashes I’ve ever seen”.
In a sport where a thin layer of Lycra protects you from the road, racers are said to be a tough breed, as seasoned photographer Casey Gibson stated, “Unless there’s a bone sticking out, racers are gonna get back on their bikes and ride.” With so few riders crossing the line along along with the quiet atmosphere of the finish area, it spoke to the significance of this crash.