The Gila Monster
by: Torey Philipp (California Giant Cycling)
The “Gila Monster” stage of the Tour of the Gila sure lived up to its name. Going into the final day, we really didn’t have a designated leader for the stage or any guy to protect on GC, so our goal was to get one of us into the early break and hope it survived to the finish. Last year, the Gila Monster’s sharp teeth bit into me when racing at high altitude finally caught up with me and drained every last drop of energy out of my body, so I was a little worried about what might happen this time.
When the neutral zone ended, the race was on. There were constant attacks, but no one was getting too far up the road. The Jamis-Hagens Berman team, of overall race leader Janier Acevedo, was not making it an easy task for anyone attempting to get off the front. On the series of rollers heading towards the first KOM, the peloton was completely strung out, approaching speeds of 50-plus miles per hour at some points. Pebbles and debris shot up from the wheels in front of me. One of them struck my shin with enough force to actually break the skin, so I had blood dripping down my leg the rest of the stage. That’s a first!
After the left turn into the valley, we hit the crosswinds. Jamis put the field into the gutter on the right and gaps began to open. I had to close a few gaps in front of me and I was riding right at my limit. My teammate, Stefano Barberi, was behind me giving some encouragement to stay on the wheel in front of me. Finally, a break was established and the pace slowed up slightly for a bit. I realized I hadn’t eaten or drank anything, so I shoved a whole Clif bar into my mouth (do not try at home!) and guzzled a bottle so I wouldn’t bonk.
Once we hit the category 2 climb on our way to the Cliff Dwellings, the pace setting switched from Jamis- Hagens Berman over to Kenda 5-Hour Energy and the field began to shrink. As we approached the summit, I was starting to hurt. I remembered from our team meeting the night before that the best way to ride this stage is to divide it up into segments and just take each one at a time. I just kept telling myself, “Come on, make it to the top. You got this.” By the time I reached the top of the climb, I was slightly off the back, but I got into a small group on the long, high-speed descent and caught back onto the pack before the turnaround. Again, I focused so much on trying to stay with the leaders that I forgot to eat, so I had some shot blocks and my favorite race fuel, the double espresso gel!
Now the ominous, category 1 climb awaited us. The heavy hitters like Francisco Mancebo, Philip Deignan, and Phil Gaimon began to dish out the pain and riders were getting dropped right and left. I remember passing my teammate, Jesse Goodrich, and he got some enjoyment out of seeing my classic pain face. I tried to keep the leaders in my sight. A few minutes later, our team car came up from behind and our director, John Hunt, shouted a few words of encouragement and told me to catch the second group before the top. I dug deep and caught onto the back of the cars following the group right before the KOM line.
Only two climbs left and I was in the second group on the road with some of the top domestic riders like Chris Baldwin, Tom Zirbel, Max Jenkins, and Luis Amaran. “Come on, hang with these guys to the finish!” I told myself. We made our way down the descent and I made sure to keep the energy levels topped off with a few more shot blocks and another bottle. The group I was with stuck together the entire way up the category 2 climb of the Sapillo. Near the crest, John pulled up next to me in the car to offer me some drinks. I grabbed one of the most refreshing Cokes in my life. That gave me a little caffeine boost!
After the climb, there was a bit of disorganization in the group and Zirbel took off. There were a few more attacks on the descent towards the finish. It was a relief once the signs with how many kilometers ‘til the finish appeared. Three kilometers to go. Two kilometers to go. One kilometer to go! On the small climb towards the finish in Pinos Altos, I was expecting someone to attack but we just rolled across the finish line, exhausted. I made my way over to the team car and grabbed a much-needed burrito.
I ended up placing 18th on the stage and moved from 37th all the way up to 24th on the overall classification, a major improvement over last year! I am pretty pleased with the result. The “Gila Monster” has to be one of the toughest days of racing in the American racing scene and to place top 20 is pretty big. Next year’s goal: make the front group.