By Matthew Carinio
Outside of Nationals, this was the only race I put pressure on myself to get a result. Recently, I have used DeVlees Huis and Sea Otter as training with an eye on being in decent form for the 5 monster days in New Mexico. Last year’s champion, Ken Gallardo, would be there, along with 6 teammates, so we would have our work cut out for us. In addition, there would be numerous other strong racers from the higher elevations, with whom I would be unfamiliar, which always makes this race more challenging. I was happy that I would be joined this year by my teammates, Craig Nunes and Patrick Hampton, who would be experiencing the Tour of the Gila for the first time.
Stage 1 (118km): The opening stage is all about the final climb to Mogollon. Known as one of the most difficult finishing climbs in the country, all the favorites tend to save their energy for this monster. An early break of three went away at the first feed zone and rode to a lead of close to 4 minutes by the time the climb started. I hit the front on the early slopes and the field was reduced to 15 riders when we reached the false flat midway up the climb. Craig took a flyer to get 30 seconds when we hit the final (and hardest) 4k, where the race finally exploded. The lead group was made up of Damian Calvert (NM), Matt Gates (CO), Ken Gallardo (CA) , and me. With 2 km to go,, Damian upped the pace on the slopes that reach 15% and I was the only one who could follow. I quickly hit my limit and decided to ride my own pace to the 7,500 ft summit. With Gallardo and Gates back on my wheel, we caught Craig and the rest of the original break in the last km. I came across the line 4th, with Damian finishing 40 seconds ahead and the top 10 coming in individually 10 seconds apart from one another. I limited my losses and there was a lot of racing to come.
Stage 2 (121km): The Inner Loop road race is one of my favorite courses of the year, with steep climbs and 80km/hr descents on narrow forest roads. The race started with some back luck for our team, as Patrick suffered a mechanical that caused him to ride the entire stage solo on a spare bike. Kudos to Patrick for not giving up and living to fight another day. The race stayed together after the first 30km of climbing and descending. As we entered the 40km of valley road, Gallardo made a cheeky move and went away with another local racer. They quickly gained a 2-minute advantage. Damian looked unaffected, so Craig countered with 2 other riders for the long ride to bridge across. Damian still didn’t seem concerned. Later, I would find out that many of the NM teams formed a few alliances heading into the event. That, combined with not getting any time gaps, made this stage very complicated. I was confident that Craig would ride a good TT the next day, so I was happy to have him up the road. My only concern was the gap that they were forging, considering Gallardo won the race last year. As we started the final 25km of climbing and rollers into the finish, the pack was reduced to 10 riders. I jumped in the final km to come in 7th and gain 5 seconds on Damian and the rest of the riders. This effort would prove vital. Upon crossing the line, I heard that Craig had won the stage. I was super excited for him, as this was his biggest career win and it couldn’t happen to a better guy. As things calmed down, I was hoping the gap to him was around 2 minutes. When the results came in at a 3-minute gap, I was having doubts that I would be on the top step the last day. I was now sitting in 8th place, 2 1/2 minutes behind Gallardo and nearly 3 minutes behind his teammate, who was the new leader. Craig had moved up to 3rd overall.
Stage 3 TT (26km): This is by far the most difficult TT course of the year, starting with an 8km climb right off the start ramp. The course is also typically very windy, and at 7,500ft big efforts hurt even more than normal. I won this TT last year, so I had a good strategy about pacing, having looked at my numbers from my previous attempt. Like any TT, I just go out and do the best I can and whatever the time is it is. Hopefully it’s fast enough. Having been able to sit in for the entire 2nd stage due to Craig being in the break, I had very good legs for the TT. I ended up winning and taking 32 seconds out of Damian, almost 2 minutes out of Gallardo and 3 1/2 minutes out of the overnight leader. The GC had tightened up, with less than 55 seconds separating the top 6 riders.
Stage 4 Crit (35km): Being the Tour of Gila, the crit has to be hilly, right? By the end of the one-hour crit, we would climb 2,000 ft. My strategy was to try to get some bonus seconds at the finish. I ended up going off the front with 3 of the other favorites 3 laps into the 20-lap race. By the 4th lap, I could sense everybody in the break was suffering from the high-altitude effort, so I just kept it rolling and forged on alone. With all the top teams now chasing, my gap would never get more than 20 seconds and after 10 laps I was back in the group. With only 4 laps to go, I still had good legs, so Craig and Patrick kept me near the front during the final laps. Coming out of the last turn I was in 2nd position and passed quickly by one rider. I would work hard to pull him back in the last meters of the sprint and I was flying as the finish line approached. A quick bike throw and I could have sworn I had won, but upon seeing the finish photo I was bummed to see I lost by a tire. I was able to get 6 seconds of bonus that moved me up to 4th on GC, 3 seconds ahead of Damian and 45 seconds behind Ken.
Stage 5 (111km): Although a relatively short stage, it is a brutal one with the route being the 2nd stage done in reverse. It is known as The Gila Monster for good reason. The team’s strategy was to put Craig in a move to put pressure on Gallardo’s team to chase and allow me to follow wheels. I would then go all in during the final 25km that were mostly uphill on narrow roads. At the first bonus sprint, Damian would get across the line first and gain 3 seconds. We were now equal on time. I made a mental note of the virtual timing. Midway through the stage Craig was able to slip away and join forces with 4 other riders. Their gap was controlled by Gallardo’s Thirsty Bear team at 2 minutes. As the pack hit the lower slopes of the main climb the group was quickly reduced to just 3 riders: Damian, Gallardo, and me. We quickly put 30 seconds into the next group of 10 riders as we settled into a rhythm. Damian was using every steep switchback to put the screws to us and it seemed Gallardo was on the limit as gaps to Damian’s real wheel started to form. I could see Craig about 30 seconds up the road (having dropped all but one of his break mates) and I began to up the tempo when I heard somebody yell. I turned around I could see Gallardo on the ground. He had overlapped Damian’s wheel and went down. Damien and I immediately started to soft pedal to wait for Ken. We didn’t feel right about attacking with him on the ground. However, 3 problems were quickly becoming apparent: the hardest part of the climb was soon coming to an end, which would limit our ability to drop and put time into Gallardo. Ken was taking a long time to get back to us. My data showed that we soft pedaled for 90 seconds waiting for him. Lastly, as Ken was making his way back up to us, the group of 10 (that included one of his teammates) was now on his wheel and coming up to Damian and me as well. As we soft-pedaled I could sense Damian’s frustration building and we again agreed that we had to wait, but at what cost to the overall? As soon as Ken got on our wheels, Damian and I hit out on the attack. We felt we waited for Gallardo in the best possible way and set out now to distance him as best we could. We quickly distanced Gallardo and the group of riders he was with and they were now out of sight behind us. We caught Craig and before he was allowed to set much tempo for me, Damian immediately attacked, dropping Craig. He would attack me yet again before the top, but I made sure I stayed with him. When he asked me to pull through on the hill, I told him I wouldn’t help him if he kept attacking. We agreed that we needed to work together during the final 20km to the finish if we wanted to maximize our time over Gallardo and the other riders and have any chance at the overall victory. We shook hands and got to work. Our first time check after only a few km was 55 seconds. This sounded very promising, as we had a very hard section coming up. After 5 more km our next check was 45 seconds. It became apparent that the group that caught Gallardo when he went down was now helping him minimize their losses. This group consisted all of the other riders in the top 10 overall. I quickly had to make a few calculations. Damian and I were now equal time on the road, we needed to finish at least 45 seconds ahead of Gallardo, and if we did that then the winner of the stage between the two of us would win the overall. Things were very complicated. The next gap, at 10km to go, was 1 minute. We chatted again and said we had to ride all the way to final km. We couldn’t risk throwing away the overall by messing about. Our final check with 5km to go was still 1 minute. As we entered the final km I was preparing for an attack by Damian. The last km is very difficult, with stretches up to 15%. I was leading as we passed the 1km to go sign. I was confident we had enough time overall, so the main thing now was to be first across the line. With 500m to go on the steepest slope, Damian put in a vicious attack. I gave it everything, but he already had at least 10 bike lengths. For a split second, I felt the race might be lost, and having to wait 12 months for another chance at victory angered me. I quickly pushed the negative thoughts aside and started to sprint out of desperation and out of anger. I was pushing the biggest gear possible and would not sit down for the next minute. At 300 meters I was just keeping him even at 10 bikes. At 250 I saw him turn around and I thought, he’s fading, don’t give up. At 200 meters I was starting to finally make up ground. 150m to go I was only 2 bikes back, but only gaining slowly. The finish felt like it was almost there. He kicked again with 100m to go and he was holding me at 2 bikes. In the final 50 meters I found the strength from somewhere to slightly accelerate. I was pulling even in the final 10 meters and I made a desperate lunge at the line. I sensed that I passed him and everything went black. I nearly crashed into the crowd standing just after the finish. A minute later Craig came across the line in 3rd on the stage and the announcers declared I had won the overall. Earlier that week I promised my son that I would win for him and give him the jersey for his birthday, which fell on the final day. Seeing the smile on his face when I was on the podium getting the jersey made all the suffering worth it.
I’d like to thank my teammates, Craig Nunes and Patrick Hampton, for their support on and off the bike that week. Dave and Cherie Moore, who helped so much in the final 24 hours when I needed them. Lastly, thanks to ArtsCyclery, FLUID, and Voler, who continue to support this small team from SLO.