Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Tour of the Gila Recon Notes

After 2 weeks of long hours in Phoenix, I took off for Silver City, NM intent on riding the Tour of the Gila course. The drive from Phx to Silver City was pretty uneventful. It wasn’t the most boring 5hrs I’ve spent in a car (thank you Western KS!) but it was up there. That is of course, until you start to climb upwards west of Tucson. It gets pretty real quick if you enjoy mountains. The drive from Lordsburg, NM to Silver is quite picturesque, cresting the continental divide.

I linked up with Chris at the Mimbres Café (closes at 8:30 on Friday night, so plan your reveling accordingly) after downing a veggie sandwich. My avocado consumption skyrocketed during this trip, and all those (healthy) fats surely came back to get me in the hills.

For those of you who haven’t met him, NYChris is an affable young man. He is mature beyond his years and strikes me as a truly thoughtful person. I appreciated his hospitality for the weekend.

Chris led me from the café to the place he’s been house-sitting for the summer. After a few single-lane bridge crossings on gravel back roads, we pulled in front of this little house. Sliding around these mountain roads in the dark, I won’t deny that the thought occurred to me that this was all a set-up for a pistol to the face and an emptying of my admittedly meager wallet. Instead I was invited into this (off the grid) fine home and shown the separate guest bedroom/art studio where I could crash for the next 2 days. With minimal light pollution, the national forest, and a nearby creek as the backdrop – even in the dark - the place was beautiful.

We chatted for a while then headed to bed as the group would leave from Silver City early the next morning.

Gila Monster Stage (~79 miles, serves as the final stage of the TotG)
On Saturday I rode with Chris and some local guys (3 young Navajo XC runners turned cyclists – I have more body fat than the three of them combined). We set off from downtown Silver City to ride the “inner loop” counter –clockwise, which is the course used during the Gila Monster stage (final day) at the TotG. Starting altitude was just under 6000ft.

The route opens with rollers of the sort you can expect in southern IL or Missouri. The descent into the Mimbres area (on 180 or 152, I can’t quite recall) serves as the decisive climb on the inner loop road race stage (stage 2) as it is almost the same course, but run clockwise. Descending was fantastic as the views were stunning and the speed was pegged at 40+mph into a headwind. I jumped once or twice to get past the other guys, and while there were turns, the pavement was good and road broad. Coming back up the climb would be quite difficult and serves to form the selection in most races on the clockwise route. NYChris expects the climb to eliminate all but the top 10-20 riders in the fields, with the rollers on the run-in to Silver serving to separate the top 10.

Turning north into the town of Mimbres, the race sees some flats and should be protected from the wind. Scenery remains beautiful. There are a few rollers and shorter climbs before you pass the “Breathe Inn” and are faced with the big climb of the Gila Monster stage – [insert name here]. At this point we were in our third hour of riding and I was starting to really feel it. The lower slopes of the climb are the steepest, and the switchbacks see grades above 13%. Usually, I don’t get too worked up about grades since in the midwest it’s going to end in the next 5 minutes. It doesn’t in NM. It keeps dishing it out. I cracked pretty early and finished the climb in 24 minutes. (For reference, the top cat 3’s summit it in just under 17 minutes. NYChris did it in 20, while the climbers – Dustin, Marcus, and Kempton - uncorked times between 17 and 18:30. Of note, I popped really badly and was turning over a 39x26 @ 50rpm, showing the world a measly 215W. So, to give an idea, if you absolutely explode and there is no life left in your legs, you won’t do much worse than 24 or 25 minutes. ) The climb itself is beautiful and the pavement isn’t too bad going up. Coming down the other way, however, one should use prodigious amounts of caution. Several of the switchbacks do not have guardrails, and while you may get lucky and stop yourself on a tree, if you go off road here you may be going off a cliff. Don’t schleck. I didn’t actually do the decent (though my time suggested I did), but studying the road at 6mph, it’s safe to ride, but be very cautious. I would not be surprised if I gifted 1-2 minutes to competitors on the decent to preserve my life. Frankly, I think there is enough road left on the stage that you can get that time back. (Someone may prove me wrong!) Also, as you’d expect, you’ll want to be towards the front going into the decent. Descending 3 abreast would not be cool.

After topping out, your legs get a little reprieve but the climbing isn’t done yet. There are several more climbs in the 5-10% range. Just before the finish, a 10-15% ramp welcomes you home. It wasn’t too hard (more of a sprinter’s hill) but at the end of the day, it could produce seconds-wide gaps.
The route takes you over 7000ft, so any ability to get to Silver a day or so early will benefit your body.

Chris and the guys were gracious to this fat flatlander and waited for me repeatedly in the final hour(s) of the ride. Even more gracious was their humoring of my belly-aching (I haven’t slept for 2 weeks, I’m not acclimated to this altitude, I’m fat, I’m slow, I’m I’m I’m…etc). It’s been a long time since I’ve been the first one dropped on a group ride, so the day went down as a big piece of humble pie. Regardless, even on a good day, I would have been put into difficulty on the major climb of the route. I have a lot of work to do before next April!

After getting back to Silver (by descending the 1000ft+ over 7 miles from Pinos Altos) we grabbed burritos and checked out the Gila Hike & Bike. Wherever we went, Chris was greeted warmly by a different cyclist. It seems like a cool scene.

Mogollon Climb (~38 miles, 77 miles from Silver to the Mog serves as stage 1 of the TotG)
After my terrible climbing the day before and my upcoming 5 hr drive back to Phoenix, we decided to shorten this stage a little. Starting from a scenic overlook near Cliff, NM we rode north on 180 through Glenwood, turning right (and up!) to climb the hors catagorie Mogollon.

The start of the stage in Silver is followed by a “neutral” climb out of town that is equivalent to the opening climb of the Tour of Hermann RR route (yeah, ouch). I would put it at a 5 minute climb (guessing, we drove it). Just a little something to warm up the legs! With just a few rollers from there, you enter the flattest racing you’ll see during the stage race. The next 50 miles are pretty darn flat. Winds will play a factor here, but there is some cover from nearby hills. I wouldn’t be surprised to see echelons form if a stiff crosswind presents itself. Near the town of Cliff, you’ll enter some rollers. These rollers are tough. They are long and shallow enough that maintaining momentum up them is a challenge. They aren’t really “rollers” but “slowers.”
The town of Glenwood is quickly followed by the second feed zone (on an incline during which I didn’t want to remove my hands from the bars!). A couple miles later, you hang a right over a cattle guard to enter the Mogollon climb. After a false flat, the climb begins for 2 miles at 8-11%. I felt good through this section and thought perhaps I would put the hurt on NYChris. We crested that section together and entered a 1.5-2 mile false flat. After the 10% sections on the lower slopes, it felt like we were riding downhill. This might be a place to go over the top of the group if there isn’t any wind, and test the other racer’s legs. Most people will be conserving every thought and watt for the punishment ahead. Once the road kicks up on the upper slopes, it doesn’t relent, save a 3% section, until you hit the cattle guard at the finish line. The climb was awesome from a cyclotouring perspective: great views, constantly wrapping around the mountain. However, racing it will be quite difficult. With about a mile to go I gave up the ghost as the lactic burn was too much. The right side of the road is marked for 1 mile, 500m, and 200m remaining. At 500m, stand up and finish like Cadel in the 2009 World Championships, cuz you shouldn’t leave with anything in the tank. Chris beat me to the line by a good 30 seconds on the day (hey, I’ll take it over 4 minutes the day before! So we think he was on a bad day, and I was getting a little better). Because of this climb, I would recommend having at least a 39x26 on the bike. If you are a spinner, consider compact gearing. You may not need it if you’re a grinder, but it’s nice to have while trying to keep the cadence up out of the 50-60 range. The upper slopes average 11% I think. The fact that the cat 3 RRs all extend beyond 70 miles means you’re not going to have your best 1 hour power on the climb.

The climb wasn’t “that bad” for me; compared to the day before it was easier. Perhaps it was the shorter run-up to the climb, a good night’s sleep, and/or my body beginning to adapt to the altitude (not likely) but we rolled fairly quickly up this climb (10+mph on the lower slopes, and 8+mph on the upper slopes). At the tail end of a 70 mile RR, I can’t see going much faster up the climb without significant fitness/acclimation improvements. But, as I mentioned, I wasn’t having a good weekend on the bike (from a performance standpoint).

The road is very narrow, and there was some fallen rock and wash across the road. Descending (after the race) is a little sketchy through these sectors (especially with other racers coming up), so frequently scrubbing speed is recommended.

There are some logistics to work through regarding the return trip on this stage of the race. Chris and I discussed leaving a “team car” at the base of the climb, and having us all pile into it for the return to Silver. The race organization has a bus that takes guys back, but I would want to have my post race stuff (recovery drink, change of clothes, etc) available instantly, and dictate my own schedule. Something to think about.

After shedding the jackets we donned for the decent, we rode through Glenwood and the rollers to our launch point at Logan’s Lookout (or some such thing). I will say that one of the highlights of the weekend was putting NYChris into difficulty during this stretch. I took my longest and strongest pulls of the weekend through here. It’s a bit sad, that at the end of the trip I was starting to show some legs. After he had laid the smackdown on me all weekend long, the shorter, steep kickers suited my high-power/short duration efforts. Hooray for midwestern crit racing.

After packing up the bikes we drove the 50 miles back into town and perused the crit course again.

Crit Course Recon (day 4 of the TotG):
Chris and I drove the crit course two (2) times, and it looks like a really nice circuit in downtown Silver City. Pavement wasn’t too bad (check back after the winter!) and the turns seemed reasonable. There were 2 turns where the pack will have to squeeze from 2 lanes down to 1, and I’m sure those will get interesting. Also, there are 2 short kickers on the course which will tire the legs as the race unfolds. Not sure as to the history of breakaways on the course, but I could see a break sticking if teammates are blocking and the will of GC hopefuls is broken. The final corner is a good 400 meters from the finish, so the winner will be top 5 out of the last corner, maybe top 10, depending on everyone’s sprinting legs if it comes down to a bunch.

TT Course Recon (day 3 of the TotG):
Coming into town on Hwy 90 from Tyrone, I was hoping to find a fast and flat TT course. I kept looking but didn’t see one. Instead I found long rollers and constant climbing and descending. I think I will probably forgo any TT accoutrements beyond a helmet, as this route is all about going up and down quickly.

The road cycling scene there is not the largest, but it is quite friendly and competitive. I think a spring training camp in Arizona and New Mexico would be ideal for midwestern racers. The Tucson and Phoenix areas have (thousands of) riders ramping up in fall and spring for races, so group rides in Jan. and Feb. would be pretty good riding for early season training to bring the intensity up. If anyone reading this is interested in going down there early on in 2011 (Jan/Feb/March), please contact me. I’ve been in PHX and Tucson frequently in the past 2 years for work and as a result I’ve collected a list of group rides and made friends with many a racing cyclist. I’ve been to dozens of bike shops and I’ve ridden the local routes. Furthermore, NYChris has said he’d be happy to join in the fun and tour the AZ-NM routes. In fact, Chris and I discussed the possibility of a no-frills cyclotouring operation down there. Let’s just say, there’s a reason all the pros relocate to Tucson during the winter. :)

For those of you who are interested in joining me at the TotG in 2011, feel free to email me specific questions regarding route/altitude/equipment/etc. If I can’t answer it, I’ll forward it on to Chris, who did the 4/5 race last year and intends on upgrading to do the 3’s race next year.

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