Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Surviving Stage Two: Inner Loop Road Race

Stringing it out up the first climb
Stringing it out up the first climb

There are two big related stories about this week's Tour of the Gila stage race. One is the amazing coverage that media outlets are giving to a U.S. based bicycle race. When Sports Illustrated, ESPN, the New York Times, and pretty much every mainstream news publication is covering a race in remote southwestern New Mexico, you know that something's different. Here's a little snippet from the Albuquerque nightly news:

And just what is that "something different?" Well, it's the Lance factor of course:

Stage Two: Inner Loop Road Race Recap

I knew it was going to be rough, so I set very modest goals: Finish the stage and make the time cut. Sounds easy enough, but when you have international superstars revving their engines, a small gap to the peloton can balloon extremely quickly.

The race is mellow for all of about 5 miles before teams start lining up for the first intermediate sprint bonus. Right after that comes a pretty nasty climb up to Pinos Altos and the pack definitely begins to splinter. I didn't quite make it over the climb with the lead peloton, but was close enough that I could punch it to the riders just in front of me and quickly rotate with them to rejoin the action.

A few miles of technical mountain descending and then the steep two-mile climb in the outskirts of the Gila National Forest is up next. It's a spectacularly beautiful area, but I only now this from visiting on non-race days. Today going up that climb, my lights started to go out.

I must have yo-yo'ed back and forth off the back of the pack, fighting my way back on three times before the last "yo" had no response... it just dangled at the end of the string with no snap back. Sorry for the horrible metaphor - it's the best I can do after too long, hard days!

The next descent goes on for ever, off of the mountain and down into the Mimbres River valley. The tight roads, undulations, and some decreasing radius turns thrown in are sure to grab your attention - it's awesome, and a nice chance to recover from the climbs.

The good news is that by the bottom of the descent, I got into a good-sized group that eventually built to over 20 riders. We moved through the subsequent valley and the climbs towards the end at a good clip. We finished the stage about 18 minutes down on the leaders which, considering what was transpiring at the head of the race, wasn't all that bad.

There were some fireworks going on further up the road in what sounds like a smaller, simpler version of Tours de France gone by. Floyd Landis was in a four-man break that gained as much as four minutes on the peloton with Lance and Chris Horner doing most of the work to keep them close and eventually real them in. As Alex Howes (Garmin U23 Team), who went on to take second place in the field sprint told VeloNews, "They were just two-man team time trialing, it was pretty impressive."

Kudos to my teammate Emiliano Jordan who after a rough day yesterday was was able to rebound and gut it out over the early climbs, sit on all through the valley, and stay with the lead group to the finish - no mean feat! The rest of my teammates actually ended up in my chase group, although they each lasted longer in the peloton than I did. There's still a little bit missing in that real top-end punch in my game, especially when it comes early in a race.

Tomorrow's another day, the "race of truth," time trial, or, as my Honduran teammates call it "contra reloj" (against the watch). 16.15 miles long and, since it's the Gila, some pretty burly climbs thrown in along the way.

Photo via Tour of the Gila.

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