Tour of the Gila, Day 5: Gila Monster

Last day of the race. Yesterday’s crit win made today icing on the cake, regardless of outcome. But I was secretly hoping my legs would be back and I would be able to hang with the lead group. There were five categorized climbs on the day, and I hung with the group through two of them. On the third, about 20 of the best climbed away from me. I found myself descending alone, until a group of three bridged up to me. We were all cooked, like the bison meatloaf I would later eat for dinner. Cooked and drained, like the pasta I’d consumed nearly every night this week. Totally empty, like my bladder wasn’t on day one.

Four straight days of hard racing, at altitude, did a number on everyone.

Luckily, the lead group was content to simply kill it over every climb and then just hang out. No actual teams (nearly all the GC guys were riding solo all week) meant that no one dictated any sort of pace in between the mountains. So the three guys I was working with, lead by Simple Green because he was in a decent GC spot and more strongly desired to make it back up to the lead group, eventually bridged, well in advance of the final 1-2 punch to the finish, a category 2 climb followed immediately by a category 4 to finish it off.

My day was bizarre. I started off feeling great, still content with the victory from the day before, then it was good when I made it over the first climb with the leaders, then it was bad when I got dropped, then it really sucked when it was the small group of four because they all seemed to be hurting just as much as I was, which essentially limited our pulls to 10 seconds each. We must have been a terrible sight. But, it got a bit better when we bridged the gap and I rode through the feed zone relaxed, feeling OK, wondering how the last two climbs would fare now that I was back with the leaders. No one was doing anything on the 15 mile run-up. Until about four miles from the base of the climb. Then one by one, the GC leaders and a couple randoms (including Garrett “chops” from the break yesterday) attacked Fortunato, the man who had stood atop the GC since winning stage one up to Mogollon so many days earlier. He went with literally every move. I probably could have told him I was 40 minutes down, attacked, and he still would have covered it. All this covering ended up costing him 1st place.

So, I go from bad to better, and am actually able to stay with everybody through the many, many surges in the valley. Then the road turned up. I stuck with the leaders, hanging on for grim death, not knowing how my body would respond after subjecting it to so many varied efforts already today and the past four days. We hit the base of the climb right at the four-hour mark. If anything, this whole race made me realize that as hard as I train, I probably don’t do enough one-hour threshold interval sessions followed by a massive sprint AFTER doing an entire sisters loop. Maybe I should start doing that.

Eventually the leaders gapped me, but I stayed within sight, and counted myself at 12th place, and thought that I just need to keep my tempo up, pass two guys who get dropped, and I’ve got a respectable top ten. Well, in a day full of ups and downs and good feelings and bad, this was the apex of the good stuff. The climb was long; seeing a “15 mi to go” sign after being dropped on the penultimate climb of a 102-mile day also doesn’t do much for one’s morale. I’d end up being passed by 10 guys, some solo, some in small one- or two-man groups, trying desperately to cling to anything going by, but failing time and again. Ended up with a slightly respectable 24th, over 10 minutes back on the day. So yeah, between falling off the pace of the leaders and finishing the race 15 miles later, I was passed by about 10 guys. Ouch. What a gorgeous stage, and a phenomenal race, though. I highly encourage anyone and everyone, especially cat 4s and 5s who might have the ability to take a week off work, and get out to Silver City. Hell of an experience to race a huge stage race like this, see how your body responds to day after day of hard riding.

The most humbling thing, in a five-day crash course on being humbled, came in the last two kilometers of this Gila Monster stage. I’m going up the final climb alone, vying for both 24th place and my sanity. No one is near me. It’s quiet. Pine trees line the road. The sun tries in vain to warm the mile-high air, shadows dance through the trees. It smells faintly of Christmas. There is a bright red bow on a fence, reinforcing the seasonal notion. Two motorbikes honk, and zoom past. Then a car. Then back to silence. I know at least one guy is on his way, and though the timing doesn’t seem to make sense, that massive caravan means only one thing: pros are here.

A convertible pulls up alongside me; I use most of the energy left in my body to stay to the right of the road, not get run over by all these cars. I turn back, and see a lone rider. In the red leader‘s jersey.

Francisco Mancebo.

“Mancebo? Alone?” I ask the guy in the car who, facing backwards, is now looking directly at me.

The guy smiles, and nods. “He’s a minute up.”

The car, followed by a couple others in the support caravan, disappears up the next switchback. I hear the whirring of a chain, labored breath, a soft grunt. It all gets louder as he nears.

“Chapeau, Francisco,” I muttered, but by the time it came out, he was already gone.