» 2013 Tour of the Gila: The Culture of Bike Racing

2013 Tour of the Gila: The Culture of Bike Racing

May 1 – 5th, 2013 (Gilbert Ramirez)

When I think of the term “culture” I think of all the random elements that make up the term: clothing, language, tribal knowledge, slang, symbols, various unspoken understandings and, of course, curios and chotchkies. In most situations, a person’s culture is practically predetermined by their nascent years, based on self perpetuating ideologies of politics, economics, religion or otherwise. Rarely do we get to passionately choose our culture in an organic way. I bought into bike racing a long time ago, when I was in my disgruntled teens; I’m now in my disgruntled 40s. In my opinion, the Tour of the Gila is the epitome of bike racing anywhere. It is the toughest stage race in America, leaving most participants exhausted, soul-searched, and most of all, humbled. Great racers go to Gila and get their ass handed to them. Average racers don’t go to Gila.

Silver City sits at about 5500 ft and is located in the southwest corner of New Mexico where the elements are brutal; It’s one of those forgotten towns that exists so far off a major freeway that people only go there when they are forced to go there. And THERE, the wind is always blowing the dusty dead Earth–scorched from so many years of superheated desert conditions. I’ve seen ashtrays with more vegetation. Ironically, just a few miles to the north of town, the Gila National Forest thrives with tall pine trees and rugged cliffs. Collectively, this is the setting for the annual 5-stage Tour of the Gila survival ride.

I’ve completed six Tours of the Gila. Compared to my competition, I’ve never performed well. Why do I keep coming back? Yeah, I don’t know. Glutton for pain? Desperate for humiliation? Yeah, I don’t know. No, I do know. It’s because of the elements. In bike racing you compete against your fellow competitors and you do so while battling the elements. More than any other race I’ve competed in, the “element” factor of the Tour of the Gila challenges participants to dig deep…very deep…or not finish. To put it another way (in bike lingo): you can’t hide in the Tour of the Gila…on any stage. The wind, the climbs, the descents and the heat will challenge you like you’ve never been challenged. Sure, you can mark a man or watch a team but the elements are the true antagonists of this annual epic story.

Here is my race report for the 2013 Masters Tour of the Gila.

Stage 1: “Mogollon” Profile:
Mogollon is a small ghost town that sits at the top of a super steep mountain road about 70 miles outside of Silver City; I believe Mogollon is Spanish for “ghost town populated by the souls of cyclists that have left the sport due to, well, Mogollon.” The course is about 75 miles long. The first 60 miles are very manageable for an experienced rider, but the last 15 miles will climb over 2000 ft, most of the gain in elevation will be done in the last 6 miles, where the the grade of the route will reach almost 20%. Bear in mind, this climb comes after 70 miles of racing. From the top of Mogollon, you can see Russia.

Of the 4 times I’ve raced up Mogollon, this was the first year that I didn’t have to dismount my bike due to unbelievable leg cramps. This year, I started the final 6 mile ascent with the lead group, but by the time I reached the finish line I’d lost 7 minutes on them. So, on average, I lost over 1 minute for every mile of the 6-mile climb. I did feel that slight muscle pinch you get which serves as a warning from your body–“If you go any harder, I will lock these legs up!” So, I tiptoed up Mogollon in my daisy gear (26) to avoid a full cramp meltdown. This is more difficult than it sounds when you consider the average grade of the climb of about 12%. Just walking up Mogollon would require a high level of fitness. I was several minutes off the lead but I considered the stage a personal victory.

Stage 2: “Inner Loop
Stage 2 is, hands down, the most difficult stage of the Tour of the Gila. The course is about 75 miles long and the total elevation gain is around 6000 ft. I’m too lazy to look up the exact gain in elevation, but that’s the luxury of blogging…no fact checking…ok, it’s 5854 ft of climbing…crybabies. There are five easy miles in the “Inner Loop” Road Race and they are the first five miles. This is followed by 25 miles of the toughest route of bike racing I’ve ever experienced; in these 25 miles, there are four points of natural selection which WILL thin out every race, EVERY race.

The first point of natural selection (after the opening five miles) is a six mile climb leading to Pinos Altos, which is the entrance to the Gila National Forest. The road through the national forest is a little less than 20 miles long; it isn’t wide enough for two cars, so no yellow line. This twenty mile paved serpent is canopied by pine trees; it winds through switchback sections and twists up and down climbs like a mad engineer’s rollercoaster. Throughout this entire section of the course you will rarely be able to see more than 200 yards up the road. There are numerous blind curves. The leaders fly through this section single file. Think singletrack.

If you are lucky enough to crest the first climb with the leaders, you will immediately dive into a descent of twisted blind curves and 180 switchbacks which leads to a second 5-mile climb. If you survive with the lead group to the top of the second climb then the next 10 miles will descend about 1600 ft…most of this descent happens in the last 5 miles. This is an extremely fast and steep descent and it is filled with 180 switchbacks. Of the six years that I have raced Gila, I have witnessed wrecks on this descent 10 times. True story.

After the first 30 miles of this stage the course rolls through a relatively flat valley for 30 miles (rolling hills) until the last 15 miles, where you basically climb up to a finish; this final series of climbs is another point of natural selection but if you don’t make the first 30 miles of the course with the lead group then you are pretty much dead in the water.

My goal every year for this stage of Gila is to make the first 30 miles with the lead group–through the forest and down the big descent. I figured that if I could do this, then I could finish close enough to the leaders to be a threat. This was the first year, out of six attempts, that I accomplished my goal. I made it down the descent slightly off the lead group of 15 riders…and then the unspeakable happened…on a rolling section…just as I had jumped back into the lead group…I cramped on a super short roller hill. I was less than 35 miles into a 75 mile race and my left hamstring locked up. I couldn’t believe it; this had NEVER happened. My leg locked so hard I had to stop pedalling and dismount.

The next 40 miles were the toughest miles, mentally and physically, that I’ve pedalled in a long time. Small groups of 5 or 6 riders (which I had shredded early on) passed me in the rolling valley section as I soft-pedalled to keep my hamstring in check. I would jump into their small echelon for a little while then have to fade off the group’s pace to ensure my leg didn’t lock up. This happened several times. I rode most of this rolling valley section alone and I ate everything I had on me: 2 bananas, 1 orange, 2 mojo bars and a bottle of NUUN. I was officially in survival mode.

Each small group of riders that passed me surprised me. I knew how far back I was from the leaders, but these guys were REALLY far back…which basically meant that I was too, now. From the time I cramped until the time I had finished the race, I lost about 40 minutes on the lead group. I was demoralized. Three different SAG wagons asked me if I wanted a ride, if I wanted to quit. To my surprise, I finished ahead of 5 other riders on this stage. Those poor souls.

On this night, my diet and rest were my primary concern. I was in survival mode.

Stage 3: Time Trial Profile
The time trial is a sixteen mile out and back course. Basically, you climb up a mountain for about 5 miles then you descend down the backside then you reverse course and climb back up the steep side and finish it off with a 5 mile descent. I didn’t care. I rode it. I was still in survival mode but my eyes were on Stage 4, the criterium. I ate and ate and ate and ate…good food. I went to bed early.

On this night, my diet and rest were my primary concern. I was in survival mode.

Stage 4: Criterium
The criterium is held on a one-mile course, in downtown Silver City, which has an elevation gain/loss of about 80 ft per lap. This is probably my favorite criterium course because I can stomp up the short steep hill with the best of riders. And, on this day, I woke up feeling great.

We did 20 laps/miles, so 1600 feet of elevation gain. I rode near the front of the pack throughout the entire race and I attacked the last 3 climbs. I got pinched in the last corner of the last lap but I finished top 10, well 10th…to be exact.

While my placing in the crit was respectable, the most important thing to me was that I was riding myself out of a miserable Gila. On this day, I felt great…such a change from stage 2.

On this night, my diet and rest were my primary concern. I officially changed my status from “survival” to attack mode. I was too far back on time in the overall standings to be a threat in the race, but I was feeling better at this stage of Gila than I had ever felt.

Stage 5: Gila Monster
The Gila Monster road race is a bitch. Basically this course is the reverse of stage 2, about 70 miles…lots of climbing. The technical descent that falls over 1000 feet in five miles from stage 2 is what is known as “The Gila Monster” when it is ridden in reverse. The 20 mile section of ups, downs, switchbacks and blind curves through the Gila National Forest from stage 2 are all ridden in reverse for stage 5.

There are two major points of natural selection in the Gila Monster road race. The fist comes about 15 miles into the race. Again, the early miles are easy but then the course hits a substantial 5 mile climb. From there we descent into the rolling valley, where we cruise until we hit the 10 mile Gila Monster climb out of the valley, finally snaking our way through the forest to the finish line at Pinos Altos.

There are times when you get on the bike and you think to yourself: today, I’m going to be dangerous. You just know it by the way you feel when you take that first pedal stroke, pushing down feels so easy and natural. This is the way I felt before the start of the 2013 edition of Gila Monster.

For me, the biggest obstacle of the Gila Monster road race was myself. I had to keep myself in check. Rolling through the first series of climbs felt great. Riders kept leaping off the front of the pack trying to animate the race. My eyes were on the Gila Monster climb. Down the long descent and through the rolling valley, riders kept attacking the field hoping to hit the bottom of the Gila Monster climb a few minutes ahead of the pack. I’d actually tried this same move as a Category 2 rider with disastrous consequences. On my attempt (years ago), I hit the bottom of the Gila Monster climb 2 full minutes ahead of the pack, but the effort left me wasted for the 10 mile ascent…and I eventually lost an incredible amount of time. This wasn’t going to happen today.

On this day, I conserved all my energy and I ate as much as possible through the rolling valley. I ate 2 bananas, 2 oranges, 1 mojo bar and drained two water bottles then I downed a GU about 2 miles before the 10 mile Gila Monster climb.

About 50 miles into our race we hit the base of the Gila Monster with about 40 riders in our pack. There were 3 riders slightly up the road. Having conserved everything for this moment in the race, I knew I was as ready as I was going to be. After about 2 miles of the ascent a group of 10 riders had easily moved up the road. No one in the remaining field was going to see these riders again–that was apparent. With the break up the road, I felt good enough to lead the chase up the remaining 8 miles of the ascent. I set a blistering pace, I could feel it. It was a strong ascent. As we crawled up each 180 degree switchback I would look at the lower level of road to see the riders that couldn’t match our ascent speed. So long as I was climbing strong I wasn’t worried about who was immediately behind me…there really wasn’t a draft at our speed. Either they met my speed or they got shredded. As we reached the final kilometers of the 10 mile ascent I began to look over my shoulders to see who was around…7 other riders…and we were all about to come unglued. I punched it over the crest and immediately punched it down the descent on the other side. This move shredded another 2 riders. I rode through the rest of the roller coaster forest road (about 10 miles) with those five riders.

I finished 21st on the last stage, Gila Monster. Yes, my numbers are a little off up there ^^, but I was 21st. I was proud of myself. I didn’t do well overall; I got 33rd on GC. I lost too much time on Stage 2 to ever recover. But, I was able to finish the 2013 Tour of the Gila on my own terms. On the last stage of the toughest race I’ve ever competed in, I rode strong and I shredded half the field in the process. This had never happened before this year. More importantly, I wasn’t completely wasted after the Tour of the Gila. THIS was a strange feeling indeed; I had actually gotten stronger as the Gila had progressed…and I was ready for another Tour of the Gila. :) On a side note, this year’s Masters Tour of the Gila was won by the current Masters National Champion. My hat goes off to him and the entire Masters field…what a fantastic bunch of riders.

Yep, the Tour of the Gila isn’t for the physically or mentally weak. Gila, the actual course, challenges you more than the competition. It requires tremendous climbing strength, outstanding downhill bike handling skills, physical endurance, strategical strength, nutritional fortification and thorough knowledge of your own personal limits. These are the politics and the economics of Gila. When you are left to ride miles and miles alone through a forest or a valley you might also have an almost religious experience. This is the culture of bike racing, and Gila is the epitome of the culture. While I might reluctantly be a part of other types of cultures, I have always passionately chosen the culture of bike racing…and by choosing to be part of the bike racing culture for so many years, I realize now that I have enabled it to self-perpetuate for future generations.