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2013 Tour of the Gila by Andrew Tilin

Stage 1

Race day in Silver City, New Mexico on this 2nd day of May 2013. Five Violet Crown riders warmed up at Fort Bayard, making their way through the thousands (don’t believe me) of fans lined up for this, the start of the old-fart division—Tour of the Gila, Master Men B. Could the category name reduce us any further? Brought to you by Viagra? Ensure? The Inner Loop race is, for us, stage 1 at Gila (other categories, including the pros, began with a road race one day earlier). About 5,800 feet of climbing and descending, with a combined start/finish. It has been a while—five years!—since I've ridden in a huge road race. About one hundred guys, all twitchy, powering down Silver City’s less than perfectly paved Highway 180. Not easy. Not comfortable. Almost impossible to stay at the front until I discover the shoulder, which has lots of room and gravel. I decide to mix with it only for so long. Within six or so miles the first climb begins up to the village of Pinos Altos. Not heinously steep but constant. There is comfort in seeing the white and purple kit of my teammates—Doug Allen, Ken Greene, and Dan Perkins—just ahead of me. Frank must be just behind. The weather is comfortable—I only need kit and arm warmers. There's also wind, and its swirling nature makes finding shelter a constant chore.

I crest the first climb with the lead group and without too much struggle. My same teammates are around me, and I have no idea what's behind me. Looking back doesn’t serve me, so I don’t do it. The trees have changed—from cottonwoods in town to Ponderosa pine on the hillsides. We get whiffs of piney scents. We hit some false flats before topping out at Meadow Creek, el 7,473. Receive neutral aid and I run over a water bottle that fell to the ground. Doh! Sphincter tightens! Again, don’t know what’s behind me, but there are 25 guys ahead of me now, and the descent to Sapillo Creek awaits. We enter into it and, much to my relief, nobody can descend like Paolo Salvodelli (Il Falco was one of the best).

Despite having scouted this descent the day before, I still can’t remember which turns end where, and since I often can’t see turn’s end I’m conservative, and slow. Perkins and Greene get 150 meters on me and I use them like carrots. I refuse to let them out of my sight. Post-race I’ll receive second-hand news that someone in our race went ass-over-teakettle in one of the turns. Glad I didn’t see that. We hit the fertile valley floor and everything grows calmer. The road is narrow but the peloton isn’t as anxious. I make my way up to Perkins and Greene, and though we don’t speak, everyone seems fine. We cross the Continental Divide at 6,710 feet and again return to terrain that’s largely flat or of a shallow grade.

My legs go from good to great. Doug Allen remains in front of me and I make my way up to him. We’re very near the front, often somewhere between second and sixth wheel. Sometimes Doug pulls, and I tell him to dial it back. Why waste the energy? Amazingly, there are a couple of riders who do most of the pulling for what is a 25-mile stretch. Occasionally one or two riders go off the front, but they don’t stay away for long. Again, I’m not looking back. I have no idea how big our group is.

At mile 60 we turn onto Highway 152 and head up again. This is the second and last major climb of the day, going on for about eight miles. One guy soon goes off the front, and nobody responds. We still have 15 miles, many of them windy and hilly, remaining. Allen is a horse. He seems tireless. I still feel fine, too. The NM air has a bite to it—I don’t feel any sweat buildup. Again, but a few do the pulling, and that’s fine. I’m not dying to stick my nose in the wind.

Despite feeling solid, something isn’t right. By mile 68 I’m wondering… where is Perkins? He’s our group’s best rider. He’s one of my all-time favorite wheels to follow. Great climber, powerful on the flats. When will he show himself? Is he playing it that smart, just behind me somewhere? Am I too close to the front? Can one be too close to the front if they’re not pulling? We catch the one-man breakaway with what I think is a couple miles to go, after fighting through the blocking tactics of the guy’s brother and another teammate. But when my odometer says we still have at least another mile, I spot the 1k sign. And I’m late to jump. I’m now 10th wheel, then 15th, then 20th. Allen is ahead of me and I fight to keep him in sight as we climb gradually toward the finish line. I’m cursing but also ecstatic to be top 30.

I cross the finish line in 21st, 16 seconds behind the leader. Doug is several places and seconds ahead of me. Banana and Powerade in hand, I turn around to see what’s behind me.

Nothing. A few minutes go by and Ken Greene appears, looking strong. Then I see Kurzawa, smiling and shaking from the effort. Where is Perkins?

I wait, and wait, and wait. Finally comes the tap on the shoulder. There’s Dan. With an ice pack. He was betrayed by a back that went south on him, back in the valley. For me it was a great ride and race, but I was very sorry that Dan wasn’t right up there with me. Would’ve loved to watch him light up the field.

Stage 2

I’m gonna use the “F” word here. In fact I’ll use a few F-words, because this day’s Tour of the Gila stage for your four remaining VC riders was a 16.5-mile time trial just outside of Silver City in the New Mexico community of Tyrone. And in the wake of this event, three words come to mind: Fun, fast, and Frank (as in our man Kurzawa).

Not many people would ever consider a TT fun or, well, “Frank.” But there is absolute beauty in ignorance. I don’t know that much about time trialing, so I asked Frank (and Dan Perkins, who also has plenty of wisdom on the subject) how to approach the race. Just so you know, the out-and-back course extends a little over eight miles before the turnaround, and incorporates two significant climbs. The first is up and over Little Burro Pass, a climb of about 500 vertical feet. The second is the same pass, when you’re headed in the other direction. The land surrounding the road (we did this on NM highway 90, and had a lane to ourselves for some of the route; pavement ranged from decent to very bumpy) was NM unremarkable. Not a lot of vegetation, and where the hills and humps left gaps in the horizon there were often crosswinds. Wind would be present during much of my race.

I asked Frank how to approach this thing. Frank, as you may or may not know, has completed the Tour of the Gila a verified 73 times. He knows every inch of every stage. He also knows every restaurant in Silver City, every store, and everyone involved in organizing the event. Now you know why he can wear these ridiculous, full-leg compression tights of his after every stage (imagine the thickest pair of flesh-tinted panty hose ever made) and not get laughed out of town. Luckily Frank is also a generous and good-humored guy, and is willing to share his encyclopedic knowledge of Gila with anyone who inquires.

Frank told me to go at perhaps 80 percent effort up Burro Pass the first time. Then he told me to cough up a lung/see God (or some other form of some Almighty) on the return climb, and basically hold on and pedal as best I could on the final, four-mile descent. Perkins—out of the race but not yet out of town with his bum back—found the strategy sound. Ken Greene, also with good TT knowledge, didn’t disagree. Doug Allen wasn’t staying with us, so he unfortunately lost out on some of the roundtable discussions that took place on the second floor of the VC home-away-from-home HQ (southwest region), also known as Silver City’s well-worn Palace Hotel. Frank knows everyone there, too. He’s stayed in the same room for these last 70-plus years.

After nearly tipping over in the start house (the person holding me up by the saddle didn’t give me a push so much as just let go) I quickly dropped into my clip-on aero bars and got sorta comfy. I left the power hub and its weight off my bike, so I watched my HR climb: 145, 150, 160, 165. I knew that I still had a little left, though not sure how much. Terrible moment: I got passed in the first two minutes by the racer who had started 30 seconds behind me. But I stayed the path, stayed on the road, and kept slowly closing on my 30-second man, as well as the guy who bolted past me near the start and couldn’t possibly keep up his pace.

Feeling OK after cresting the pass, I descended the other side while mostly staying in the aero bars. The Gila TT is known for unpredictable winds, and while I wasn’t getting blown off course I came out of the crouch once or twice to feel more stable. I was riding a road bike with a disc-covered wheel in the back, and a spoked rim with a moderately raised profile in front. Others had more/less aggressive wheel setups—really, the best setup was anyone’s guess.

Before I reached the turnaround there were plenty of undulations, some of them sustained. On a couple of these climbs I did what Frank, Dan, and Ken couldn’t fully endorse. I came out of the tuck and instead grabbed the brake hoods and pounded on the pedals. A gamble, yes—a huge compromise in aerodynamics, and more matches burned. But I felt like I still had lots of strength left, and coming out of the crouch was—for me, anyway—my best chance to tap that power. Before/right at the turnaround I passed a couple guys who insisted on sticking to those aero bars. Despite the fact that they were moving at about 12 mph.

I headed back, and for a while enjoyed a sweet NM tailwind. I felt fast, like a downhill ski racer, and I could see that I was closing on yet a third rider. But by the time I started back up Burro Pass I had become a rat—and I was staring at one huge piece of Jarlsberg. Again, the rider insisted on staying in a crouch up that hill, despite the fact that he was moving slowly. Again, I gambled. Out of the bars, into the drops, bigger gear, burning more matches, and so on. By the top I passed the rider, who groaned at the difference in our speeds. I was completely spent.

You know when you’ve put in a huge effort and you’re thoroughly gassed, and convinced that the group is closing on you? That leads me to the last “F” word for this tale—“fear.” I rode that descent like a man terrified. I’d had a great stage to that point—passing several, and not being passed—and I didn’t want to watch a wave of competition go by me now. As luck would have it, the long descent to the finish arrived with a headwind. I wouldn’t pedal out of my relatively puny 50/11. Meanwhile Frank (and many others, no doubt) couldn’t exploit their 58 (!!!)/11s. I pumped and fought and limped and staggered across that finish line, and just after crossing some hulking dude passed me. But NOT before. Yessss!!!!

My 42:32 was good for 14th place, 2:40 behind some alien who rode the course sub-40 for the win. Doug Allen finished a tick over 44 minutes; Frank came in at 46:34; Ken Greene arrived seven seconds later, without the beet juice that he puked up very early in his effort. Nobody else used the word “fun” for the race, so I didn’t either. Until now. May my next TT be half as satisfying as this one was.

Stage 3

Personally I think of racing criteriums the way I think of accelerating when the light turns red, or eating obnoxious amounts of free samples at Central Market. I’m happy to emerge unscathed.

And so it was at last Saturday’s Tour of the Gila crit. Let’s see, pre-race inventory: Miraculously, I find myself in 13th place overall, out of a field that has slimmed from 100-plus to about 80. I’m under three minutes behind the GC leader. I have some skin in the game, and with a big fat final mountain stage still to come I don’t want to leave any flesh on some crummy Silver City pavement. My two goals for the crit: Don’t lose time. Don’t get hurt.

The Gila’s Silver City crit is a square, 1.08-mile course that goes through the city’s somewhat limp downtown area (cheerful businesses and restaurants butt up against empty storefronts). The start/finish is on Bullard Street, and it’s a slight climb to the line. Take a left onto College and it’s another slight grade; a left onto Cooper and soon you’re facing a short but abrupt climb followed by a bumpy down-up undulation to the corner of Cooper and Broadway. Down Broadway you go, plummeting over uneven pavement and all, into the final high-speed left-hander and the four blocks back to the line. Our geezer category required that we do 15 laps, or 16.2 miles. The UCI men did 40 laps. Sounds horrible to me.

At least Ken Greene, Frank Kurzawa, and I did something right from the start: we showed up early (Weston: thanks for the key tip). Our wait rewarded us with slots in the first two rows of starters. By the time I clicked into my left pedal at the gun I was still ahead of half the group.

Ken, however, did a lot right. The dude was near the front from the beginning, and making the race look effortless. Ken doesn’t look like a crit rider—skinny arms and legs, and doesn’t ride a bike that’s either black or sporting words like “Road Warrior,” or sporting images of skulls and crossbones. OK, most great crit riders probably don’t flash such aesthetics. Ken still looked like a chess player among linebackers.

But he wasn’t to be bullied, and I often tried to get on his wheel. Because, as we all know, the best place to be in a crit is at the front. Less chance of suffering from the surging, accordion-effect dynamic. Less chance, of course, of crashing. And it didn’t take too many laps before, just after rounding turn two, I heard that intensely horrible, unmistakable sound of metal scraping pavement at high speeds. I also heard a bunch of swearing and groaning. Ah, riders going down. But that pileup started and certainly finished behind me, and those crit-crash victims were other people’s husbands/fathers/uh, maybe-I-really-shouldn’t-be-a-bike-racer type thinkers. The race was ahead of me. Ken was ahead of me.

I took inside lines, wiggling just so to avoid corner curbs (God bless many of the citizens of Silver City, who showed up like a mini-army before race time, wielding brooms; we could’ve eaten off those corners). I took outside lines, which were great until other racers realized that there was more room to the outside. Then there wasn’t.

I fought to stay near the front, but that—for me, anyway—was an exhausting fight, too. Front or middle, the race felt like a series of surges. At one point I found myself leading the whole field, and I did what any sane person would do. I slowed down. Personal breather! Thank you! The break didn’t last long enough.

A few hard laps at the start (I thought they were hard, anyway) gave way to a slight easing during the race’s middle. But every time I felt at ease in the group there’d be an unnerving shimmy or shake in riders around me. Or the linebacker types would blast past me over that increasingly heinous backstretch climb, which began to worm into my tired quads and sap their strength.

Meanwhile there’s Ken, near the front, a veritable Bobby Fischer on a Gary Fisher.

I began to focus on the lap counter at the start/finish line. Nine laps remaining, eight, seven. I also became increasingly spooked at corner four, the high-speed corner leading to the start-finish line with oil stains, a subtle undulation, and an outer barrier made of many, many car tires. I’d watched two racers lose rear wheel traction mid-turn and drift uncontrollably across the pavement. Utter miracles that they and those around them didn’t go down.

Four laps to go, I enter turn two, and the race goes NASCAR. Just ahead of me, on the left side of the big-ring climb (it HAD been a good line), not one but two riders go completely airborne. I saw it develop—the weird swerve, the overcorrection, the guy who couldn’t avoid the other’s adventures in bike steering. Up they go, two men and their carbon-fiber machinery. Down they come, onto the pavement, at unnatural angles.I veer right, grip the bars a little tighter, back off even more than usual at the race’s third and fourth corners. Around we race, Ken near the front, me somewhere in the top 25, Frank and Doug who knows where.

The second happiest moment for me in that crit was the “1 Lap” remaining sign. I round turn two and make one final uphill surge, squeezing between the ambulance, attendants, and still-down rider on the left, moving from 30th to 15th in a flash, before entering turn three. Ken is still ahead. But the race will be a pack finish, and I know that all I need to do is stay upright and pedal with some oomph to notch the same time as the winner.

I hit the final straight and let the banshees come around me like rushing water. Go for it, you crazy linebackers!!

We average almost 26 miles per hour for the race, and I finish with the same time as winner Matt Caruso—38:02. Ken rode an amazing crit, finishing 17th. Doug finished 41st, I finish 50th, and Frank is 52nd. We all lived to tell more crit tales, and to race one final day at the 2013 Tour of the Gila.

Stage 4

I waited five years for this stage. In those five years I quit racing, wrote three books, got suspended for doping, moved from California to Texas, and tried to acclimate to riding Austin’s challenging and foreign terrain. Hilly, yes—but big-ring hilly. The terrain I’ve always best dissected on a bike goes up. And up and up and up. That’s what lightweights in Lycra are built to do.

May I introduce the Gila Monster. Approximately 50 miles into the Tour of the Gila’s final stage (stage four for me, Frank, Ken, and Doug; stage five for pros and some of the other category riders), your faithful VC riders looked up. The last 19 miles of the race included (by my estimation) over 1,500 feet of vertical. The climbing isn’t steep but it’s still a smaller rider’s Eden. Nobody can big-ring the ascent, which at its highest point reaches nearly 7,500 feet in elevation, from bottom to top.

The first 50 miles of the stage seemed, at first, uneventful. The rolling start was relatively slow—the wearied legs of 80 men and one strong woman (Mindy Caruso, wife of ultimate GC winner Matt Caruso) taking the first 25 or so miles to warm up. Sure, the pace got uncomfortable. But never intolerable, and if memory serves me all four of us were in the main pack when we hit the floor of the Mimbres Valley.

I mostly rode near the front, to stay out of mishap’s way, stay ready for breakaways, and even enjoy some big-rock scenery. Before we reached the Continental Divide (el 6,710) I helped to chase down some folks who went off the front. We’d ridden this same road in the other direction on the first day, and nobody managed to get away. I was reasonably confident the same would hold true today.

And, of course, I was wrong. When a group of two went off the front before reaching the Divide, nobody responded. And when two more went off the front to presumably try and catch on to the breakaway, the peloton responded late. The red jersey (worn by the rider enjoying the GC lead) was behind me. So I stayed out of the wind and let his teammates do the work of attempting to chase down the breakaway. On more than one occasion, Austin’s own Oktay Demirdal unselfishly offered to pull me with the hopes of us also bridging up to the breakaway. But I didn’t want to arrive at the bottom of a huge climb with nothing left. Instead I stayed put, which perhaps wasn’t the smartest move. Unless you win, every race is full of “shouldas” and “couldas.”

The Gila Monster is steepest at its base. Nonetheless, plenty of people shot past me in the first mile of the twisty, increasingly alpine climb. I had to tell myself that if they were that fast, they deserved to be ahead of me. No matter how badly you can taste success, you can’t ride beyond your abilities for such a long climb. It will grind you to a halt. You’ll have to slow way down, and then take quite some time at a plodding pace, to recover. I wanted a more consistent effort, with less variation in speed and my emotions.

For a while I rode with Doug Allen, and then he dropped off. I began to pass others, and then more still. The climb was hard, but I found my rhythm and forced myself to suck down gel and fluids. I prayed that my legs wouldn’t cramp. I fell in with a group of four or so riders who were willing to stick together and take the edge off the wind for each other. By the time we reached the shoulder of 7,400-foot Meadow Creek, which left us about ten miles from the finish, we were perhaps ten strong. The race leader was among us. A motorcycle came by and yelled that the breakaway was a minute and a half ahead.

For a while we worked decently together. Some guys were in it to win it and wouldn’t pull for a sec. I figured that, if nobody else caught us, we were all guaranteed a top-15 finish. So I pulled quite a bit.

Soon after topping out at Meadow Creek, the pace slowed. I wondered what the heck everyone was doing. Why slow down now, with a lot of downhill and eight miles to go in this four-day slog?

The light bulb went off. Everyone else was tired.

So I attacked, and when I turned around there was nobody. For the next couple of miles I was giddy. Confident that I was in fifth or sixth place, I descended with that hyper mix of excitement and uncertainty. Was this really my fate? Things got even better: I caught another rider, and we began to work together. When one more rider bridged up to us from the pack I’d left behind, we were three strong. We worked together fairly well.

But hooking a marlin and landing a marlin are two very different accomplishments. My brain, which at mile 65 was about as dynamic as petrified wood, didn’t remember that we had more climbing to do. It was not a lot, but distances and elevations could no longer be judged on a scale. I was about 94 percent done with a four-day stage race. My legs had arrived at that place where I thought about every rotation of the cranks.

We were caught by the chase group with less than four kilometers remaining.

Damn!

I hung on, didn’t let anyone get away, and at the one-kilometer mark, where I thought the downhill finished awaited, I spent what I had left and immediately gapped the group.

But it wasn’t a downhill finish. I hadn’t looked closely enough at the course profile, or read the description carefully. Or the petrified wood between my ears wasn’t responding. Instead the finish was on a rising grade, and the signs—500 meters, 400 meters, 300 meters to go—appeared about as slowly as a knife stirs peanut butter. One rider passed me, then another.

Were they all going to blow by me?

In a moment of desperation I showed my hand: Feeling completely vulnerable, I looked back. The rest of the group was still far behind. I was still eighth or seventh or something pretty great. The GC leader remained behind me. Still, for some reason, I gave every last ounce of energy to getting across the line. And, my friends, in a day when I burned a bunch of matches at moments when I probably shouldn’t have, this turned out to be my smartest move of all.

I came across the line in eighth place, 1:08 behind the stage winner. Going into the stage, however, I happened to be well over a minute up on the same racer. When the dust settled I squeezed out—courtesy of my final kick—the same athlete for tenth place overall. After over eight hours of racing over four days, only five seconds separated us. I finished 3:03 behind the GC winner. For my efforts, I went home with a prestigious GC check for $13. Woo hoo!!!

At the finish, which was crowded with competitors from varying categories and rich with the smell of BBQ (that’s right, we could buy ribs—just what everyone craves after turning themselves inside-out), I waited for my teammates and fellow-Austinites. Doug Allen finished 22nd in the stage and 20th overall; Ken Greene finished 31st in the stage and 31st overall; Oktay Demirdal finished 43rd in the stage and 37th overall; and Frank Kurzawa finished 52nd in the stage and 54th overall.

We took some snapshots. Chowed down some coleslaw. Shivered a bit under clouds moving fast across a wide New Mexico sky. And then, one by one, silently and happily descended back into town. The 2013 Tour of the Gila was ours.