My Rookie Season: A second chance on the Gila Monster

After learning late last night that I had survived the time cut in the Stage 4 criterium, I was excited to start Stage 5. I felt as though this was a second chance, a do-over to learn from my mistakes.

At sign-in that morning, I had a smile on my face. I was happy and confident and had zero nerves or fear. It was time to try t0 do things right. I planned to start up front and navigate the pack like I belonged, and no matter what, I planned to finish.

Stage 5 of Tour of the Gila is arguably the single hardest course in U.S. continental cycling. The 100-mile men’s UCI course covers five incredibly tough KOM climbs and almost none of it is flat. The course has more than 9,000 feet of climbing and is a war of attrition. In past years, most of the field gets dropped by the first or second KOM climb, and a lot of riders proceed to abandon the race at that point.

Ride every mile

Going into Gila I had planned to ride every mile, and now I had the chance. I told myself that I had nothing to lose. I would ride as long as I could, as smart as I could and when I inevitably would be dropped, I swore to myself that I would ride to the finish line.

I lined myself up second row at the start and proceeded to crack a few good jokes as usual to help break the pre-race, ice-cold stares. At the end of the neutral rollout, the field moved into a series of rollers. I did my best to hold position and for the first time was totally comfortable. I navigated the group with ease, and it all finally clicked. Truly it is just all confidence, and I finally felt I belonged.

Past Bayard, the field moved into a series of climbs leading to the first KOM sprint. As the pace heated up, the wind shifted to a crosswind and the race went into the gutter. With better positioning I hung on as riders began spitting out the back. But finally my time came. With a chunk of other riders, I came off the back near the KOM.

No legs

At this point I had no excuses, my positioning was pretty good, but the pace was hot and I just had no legs to hang on. As I weaved through the team cars, I had hopes for making it back to the peloton before the upcoming descent, but my legs had other plans.

I looked back and joined up with a group of riders, including my teammate Clayton Stone, and we attempted to work together through the valley below. But I quickly realized these riders were not motivated. All of our legs stung from the previous four days, and the other riders with us all pulled off and DNF’d at the first feed zone.

Pedone Gila monster

Stephen Pedone (Superissimo) begins the Gila Monster climb to the KOM.

Finally we reached the first hard climb of the day, the long uphill stretch before the descent to the infamous Cliff Dwellings. At this point it was only Clayton and I. As I suffered up the climb, I wasn’t sure my legs would be able to make it through the day with four large climbs to come. But I told myself I could always quit anytime, but I would go until I couldn’t pedal anymore.

I plunged down the steep windy descent of the Cliff Dwellings, my bike blowing in the wind. The green mountainsides and red cliffs had a rugged beauty, but deep in pain, I was hardly able to appreciate it.

By the time I hit the turn around and began the climb up, I was alone and at this point the last rider on the road. Most of the other dropped riders in the race had already abandoned. Some of the pros had done their job for their team for the day, and pulled out to save themselves for future races, and others had decided it wasn’t worth the extra suffering to continue.

‘Don’t get in the car’

At this point I was followed by the UCI sag vehicle that follows the last rider. The driver of the sag car rolled up to me a couple of times asking if I was done yet, but I kept plugging away. Finally I told the driver, “no matter how much I beg you, do not let me get in this car.”

So I suffered, alone in the mountains. My legs were long gone and my pace was slow but I continued to turn the cranks over. Many times I thought I should throw the towel in and hop in the car, but I came to Gila to finish and I had nothing to gain by quitting.

No matter how much I beg you, do not let me get in this car.

By the time I hit the Sapillo climb, I was sure I would finish outside of today’s time cut, but that no longer mattered to me. I owed it to myself to cross the finish line. With each kilometer I ticked off, my motivation grew, and finally I crossed the finish line. Dead last on the stage and time cut.

But as I slumped exhausted in the car, I had smile on my face. I had came to my first UCI Gila to learn, to experience and to finish every stage. And felt I accomplished that. I felt 10 years older and learned more in five days of racing than the last two years.

For me, I gained a deeper appreciation for the speed and skills of the pro peloton. But at the same time, I learned to conquer my fears and doubts and to learn from my failures.

Gains in struggles and failures

I plan to come back to Gila. And with me I will bring the lessons I learned, the mistakes I made, the knowledge needed to prepare for the race both mentally and physically. And I will be one of the 92 out of 200 people who officially finished the race.

This is an experience I will always cherish, and it would have been impossible without my Superissimo teammates, the amazing support of Marty and Cat Ryerson and the overwhelming community response I have received from these articles.

I hope this glimpse at the other side of racing reminds everyone that many of the most important lessons and experiences that we gain are not in our victories, but in our struggles and failures. Because it is those trying moments, the hard lessons, that make us who we are. And as I continue to whatever comes next, I plan to keep learning. Forever with the mindset of a rookie.