As I rolled into Fort Bayard for the start of Tour of the Gila Stage 2 with the rest of the Superissimo team, I was nervously excited. My relative success on Day 1 had provided me with a bit more confidence, but there were still some unknowns today that were eating away at me.
Stage 2 begins with a KOM (King of the Mountain) points climb near the beginning, before descending down from Pinos Altos, followed by another climb and a short but technical descent down to Sapillo Crossing into the valley below.
Since I had pre-ridden the course, the technical Sapillo descent had been the cause of some anxiety. I had no problem riding the switchbacks alone, but how I would fare in a large peloton was unknown. I had heard horror stories of bad crashes in years past, but my teammates calmed me and told me not to worry.
Point of no return
Before the start, my teammate Paul Thomas had warned me to be near the front up the first KOM because that effort was likely to be the hardest of the day, and with a strong crosswind it would be an easy place to get dropped. I knew what I had to do, but I am still not comfortable moving through a nearly 200-person field that aggressively.
As we lined up for the start, faces were much more relaxed than Day 1. Some of the initial nervous buzzing had subsided, and my hand was a bit steadier. In the start corral area, I looked to my right to see that I was lined up next to Chris Horner from Lupus Racing Team. The 2013 Vuelta winner is one of the most experienced riders in the peloton, and as we struck up a conversation, I was honest with him and told him I am here to survive. I asked if he had any advice for me. He kindly echoed the same words about being at the front on the KOM hill and gave me advice about how to ride in a group if I go off the back.
As we started to roll, I attempted to follow Horner, knowing he would get me near the front. But I let fear get the best of me. Into the initial rollers at the start, brakes locked up constantly and the group viciously punched up the climbs making it very hard for me to move up.
On the descents the group covered the entire width of the road, leaving few easy openings to gain positioning. As we made our right turn toward the KOM, I was near last wheel. With a 20 mph crosswind blowing as we climbed, the group quickly stretched to almost single file.
I’m doomed, I thought. I was near last wheel eating wind in the gutter as the elastic stretched and stretched. In my head, I kicked myself over and over. Up the road I could see the head of the snake, a large group of 50 or so riders completely sheltered from the wind.
That is where I needed to be, but at this point it was too late. As the KOM sprint wound up, I finally broke off the back and found myself among the cars. I have never been dropped this early in a race and it was heart wrenching at first, but I told myself it was a hard lesson on positioning.
Make the cut
As I looked behind, I noticed my teammate Quinn Keogh had also come unglued from the bunch on the climb. I waited a second and we began to ride. He was quick to calm me down and said, “It’s okay, we will ride tempo and pick up riders. It’s early but we will make the time cut.”
Following his wheel down Pinos Altos and into another climb, we worked together and picked up a couple of other dropped riders. We quickly hit the technical Sapillo descent section, but we navigated it with ease in our small group and set off into the windy valley floor.
I found myself feeling very strong and took it upon myself to take some long time-trial pulls. With the help of Keogh and Richard Arnopol of EGO presented by Sammy’s Bikes, we eventually caught a group of six, containing another Superissimo rider, Rudy Peterson. With a larger group, we quickly organized and all worked hard to drive the pace in the strong winds. As the ride went on, it was obvious that most in the group were cracking and the organization waned.
After passing the town of Mimbres, the race climbs a long KOM before descending for 25k to the finish. The group splintered quickly, and having good legs, Arnopol and I decided to separate ourselves from the group and try to get extra time to make sure we didn’t get cut.
At this point late in the race, my legs felt amazing. Tempo riding is a strength of mine, and we began to take huge pulls to get back to town. In full TT mode we rode in together approximately 30 minutes behind the main bunch.
As I rolled past the finish, I was exhausted. I was glad to hear some cheers from Tucson cyclist, race director and Arizona Bicycle Racing Association president Joey Iluiano (UA Cycling), and I was quickly told that I likely survived the time cut. As I pedaled near the finish, I passed Travis McCabe (Holowesko Citadel p/b Hincapie Racing), who was being interviewed for taking the stage win in a bunch sprint.
Back at the team car it was a weird feeling. I had ridden hard and felt incredibly strong all day, but I was never really even in the race.
As my teammates said, after the first KOM, the main field had slowed and rolled relatively easy for the rest of the day. I felt as though if I had just had the courage to move up at the start, I would have had no issue making the climb and finishing the day in the main field. My lack of confidence had caused me to have to work harder than ever all day just to start the next day. It is a lesson I will not quickly forget.
For Team Superissimo, the day was mostly successful. Thomas, Cole House and Sam Warford finished in the first chase group and the team rolled in with no injuries. The big casualty of the day was Peterson who eventually had to hop in the team car and DNF after two badly timed flats.
For the rest of the day it is time to relax and hope I have something left in my legs for tomorrow’s time trial.
Main photo by Tour of the Gila