I stood there nervously in the park. My face was pale and my right wrist was shaking a little bit with nerves.
I took a deep breath and looked over at my teammates Paul Thomas, Jim Peterman, Quinn Keogh and Sam Warford for some moral support, but nothing they could do would shake the feeling in the pit of my stomach.
It is day one of the UCI pro race at the Tour of the Gila.
I had arrived the night before with our team of eight crammed into a small rental house with all our bikes and gear for the mountainous five-day stage race that lay ahead.
Tour of the Gila takes place at altitude in and around the Gila National Forest in eastern New Mexico and consists of three road race stages, a time trial and a hilly crit through downtown Silver City.
Gila is a race that has been contested by nearly every American pro cyclist at some point in their career from Lance Armstrong to Taylor Phinney. This year’s start list is no lighter, with just about every name in continental cycling at the start line.
For our Arizona-based domestic elite squad, we are captained by Thomas and Keogh, whose experience at Gila is second to none. The rest of the squad consists of Peterman, Warford, Clayton Stone and myself. We are also lucky to have Cole House and Rudy Peterson as guest riders.
After a short prayer, the race began with a neutral roll out out of town followed by a long downhill tailwind. With my nerves I immediately found myself near the back, knowing that I needed to move forward.
The initial sensation that overwhelmed me was the speed of the group. The peloton of 200 snaked for almost a mile, and speeds quickly hit between 40-50 mph fairly consistently. With the size of the group, the riding was not hard, but the speed was intimidating. Rocks pelted my face like paintballs, and as the group compacted, the air smelled strongly of burnt rubber. It was high-octane racing.
I saw faces I recognized from TV; I heard the honks of team cars as they moved through the group. It is a high-speed high intensity world that I am totally unfamiliar with. I looked for faces I know. Finally I planted myself firmly on the wheel of Danny Pate from Rally Cycling. Last year he was riding in Europe for Team Sky, and I found comfort knowing that I was probably safe on his wheel.
The speed stayed insane in the beginning as breaks tried to get away, averaging more than 33 mph for the first hour. I was amazed to find myself spinning my 52/11 at a high cadence up climbs. From time to time, the peloton would get nervous and a cloud of smoke would appear as everyone locked their bikes up. A couple of times I found my bike sideways, but no one touched pavement.
In the town of Cliff, we began two circuit loops with a feed zone. At this point the breakaway, including Arizona cycling phenom Travis McCabe (Holowesko Citadel p/b Hincapie Racing), made their escape. I was surprised to see the peloton almost come to a complete stop. The pace went to an absolute crawl as riders pulled off the side to take nature breaks and everyone chatted like it was a Sunday ride. It was a welcome relief and time to drink and relax. It was the first time I stopped white-knuckling my bars since the start of the race.
As we exited the loops, teams passed bottles around and went back to the cars for more. Peterman rolled up next to me and yelled “Hey Stephen, need a bottle?” Without hesitation or skipping a beat, Matthew Busche (UnitedHealthcare Pro Cycling), the current road national champion, reached down and handed Peterman a bottle. After hearing horror stories about how some of the pro continental teams treat domestic riders, I thought this was a refreshing act of kindness.
The pace then whipped up again as we blasted down the highway toward the challenge of the day. Stage 1 finishes with a 6.5-mile climb up to the ghost town Mogollon, a hike with gradients of up to 19 percent.
The field was in a frenzy to chase down the breakaway. With Rally Cycling doing most of the work, the gap came down quickly. The race hit a strong section of crosswinds, and I found myself off the back. At this moment I knew my entire race at Gila could be in jeopardy. I dug deep and rode through the cars and finally found myself back in a more select group. I quickly learned a lesson and moved my way toward the front.
With approximately 10 miles from the finish, I found a comfortable spot on the rear wheel of Lachlan Morton (Jelly Belly Pro Cycling p/b Maxxis), who was sitting behind his team’s train. We plunged in and out of beautiful canyons approaching the final climb.
Suddenly it happened. Out of the left of my view, a dog ran into the peloton on a high-speed descent and carnage ensued. Bikes flew everywhere in a cloud of rubber-infused smoke. I headed right for the grass to avoid the pileup ahead of me, but caught a rider’s wheel and tumbled into the grass. Completely unscathed, I hopped back on my bike and chased hard to try and catch what remained of the peloton that got through cleanly.
Riders were injured and so was the dog, but I’m not sure if the dog survived.
The peloton was splintered into groups of five to 10 riders. I joined up with Peterson and we worked our way back through the field and into the final climb. As we hit the sharp gradient I finally felt at home. With my gear choice of 52/36, I was able to ride through the field and pass dozens of riders on the climb. Feeling motivated, I worked my way back into what remained of the final peloton by the top.
As I lay in a heap over my bike, I listened to the announcer say that Morton had taken the stage and the GC. McCabe has grabbed the sprinter’s jersey from the break. Team Superissimo had made it through the stage unscathed:
- Warford: 65th
- Thomas: 80th
- Pedone: 122nd
- Stone: 128th
- House: 132nd
- Peterman: 137th
- Peterson: 153rd
- Keogh: 160th
At the bottom of the climb, team managers Marty Ryerson and Cat Ryerson kept us well fed with amazing homemade sandwiches and recovery bottles. Their support truly is the only thing that makes racing at this level possible. The team recounted our own stories from the day, and Thomas reflected what we all felt. Everyone did their job today and the team is off to a much better start than San Dimas and Redlands.
For me, the day ended with a smile. I had conquered my fear, and in my mind, I had a breakthrough day. I feel that my initial fear that I was not strong enough to ride in this field was wrong, and I felt that by the final climb, I was climbing as well or better than anyone around me. With Day 1 in the bag, I look forward to the next four days with Superissimo.