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Wind and ProTour riders will batter SRAM Tour of the Gila fields

Wind gusts of up to 65 mph could batter riders during this week’s SRAM Tour of the Gila. Besides the high winds — which are expected from Wednesday’s opening stage through Saturday — rank and file pro riders will have to contend with the strongest fields, for men and women, ever assembled for the 24-year-old New Mexican race.

Defending champion Levi Leipheimer will ride in Mellow Johnny’s kit with teammate’s Lance Armstrong and Jason McCartney, while Garmin-Transitions’ Dave Zabriskie, Tom Peterson and Tom Danielson will race in DZ Nuts kit. Besides those six ProTour riders, the 164-man field is stacked with a strong Fly V Australia squad, the win-hungry UnitedHealthcare and Bissell teams, and the surging OUCH-Bahati team. OUCH-Bahati features Floyd Landis, coming off a strong second place at the Tour of the Battenkill while Battenkill’s winner, Holowesko Partners’ Caleb Fairly, also is here.

The women’s field, while smaller, is nearly as stacked, as the Gila benefited from  joining the Women’s Prestige Cycling Series.

Last year’s runner up Alison Powers (Vera Bradley Foundation) is hoping to improve on her standing, while last year’s winner, Kristin Armstrong, now retired, is directing the Peanut Butter & Co. Twenty12 squad, which brought a strong team. TIBCO, Colavita/Baci, and Webcor also have strong teams at Silver City.

Wednesday’s opening stage is 94 miles for men and 73 for women. Both fields finish at the top of the torturous Mogollon climb, but the opening miles, rolling over the windswept high desert ranch lands, could be just as critical this year if the winds pick up as forecast.

Leipheimer said the Mellow Johnny’s threesome will have its work cut out.

“We have to be willing to lose because there are full squads here from Fly V and UnitedHealthcare and the list goes on, and they are definitely here to to take us down,” Leipheimer said at a pre-race news conference Tuesday. His next comment caught the attention of UnitedHealthcare’s Rory Sutherland, sitting to his right.

Mellow Johnny’s and DZ Nuts “could become allies,” Leipheimer said. “If both teams miss the break for example, that doubles the guys we had last year.”

Sutherland feigned shock. “That’s not fair, though, is it?” the Aussie strongman joked.

The winds, fair or not, could create opportunities and challenges for all the rider. Wednesday’s forecast is for gusts as high as 50 mph, while they are forecast to hit up to 65 mph on Thursday when riders take on the hilly Inner Loop road race. The gusts could hit 40 mph Friday for the critical Tyrone time trial and 34 mph for Saturday’s Silver City criterium. The forecast is for relatively calm winds for the Gila’s final, most difficult day, Sunday’s Gila Monster road race.

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