SILVER CITY, N.M. (VN) — For the men racing Silver City’s Tour of the Gila, the general classification has come down to the final stage. There is nothing easy about the Gila Monster, one of the most difficult single days of racing on the calendar in the United States. With 161 kilometers of racing and more than 9,000 feet of climbing on the menu, there is plenty of road for an ambitious rider or team to overturn the general classification.
“I think it will be an interesting, dynamic day of racing,” said Bissell’s Chris Baldwin. “It’ll be fun. Really painful, but fun.”
Just four seconds separate race leader Janier Acevedo (Jamis-Hagens Berman) from second-placed Baldwin ahead of Sunday’s finale. The 27-year-old Acevedo has won several mountainous stage races in Central and South America, and in 2011, he won a stage of the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah. Baldwin, meanwhile, won the overall at the Gila in 2006, and is riding at his best level in several seasons.
“Acevedo looks really strong. He’s going to be a tough nut to crack,” said three-time Gila winner Burke Swindlehurst. “The Jamis team is going really well. They have some strong riders. I think it’s going to be interesting.”
It would be easy to turn this final stage into a two-rider race, but in fact, the overall standings remain tight throughout the top 10. The 10th-place rider is time trial specialist Tom Zirbel, and he is 1:33 behind Acevedo, while Bontrager’s young climber Gavin Mannion is 11th at 1:38.
“The race is very close. It’s an open race. All the guys said, Janier is the best climber. But it’s an open race,” said Jamis-Hagens Berman director Sebastian Alexander. “It’s not Janier against Chris. There are many other riders who can win the race. It’s going to be fun and interesting to see how the race goes tomorrow.”
Last year’s edition of the Gila Monster was fast and chaotic. A 15-rider breakaway went up the road early, and the race proved impossible to control. With so many riders close to the race lead, it is all but certain that the racing will be aggressive from the start.
“I definitely expect teams to be aggressive, especially [UnitedHealthcare] and Bissell,” said Jamis-Hagens Berman climber Tyler Wren. “They have a lot of cards to play. I fully expect them to make it hard for us.”
Acevedo is widely considered to be the best climber in the race, but there is more to road racing than being the strongest. Certainly, it helps. But a crafty team can undo even the strongest rider. Baldwin’s Bissell team has three riders in the top 10, and all three are capable climbers. Carter Jones sits 1:20 behind Acevedo, despite a bike change in the final 3km of the Mogollon climb. If a big breakaway goes up the road early in the stage, it will complicate the job of Jamis-Hagens Berman.
“You don’t want too many guys to go [in the breakaway]. I think the number matters a lot more than who’s in it,” said Bissell director Omer Kem. “Chris Baldwin can go in the early break, but if he’s only with five guys that’s perfect [for Jamis] because, let him fry. It takes him out of the equation.”
During Saturday’s criterium in downtown Silver City, Jamis-Hagens Berman did not work for sprinter J.J. Haedo, despite Haedo’s talent for winning bunch sprints. They controlled the two-up breakaway, but did not throw down big to bring it back, instead putting its full energy into winning the overall with Acevedo.
“We were not worried about the field sprint, we were happy to see the break go up the road,” said Alexander. “We only worked half of the stage, not the entire race, so the guys can be less tired for tomorrow. It’s less tired, it’s not fresh!”
The technical roads and constant climbing make the Gila Monster an unpredictable business, but typically, the selection comes on the steep climb up from the Cliff Dwellings National Monument visitor center. Though much will depend on how the course is raced up to that point, there is no place to hide on the climb’s steep gradients.
“That’s a climb where it’s going to put everyone in the group where they belong and they should be in,” said Alexander. “After that, you start to see groups of five or six or eight, probably not more than 10 guys all over the road. The race, it starts there, but there to the line, it’s a long way.”
It’s all up and down from the Cliff Dwellings climbs to the finish. Though team support is crucial for the race leaders during the early parts of the race, and especially through the flat valley around the Cliff Dwellings visitor center, the final 30km will come down to who has the best legs after the long day of high-altitude racing.
“Acevedo is the best climber here, but I don’t know how he’ll handle it,” said 5-Hour Energy director Frankie Andreu. “It’s too long to go by yourself from the steep section of the Cliff Dwellings. That’s what makes it interesting in the last 20 miles.”
Though the climb out of the Cliff Dwellings draws the most attention, there are no easy spots in the race’s last 40km. The roads are technical, so climbing well is not enough; a rider who wants to win must also get down the tricky descents. It’s heavy terrain and the finish is a steep drag. And there is nearly always a headwind on the run-in to the finish.
“It’s really brutal after the Gila Monster climb. I’ve come unglued there myself before,” said Baldwin. “The cream rises to the top on the Gila Monster. After that is where tactics come into play. You look around and see what you have, then start hitting it. It’s the last section where guys are most vulnerable.”
The race for the Tour of the Gila’s red jersey could well come down to the final ramps of the final climbs of the day. Though the teams can set the course of their leaders’ destinies, as the kilometers tick down, it will come down to who has the strongest legs.
“I think he’s the best climber in the race,” said Alexander of his team leader Acevedo. “But it will be about strategies and it will be about how he feels tomorrow. Bodies are not machines. I think he’s the best climber, but the race also has different factors that can change the story.”