By Steve Medcroft, Special to VeloNews.com
The 18th annual 2004 National Geographic Adventure Tour of the Gila got underway Wednesday in Silver City, New Mexico, opening with the Tyrone Time Trial, a hilly 16-mile out-and-back course.
Ryan Blickem (Aida’s Bail Bonds) of Albuquerque, New Mexico took the men’s event in 36:01, a full minute ahead of second place and former Gila winner Scott Moninger (Healthnet/Maxxis). In the women’s time trial, Amber Neben (T-Mobile), posted a time 18 seconds faster than her teammate Mari Holden, a former world champion time trialist and fresh of a three-day, four-stage training stint in the pro men’s race at La Vuelta de Bisbee.
The time trial kicked off five days of what can only be described as America’s hilliest and most demanding stage race. Pro men will cover 330 miles and more than 22,000 feet of climbing in five stages from Wednesday to Sunday. Much of the climbing is offered up during the finale, Sunday’s torturous, 106-mile Gila Monster Road Race. Crossing the 7500-foot continental divide, the race resembles a Giro stage more than an American event.
It’s a fitting comparison considering Gila promoter Jack Brennan, in tribute to Italian climber Marco Pantani, has re-colored his leader’s jersey to mirror the Giro’s maglia rosa. Brennan also plans a special climbing prize, a jersey to be won by the first racer across the continental divide in Sunday’s Gila Monster Road Race.
The challenge of Gila’s climbing stages is a draw for an eclectic mix of cyclists. Climbers, like Landis Trek/VW’s three-time winner Drew Miller, and former Baby Giro winner and recent victor in La Vuelta de Bisbee, Davide Frattini (Team Monex), compete in the James Ray International Climbers Cup competition (which awards points to competitors in a number of climbing-focused events such as Gila, Redlands, and the Mt. Evans Hill Climb).
Gila is also known as a pre or early-season training ground for serious mountain bikers. Which means Gila roadies will have to battle for respect against the likes of Roland Green, Andreas Hestler, Jay Henry and others.
Rounding out the mix of racers in the men’s event is a healthy contingent from Health Net (Mike Sayers and Scott Moninger and Chris Wherry among them) as well as the team of Mexican college riders (Tecos) who helped put Ubalda Mesa head-to-head with Drew Miller on the Gila Monster for a (failed) chance at the GC win in 2003.
On the women’s side of the house, three-time-winner Genevieve Jeanson is conspicuously missing from the results of the Stage 1 time trial. For the past two years, she has so dominated the Gila field, soloing off the front on the longer road stages and putting more than 11 minutes each year between her and second place overall, that it almost didn’t feel like competition. She was scheduled to compete this year and the Rona women’s team is on hand, but Jeanson is not. The young Canadian’s absence may pave the way for a more lively competition in a fierce field of more than 60 women.
Silver City is tucked in the southwest corner of New Mexico in the foothills of the Pinos Altos mountain range. Founded in 1870, it sits at 6000 feet in what is considered a dry-arid desert climate. Which means, for riders, they’ll be gasping for air up and down dry desert mountains all week, getting dehydrated and sunburned for their trouble. It’s expected to be pretty cool by Silver City standards (high 60s to low 70s) and windy for the first two days of competition.
The opening-day time trial is in the books and Neben and Blickem have their leads, but GC can change quickly at Gila. Racers head out early Thursday for the 92-mile Silver City to Mogollon Pass road race. This point-to-point race features 2100 feet of climbing over the last ten miles on a narrow, twisting switch-backed road. After that climb re-sorts the top of the GC, racers face the 73-miles Inner Loop Road Race (a likely sprinter’s stage). Saturday will test the racer’s criterium skills in downtown Silver City. If there’s anything left in racer’s tanks, they’ll need to pull it out on Sunday. The notorious Gila Monster Road Race covers a brutal 106 miles taking the race over a Category 1, two Cat. 2 and two Cat. 4 climbs – 5- to 7.5-percent grades for much of it.
1. Ryan Blickem, Aida’s Bail Bonds 36:01.53
2. Scott Moninger, Healthnet/Maxxis, at 1:01
3. John Hunt, Village Peddler, at 1:10
4. Davide Frattini, Team Monex, at 1:12
5. Andrew Edwards, SOMA, at 1:26WOMEN
1. Amber Neben, T-Mobile 40:37.28
2. Mari Holden, T-Mobile, at 0:18
3. Christine Thorburn, Webcor Builders, at 0:37
4.Kori Seehafer, Genesis Scuba/FFCC, at 1:16
5. Lynn Gaggioli, T-Mobile, at 1:27