By Steve Medcroft, Special to VeloNews
Scott Moninger (Health Net-Maxxis) won his second straight stage in the Tour of the Gila Friday, taking a bunch sprint by five bike lengths. Teammates Mike Sayers and Mike Jones took second and third. The win adds precious bonus time to Moninger’s GC lead over Drew Miller (Landis-Trek-VW), who finished safely in the field but 13 seconds down.
Christine Thorburn (Webcor Builders) was awarded first place in the women’s race after Lynn Gaggioli (T-Mobile) – who was working to protect teammate Amber Neben’s GC lead by taking away any possible sprint time bonuses – was called by officials for impeding when she seemingly forced Thorburn toward a curb in the straightaway.
The action occurred hours after racers woke to temperatures cooler than expected and a real threat of snow over the top of their steepest climb of the day, the 7010-foot, Category 3 Pinos Altos. The showers that were to produce the snow moved quickly through the area though and the climate improved, leaving only gusty head and crosswinds for racers to deal with.
With Moninger in the pink leader’s jersey, Health Net made sure to take control of the race early. The winds and weather threats kept the tempo reasonable but didn’t thwart a flurry of attacks. Health Net strong men Mike Sayers and Chris Wherry kept them in check. “There was also an early attack on the climb to Pinos Altos,” said eventual stage-winner Moninger. The attacker was Andrew Bajadali (Ofoto-Lombardi Sports), 2:25 down on GC. “He stayed out 40 or 50 miles.”
Health Net was patient and managed the gap. “We played a conservation race,” said Moninger, adding that the team was “saving it for Sunday” – and the 106-mile Gila Monster finale.
After pulling back Bajadali, with help from Landis-Trek-VW, whose Drew Miller is second overall, Moninger said “a few guys were testing their legs in small breaks. But they’d hit the wind and knew they couldn’t ride it alone.”
So the lead group, about 50 riders strong, came up the final climb together – until the final 2km, when Davide Frattini (Team Monex) jumped away, Moninger said. Health Net had planned to lead out sprinter Mike Sayers, but Frattini’s attack required an immediate response. “I gave it a nudge with about one kilometer to go and got a gap,” Moninger said.
The gap held at two seconds into the final 200 meters. Moninger finished first. Sayers and Jones beat out the field to take all three finish-position time bonuses. “It wasn’t our goal for me to win,” he said. “We just planned to keep the status quo.”
The women also ended their day in a bunch sprint, but not without a moment of controversy.
GC leader Neben, who won both previous stages, called Friday’s race “a tactical day. We have a couple of girls high on the GC so we had a lot of options.”
One of those options lay in the legs of Gaggioli, fresh off the overall win at La Vuelta de Bisbee and a sprint threat in any race she contends.
“We wanted Lynn to take the sprint bonuses from anyone else (which she did),” said Neben. “And if there was a sprint finish, to win and take away the winning time bonus as well.”
But Webcor’s Thorburn coveted those sprint bonuses, too. Only a minute off on GC, the two 10-second sprint bonuses and 15-second first-place bonus would have taken a huge chunk out of her deficit to T-Mobile’s Neben. She contested the first sprint, but was edged out by Gaggioli. At the second, she decided to conserve energy for the finish. “Lynn is just so strong,” she explained.
Between sprints, Webcor and Victory Brewing, whose Brooke Ourada was sitting third overall, were taking their best shots. “They sent attack after attack,” said Thorburn. “My team was awesome today. We covered every break.”
Then, just after the final feed zone, Velo Bella rider Gabriela Gonzales-Ferrat broke off and managed to open a dangerous, half-minute advantage. “The gap was getting kind of tight,” Neben said, and T-Mobile decided to bring Gonzales-Ferrat back, finally retrieving her with a couple of miles to go. All that was left then was the finish.
Coming into the final stretch, Thorburn and Gaggioli were watching each other at the front. “I went too early,” said Thorburn. “I don’t have the jump she has.” Thorburn tried to lure Gaggioli into making a move by yielding position, prepared to make a huge second effort, and sure enough, Gaggioli came around at about 100 meters.
But then Gaggioli appeared to sit up, looking over her shoulder, perhaps feeling she had enough of a gap to roll through the finish uncontested. However, Thorburn was charging forward, and as she closed the gap and Gaggioli looked over her shoulder, the T-Mobile rider’s bike moved over, forcing Thorburn to slow down for fear of colliding with the inside curb on the final straightaway.
Officials at the finish immediately ruled that Gaggioli had impeded Thorburn. Gaggioli said that she had caught a crosswind and hadn’t deliberately boxed Thorburn out, but the result was that she was relegated to second place.
The race from here: In the men’s event, Moninger’s extension of his GC lead sets up an exciting weekend of racing for the pro men. Saturday’s Silver City Downtown Criterium will be a venue for Health Net to maintain control, protecting Moninger and setting up their sprinters for a shot at stage glory. As for the final GC, it should be settled during Sunday’s Gila Monster Road Race.
“Anything can happen,” says Moninger, and he should know. He won the Gila in 2001 after leading from the first stage and only after having to fiercely defend his lead during the Gila Monster.
It won’t be an easy save – Moninger and his opponents face three trips across the Continental Divide on Sunday and a finish up the backside of the same Pinos Altos climb the race saw Friday. Which means strong climbers like Frattini, Miller, and Burke Swindlehurst (Navigators) will have more than one opportunity to break the race apart and threaten to take it all for themselves.
For the women, T-Mobile seems to have an experienced and controlled grip on the race. Neben and her teammates cannot settle down for the weekend, though, not with Ourada and Thorburn in seemingly excellent form and looking for any chinks in the pink-and-black armor. T-Mobile’s strategy? “We haven’t talked about it,” Neben says. “We’ll assess what the GC looks like after tomorrow.”
Thorburn, who trains mostly at sea level in the Bay Area, says that she hopes to be ready as well. “Hopefully, I’ll adapt to the altitude.”
Race notes: Amber Neben says her team does not pick predetermined leaders when they begin a race and credits her strong time trial and stage 2 win for her designation as T-Mobile’s leader on the road. Just back from a month-long campaign in Europe (“it was cold, wet and windy”), this 30 year-old, 2003 USCF National Road Race Champion from Irvine, California, says she’s ready for the challenge of Sunday’s finale.
“I’m comfortable with the climbing but so much depends on the day. We have so many riders high in the GC that it give us a number of options on how to approach the race.”
And Neben knows that while a win is important, the Tour of the Gila is a training event, a lead-up to form for the women’s major summer goals. “Some of our team is heading to Tour de l’Aude after Gila. Then there are the Olympic trials (Neben is a serious contender for one of three women’s road race spots). Maybe even the Giro. The world’s. And, of course, San Francisco is the T-Mobile Invitational now.” So all T-Mobile riders will look to peak in September.
Tour of the Gila
1. Christine Thorburn (Webcor Builders), 3:54:14
2. Lynn Gaggioli (T-Mobile), same time
3. Kori Seehafer (Genesis-Scuba-FFCC), s.t.
4. Kate Maher (Basis),s.t.
5. Andrea Hannos (Team Rona), s.t.
6. Brooke Ourada (Victory Brewing), s.t.
7. Michelle Beltran (Red5Racing), s.t.
8. Sandy Esepeth (Victory Brewing), s.t.
9. Sima Trapp (ICO), s.t.
10. Felicia Greer (Webcor Builders), s.t.
1. Scott Moninger (Health Net-Maxxis), 3:20:38
2. Mike Sayers (Health Net-Maxxis), at 0:02
3. Mike Jones (Health Net-Maxxis), s.t.
4. Andrew Pinfold (Symmetrics), s.t.
5,. Mike Taylor (McGuire Pro Cycling), s.t.
6. Steven Cate (Sharper Image-Mathis), s.t.
7. Peter Baker (Team Snow Valley), s.t.
8. Evan Elken (Broadmark Capital), s.t.
9. Carl Decker (Broadmark Capital), s.t.
10. Fausto Munoz (Tecos), at 0:09
1. Amber Neben (T-Mobile), 7:54:40
2. Christine Thorburn (Webcor Builders), at 0:51
3. Lynn Gaggioli (T-Mobile), at 1:26
4. Brooke Ourada (Victory Brewing), at 1:52
5. Mari Holden (T-Mobile), at 3:17
6. Erinne Willock (Team Rona), at 3:48
7. Kori Seehafer (Genesis-Scuba-FFCC), at 3:49
8. Sandy Esepeth (Victory Brewing), at 4:29
9. Felicia Greer (Webcor Builders), at 6:05
10. Johanna Buick (Victory Brewing), at 6:08
1. Scott Moninger (Health Net-Maxxis), 7:48:07
2. Drew Miller (Landis Trek-VW), at 1:45
3. Mike Jones (Health Net-Maxxis), at 1:48
4. Ryan Blickem (Aida’s Bail Bonds), at 2:18
5. Davide Frattinin (Team Monex), at 2:32
6. Carl Decker (Broadmark Capital), at 2:59
7. John Hunt (Villiage Peddler), at 3:04
8. Burke Swindlehurst (Navigators), at 3:43
9. Jonathan Baker (Excel Sports), at 4:17
10. Marsh Cooper (Symmetrics), at 5:15