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Stage racing has been on the endangered species list for some time, with headlines warning of shrinking pelotons and disappearing races. Cascade Cycling Classic was the most recent loss, dropping off the Pro Road Tour this season after its long-time organizers decided to move on from cycling, citing the loss of money for several years running as the main culprit.
Tour of the Gila will see its 32nd edition this week as it gets underway Wednesday in the mountains of southwest New Mexico. The unique race includes five stages and is one of the toughest on the domestic calendar for both the professionals and amateurs. After struggling to survive for nearly a decade, dwindling registration numbers and a lack of a title sponsor continues to put the race in danger.
Jack Brennan has been the race director for more than 15 years. Champagne was toasted two years ago after Brennan announced he would be stepping down. Brennan has been involved with the race since the mid-1990s, along with Michelle Geels, and wanted to retire. What were the plans following his departure? There were none, and so Brennan returned in 2017 and again this season.
“Yeah, I came back and lost money,” Brennan jokes. “What does that tell you? Sometimes I really hate the race. It’s really hard and stressful but the people you get to work with, the set-ups during the day, seeing the race come together and be successful; people have a good time with it. There’s a lot of enjoyment still with that.”
The race began in the summer of 1987, held in June for several years before moving to the spring. Prior to the 2017 season, USA Cycling announced changes to the Pro Road Tour calendar. In order to reduce the cost of travel for teams, Gila would move forward two weeks into April and Redlands Bicycle Classic would move to Gila’s spot, allowing teams a shorter distance to travel to the Amgen Tour of California.
“You’ve got to live with what you got,” Brennan said of the date changes. “It’s one of those things. I loved our dates back in early May. We were there for years and cultivated that date. But I see the need to reduce costs for teams.”
USA Cycling had promised national race promoters no conflicts. However, Tour of the Gila lands on the same week as Sea Otter, a major road and mountain bike festival in Northern California. The clash has affected registration numbers in Silver City, along with sponsorship opportunities.
“We were down 100 registrants last year, a combination of both pros and amateurs,” Brennan said. “In the pros, we were down a number of teams, in 2016 we had 25 men’s teams, last year we had 22. For the women, it’s even less. In the men’s cat 1/2 race, we had over 100 in 2016, and maybe 60 last year. Joe Martin had great numbers in their 1/2 race last year, they filled their field, so it could be Sea Otter but I don’t know.”
Last year was also a tough one because the race suffered its first fatality since its inception when Axeon Hagens Berman rider Chad Young succumbed to injuries he sustained in a crash on the final stage. Brennan chose to delay the annual fundraising activities soon after, out of respect for Young. Brennan said that the race will not hold a special ceremony for Young at this year’s running, per the request of Young’s family.
The 2018 UCI men’s race will include a mere 17 teams this week and the women have 10, a fraction of what had been only a couple years ago. Not only have the teams dropped, but the race has also dropped the number of riders per team down to seven from eight, due to new UCI regulations. As of Monday, less than 24 hours before close of registration, total amateurs registered were less than 200 and the men’s cat 1/2 race had 31 riders confirmed.
“I go back to USA Cycling,” Brennan explains. “Their mission is to develop Olympic cyclists. I don’t know if they’re interested in developing stage races or one-day races. It seems like it’s on the backs of local promoters who want to be involved in this. We sill carry most of the weight and the risk. We get help from insurance, but it’s very expensive. For folks participating, it’s a major expense to go to a race, and for promoters, it’s also very expensive. I don’t know; it’s a weird sport.”
In 2009, the race came dangerously close to being canceled before Lance Armstrong announced his participation and brought SRAM with him as a new title sponsor. It had been a Hail Mary pass that secured the race for several years before SRAM moved into a global marketplace and directed its dollars elsewhere.
“It’s tough, money is tough,” Brennan added. “We lost money last year, which we attribute to the drop in attendance. The numbers would have helped quite a bit. We would have come very close to breaking even had the numbers been what they were before. We had lost several thousand dollars before but now it was $10k and over. It all went on my personal credit card.”
Part of the problem is the remote location of the race. Silver City is a town in Western New Mexico with a population of about 10,000. The closest city is Las Cruces, about an hour and a half away, while Tucson sits close to four hours away in the opposite direction. Since the absence of a title sponsor, an anonymous donor stepped in as a “last resort” for the past several years. The same donor is once again covering most of the cost in 2018.
“To have that security of a title sponsorship for a number of years going forward would be fantastic. It just hasn’t happened,” Brennan said. “I would love to have sponsors from Tucson or El Paso, even Albuquerque. Local people see what the race can do for us, but it’s a shame that we can’t get any support from the state of New Mexico. They just don’t see the value.”
Some in the race organization have toyed with the idea of cutting the race back down to the America Tour to bypass the UCI status, which comes with additional fees. Brennan disagrees.
“I think overall it’s good for cycling, people need to have things to help promote it. The race is what it is, the courses make it a great area for a high-level race,” Brennan said. “Being UCI we’re also able to have bigger teams. The people who come like the Movistar Team from Ecuador last year, it was the first time out of their country and they had a wonderful time. To spread that feeling out beyond our borders, have people experience what we do here in Silver City as a race — they don’t have to go overseas to get a high-quality race.”
Other options being discussed is a possible date change to the summer and format change. During the early years, the race was held in June, when school was out and many local school kids and teachers would volunteer.
“I think that could be a big opportunity for us,” said Chris Schlabach, co-owner of Gila Hike and Bike and member of the race organization. “The amateurs bring in the business for us, we see no pros, looking for last minute accessories and adjustments. Trying to get back before Tour of California now is impossible. If we had the race before the Tour of Utah for example, it would have the same effect that we once did before California. We would also get far more amateurs to the race, and that would be awesome.”
For 2018, the race will happen as in many years before. How long Brennan will be in the director’s chair remains unanswered. Geels has since moved to Houston, returning only for race week.
“Martyn Piarson [co-owner] and I talked about it and concluded that we will do everything in our reasonable power to help make the race happen each year,” Schlabach added. “That said, we’re not in a position to do what Jack does, spending 2-3 months out of the year focused on a race that has no financial benefit. It’s not only about money, but about being a thing that we can justify spending that much time on.”
Looking to what lies ahead for the race, Brennan hopes to not be involved at all.
“I’m getting old, I’m 66, but we’ll see,” he says. “I think I’m just as passionate now than when I first began. It is about thinking you’re doing something for our sport and the community we live in.”
The race kicks off Wednesday.
Stage 1: Mogollon – Men 92 miles (148 km)/women 71.2 mi (114.38km)
Stage 2: Inner Loop – Men 76.2 miles (122.6 km)/women 74.1 miles (119.3km)
Stage 3: Tyrone Time Trial – Men/women 16.15 Miles (26km)
Stage 4: Downtown Crit – Men 40 laps 43.2 miles (69.5km)/women 27 miles (43.5 km) 25 laps
Stage 5: Gila Monster – Men 100.6 miles (161.9km)/women 65.9 miles (106.01km)