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Comment: Gila Goes ‘Big Time’?

The inclusion of Levi, Lance, and Horner at last week’s Tour if the Gila was largely responsible for ensuring the race happened at all, and brought some much needed publicity to bike racing in America. But is having Pro-Tour riders line-up against a field filled with amateurs such a good idea? PEZ-Reader Mike Schatzman submits his opinion, as does pro Burke Swindlehurst.

– By Mike Schatzman –

The Tour of the Gila, the premier cycling event in New Mexico, was already a legendary race when I lived in Albuquerque in the mid-nineties. Me and my racing buddies would train for it like excited Italian neo-pros all winter, ignoring our college classes, girlfriends, and jobs, until we’d all reach peak form – right around Christmas – for a crazy fast local group ride called the slick 50. After going faster then we would all season, we would end up at the local coffee shop, and predict which of us would win Gila, and who would have to be content with just a stage. It was snowing, we were delusional, and Gila was six months away, but it’s all we talked about.

Then we used Valley of the Sun, Tucson Bike Classic, and Vuelta de Bisbee in Arizona as “training” races for Gila.. These were great because we could get 148th place and say “whatever, it’s just a training race.” Finally, in May, and you knew this was coming, we’d all be tired and mentally cracked just in time for Gila, an epic five day ordeal over lumpy rollers, steep mountain passes, with insane gusting crosswinds and inferno like temperatures. Even the crit has a steep climb in it. We would struggle through the stages, get dropped early, in small desperate rotating groups of zombie like chasers, muttering to ourselves and praying to make the time cut. We’d all meet at the second feed-zone on the last day, where we would unceremoniously drop out, make up ridiculous excuses, and talk about our chances for next year and what we would do differently over the winter (eat less food, more intense intervals in October!).

Believe it or not, these are fond memories for me. Gila was my Tour de France. It was an NRC race with all the pro teams, a parking lot of real team mechanics, neutral support, and a big race caravan. I saw Jeannie Longo at the Dairy Queen and Bob Roll dressed in tight black jeans, a black t-shirt, black cowboy hat, and huge sideburns, sipping coffee alone in front of a cafe on main street. He was racing, but on the last day, I saw him skip the right turn up the Gila monster climb, he just turned left right up to the finish. This was a big race and if you won a stage, like New Mexicans Ken Zimmerman, John Frey, Bart Bowen, Ryan Blickem and many more, you instantly became a local legend. Compared to the races we usually did – parking lot crits and windy hilly road races – Gila was another level of competition, easily the biggest race most of us would do all year.

So last week when I found out that Astana teammates Lance Armstrong, Levi Leiphemier, and Chris Horner were doing Gila I was surprised. Gila is a great race but this would be like the New York Yankees going to New Mexico mid-season to play the Albuquerque Isotopes. Why?

I know it’s not just for training. Let’s not be fooled by the retro jerseys and all the talk about having fun. They can’t hide the seriousness of Leiphimer winning two of the first three stages by large margins. (I saw Leipheimer lap me and the rest of the field four times at the Brewers Hills Crit at Superweek in 1998. He wasn’t racing for fun back then either, he was a cash register on wheels collecting prime after prime. I have never seen any pro race for “fun”. Your dentist with three kids races for fun – pros are doing their jobs.)

Maybe I’m being too cynical. Maybe Armstrong is just having “fun”, supporting what he called “a great American race” and recovering from his broken collarbone. He might be taking it easy. Maybe this is his comeback and he wants to enjoy it a little, not push himself too hard. The other comeback kids, Tyler Hamilton and Floyd Landis are not having particularly good seasons… Hamilton got busted for DHEA (the health food store drug of choice for local crit monkeys everywhere). Landis, a former Tour de France winner, has been relegated to a full season of events like Gila and he’s still been anonymous this season.

It’s obviously good for the race. Just a few months ago, the Tour of the Gila was canceled. The promoter was struggling with coming up with enough cash before SRAM stepped in as title sponsor. Publicity is great for a race, so maybe Armstrong is just doing a nice thing to keep a great historic American race alive?

Whatever the reasons for three Pro-Tour riders doing a national-level race, Armstrong should not be racing Gila. It’s not the proper arena for Pro-Tour riders. He was able to race because of an obscure loophole in UCI rules. Entire Pro-Tour teams are not allowed to participate in small “national” events. This protects the smaller teams that rely on the small races for their results, publicity, and the continued support of their sponsors. The logic is that Pro-Tour teams should be doing big races like the Tour of Romandy and not kermesses, parking lot crits, or the Tour of the Gila.

The three rider rule attempts to level the playing field a bit – at least the whole Astana team isn’t there riding on the front to make sure that all of the guys from Bobs Bicycles and Ten Speed Drive are cut the first day. The “neutral” jersey idea is so there is no economic incentive for teams and sponsors to want to do small races with no television coverage. Armstrong, a money making machine, always comes up on top and his “neutral” jersey has his bike shop – Mellow Johnny’s – on it. Three retro looking jerseys, a week in scenic Silver City for some training and the win, and maybe sell some more Trek bikes this summer. Maybe for Lance, there is an economic incentive to racing smaller events.

Even worse is that Armstrong actually had a twelve man team at Gila. The Trek/Livestrong team, sponsored by Armstrong’s cancer foundation, was there to help the little three man Mellow Johnny’s team. Taylor Phinney, the World Pursuit Champion on the track, is probably a pretty good rider to have on the front chasing down breaks. Phinney even admitted that he was there to “do whatever Lance wants me to do.” Sure enough, on Sunday, Trek/Livestrong were on the front, nine deep, chasing the early break. Their best overall rider was in twenty third place. Who were they chasing for?

So is all of this fair? I guess like my mom always told me, life isn’t fair. Lance is more than a bike racer. He’s one of cycling’s greatest champions of all time, a global movement, an inspiration to millions, a Hollywood heartthrob, Nike idol, whatever he is, it’s simply bigger than sportsmanship, fairness, or obscure UCI rules. In the end, it’s not such a big deal. The Gila survives, Mellow Johnny’s gets some free publicity, local fans get to see Lance Armstrong, some guy who should have won Gila didn’t, a bunch of racers get to brag about how they “raced” with Lance. I guess it’s not the end of the world.

Maybe the guy who should have won Gila, like Burke Swindlehurst or Chris Baldwin, can go home next week, and hit the Tuesday night crit, and beat up all the locals there. Same thing I guess.

Meanwhile – Lyne Lamoureux of PodiumInsight.com has been talking with 3-time Tour of the Gila champion Burke Swindlehurst all through Gila, and quite independently broached this very topic…

Lyne notes that the presence of the Astana trio at an NRC race has brought up talk of sandbagging in online communities. Swindlehurst’s answer to the sandbagging question was an emphatic “No, I totally disagree with that.”

For Swindlehurst, the Astana presence at the race is fantastic.

“This race has been one of the toughest races for years and it’s never gotten the attention that it’s deserved. I’ve always felt that this was the hardest stage race in the country outside of Tour of California or something like that when it comes to the terrain and just the kind of racing that you get. For them to come to bring that level even higher. I think that’s kind of lame if people are going to complain about getting the opportunity to race against the best in the world. I was really excited when Levi told me a month out that he thought they were going to come and that made my day. Contrary to what other people think, I’ve had people say ‘oh you must be bummed out’, not even close mad, I’m really excited to get the opportunity to race with these guys. ” said Swindlehurst.

And the racing itself? Swindlehurst knows a tough race, and though it’s life depletingly hard, relishes it: “I wouldn’t be surprised if every single stage was the fastest ever on record by a long shot. Today was just over the top, obviously you have the three huge engines which are the Astana boys and then you have everybody else which is just raising their level to try and get anywhere near theirs so it makes for some pretty exciting racing.”

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