You Vs the Gila Monster
For most amateur racers, the Tour of the Gila is arguably the closest thing they will ever come to the Tour de France. Held in the beautiful south west Gila National Forest in New Mexico, the race courses offer up 5 stages of high altitude terrain and long sustained climbing including 2 mountain top finishes.
Many riders make this race a number one priority in their season, much like Lance makes Le Tour numero uno in his books. Therefore, it pays to understand the specific demands of the course and adapt your training appropriately. Of note, tactics are virtually erased in the amateur categories by the 15.6 mile individual time trial and nearly 22,000 ft. of climbing in the 4 following stages. Therefore the winner in all categories including the pro race, possess superior time trialing and climbing ability. In technical terms that translates into having a high sustained power output relative to body weight and frontal drag (aerodynamics), watts/kg and watts/CdA respectively.
I connected with 2 time overall winner and quadruple stage winner, Burke Swindlehurst (winner previously of 3 of the 5 stages) of the Navigators Insurance cycling team to get the “low down” on the Gila’s 5 brutal stages.
Stage 1, 15.7 mile Individual Time Trial, 1070 ft. climbing
If you plan on contesting the general classification the opening stage will set the GC for the remainder of the race. Therefore, you will need to be able to produce your maximum sustained power output for 35 to 45 minutes depending on your ability level. During this time trial it is important to be able to climb well and go fast downhill. According to Burke “gearing is crucial….you need a small enough gear to handle the climbs and also a big gear so as not to lose too much time on the decent back into Tyrone.”
Experienced racer tip: A 53t ring does not cut it. Consider a 55 or 56 front chain ring for the fast downhill finish!
Obvious training for this stage and all time trials includes working on your power at threshold. Intervals of 10 to 30 minutes in length as fast as you can address this adaptation. But don’t forget your aerobic & anaerobic capacity and VO2max! Additionally, dial in your optimal time trial setup and compete in a few training or race TTs on a flat then hilly course to nail down your positioning and get an idea of pacing.
Stage 2, Moggollon, 70 miles Cat 3 & Women, 92 miles Pro/1 and 2 Men, 5640 ft. climbing
This stage is tactically simple: ride a moderately flat course conserving as much energy as possible for 95% of the race. Then slam it up a ~4000 ft. 5.5 mile narrow alpine road for the first of two mountain top finishes. Plan on being able to lay the power down for 15-25 minutes of climbing. However, Burke astutely pointed out “once you start the climb there’s about a mile stretch of flat road in the middle before it gets really steep.” So if you can hang on until this flat section you can save yourself a few minutes. Also, “heat can be a huge factor.” You will need to come up with a hydration strategy because two or three bottles just isn’t enough. At the start of this stage network as much as possible to have friends or acquaintances in the feed zone.
If Lance shows up, expect him to use his teammates to control the race with a vicious tempo. Obvious prediction: Lance will use the final climb up to Moggollon as practice for such TdF climbs as La Mongie and Plateau de Beille. Previous winners are a who’s who of top US climbers including no other than PEZ diarist and contributor to this article Burke Swindlehurst along with Scott Moninger, Chris Wherry, Kevin Livingston, and working man hero Drew Miller.
Been there done that tip: This race is point to point; arrange to have a car parked at the finish full of recovery drinks, food & a change of clothes. You don’t want to have to wait hours and hours in your chamois for the race organization school bus to take you home!
Once again power to weight ratio is crucial in maintaining or extending one’s position on the general classification. Trainable aspects of this stage include your climbing power at threshold (similar to the TT), aerobic capacity, and oh yeah, more climbing.
Stage 3, Inner Loop: 73 miles, 3690-5150 ft. climbing
Burke’s Take By now the GC is sorted out and the amateur race categories generally stay together for a survival of the fittest bunch finish. The Pro race according to Burke “can be tricky; usually the team containing the GC leader will allow a small break to go up the road and begin doing a strong tempo to contain the rest of the field. The descent off of Pinos Altos can also be very intense… with some very sharp turns. After that you hit a long valley which can be very windy and often the field will split here. To top it off, you have about 5 huge rollers of about a mile each going into the finish. A lot of times the breakaway will be caught and another small group will counter attack and go into the finish alone which features a long downhill drag to the line.” If Lance and other strong men want to light up the initial climb and work together for the remainder of the stage a group of GC contenders could leave the pack behind groveling to minimize their time losses.
Been there done that tip: Warm up for this stage and the initial first climb! Stay near the front (if possible) on the descents. Watch out during the descent down from Pinos Altos and be safe. Conserve energy if you’re going for the GC, but if you’re already out of contention or looking to make up time, today might be the stage to get in a breakaway.
Stage 4, Criterium 15-40 laps, 60 ft of climbing per lap
This downtown criterium is generally used as a rest day for the GC guys and gals in order to conserve their energy for the fifth upcoming “Gila Monster.” The course does feature one climb per lap but as long as you carry your momentum it is a “big ring” affair.
Coach’s tip: You will have a lot of free time today so use the day to prepare yourself and your bike for tomorrow’s grueling stage. Eat and drink well for tomorrow’s huge day!
Stage 5, The Gila monster, 100 miles (66 miles Cat 3 & Women, 9220ft. of climbing
There are six categorized climbs in this epic road race. The cream will rise to the top in this race and those already atop the GC just need to sort it out. The start is rather inconspicuous but two Category 1 climbs starting at mile marker 50 shatter the field. From there on out it’s all about your power to weight ratio and your will to survive. Feeds are crucial and water intake can not be emphasized enough.
Been there done that tip: Burke: “Stay hydrated and on top of your calories. The two times that I’ve won this stage has been by attacking on the steep pitch out of the dwellings and creating a small group over the top. Pacing yourself once you’ve hit the final Pinos Altos climb is critical. Too hard and you’re going to blow and lose huge time….not hard enough and you’ll be caught.”
After you’re done congratulate yourself for racing 220 miles (give or take a few per category) and climbing 23,600 total feet in 5 days. Compare your results to Lance Armstrong’s early season form if he shows up. Now take those 5 days add approximately 50 miles to each stage, multiply by four and you have a somewhat inaccurate idea of what its like to ride the Tour de France!
Frank is a USA cycling certified coach and category 1 road racer. Frank has raced the Gila three times and in 2001 finished sixth in the Stage 2 Moggollon mountain top stage! He can be reached at his website