Return of the Tour of the Gila: what to watch for in the famous American stage race

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After two long years, the iconic Tour of the Gila is back for real racing this week.

Known as the toughest stage race in American road cycling, the New Mexico race attracts professional and amateur riders alike. And with the rare opportunity to earn coveted UCI points, international competition promises to be fierce.

Now in its 35th year, the Tour of the Gila – or simply “The Gila” – is one of four UCI-sanctioned road races that still remain on American soil. Its rich history is filled with great names in cycling, including former winners such as Levi Leipheimer, Phil Deignan, Lachlan Morton, Jonathan Vaughters, Kristin Armstrong, Mara Abbott, Clara Hughes, Brodie Chapman and Jeanie Longo.

The Tour de la Gila offers a UCI 2.2 classified race for men and women as well as seven categories for amateurs. For the pros, five challenging racing stages await.

“I’ve always been scared of this race, but I love the races here,” commented Instafund Racing Road Captain Heidi Franz. ” Hardness [of this race] brings out some really high quality racing.

Francis fresh from winning the five-stage Redlands Bicycle Classic held in California last weekend. In California, the 27-year-old former rally bike rider put in a dominant performance to win the first road race and finish second in the fifth and final stage after spending half the day in a two-man breakaway with Erica Clevenger (DNA Pro cycling team).

The Tour du Gila, however, is a bit of a different animal.

“It’s definitely a race that is won by someone with a powerful engine who can climb well, but also needs a good time trial,” said Franz. “It’s wild. It’s the Wild West here.

Heidi Franz at the Vuelta A Burgos Feminas 2021

(Image credit: (Luc Claessen/Getty Images))

5 hard days of racing

The five days of racing will see the UCI men climb some 22,000ft (6705m) over 328 miles (525km). The UCI women will ride an equally hilly course of 254 miles (408 km) with 17,000′ (5182 meters) of elevation gain. It’s not called America’s toughest race for nothing. It starts hard, ends even harder, and is fast and fierce in between. Never really flat though.

The Gila begins on Wednesday April 27 with its iconic run up the Mogollon Climb. Before the climb, the hilly terrain allows riders to warm up their legs, try out the bonus sprints and maybe try to shake or tire out some of the pure climbers before heading to the ghost town of Mogollon, where the road narrows and the climbing begins. The men’s and women’s races share the same mountaintop finish, which comes after 10.8 km (6.7 miles) of steep climbing. This climb can be race-defining and in the past some climbers have run away with GC victory here. Mara Abbott has done it no less than six times!

From there, the pelotons will tackle the hilly Inner Loop road race in Stage 2, the Tyrone 16-mile uphill individual time trial in Stage 3 and the Downtown Criterium in Silver City at Stage 4.

With a ratio of nearly 1:100, miles to feet, the fifth and final race on May Day is even more brutal and aptly named “the Gila Monster.” The UCI women will tackle 65.9 miles of tight mountain roads with 5,610 feet of climbing and 4,714 feet of rapid descent. Along the way, they will contest two bonus sprints and three QOMs. Likewise, the UCI men will face 100.6 miles with 9,131 feet of ascent and 8,252 feet of difficult descent. Along the way, two bonus sprints and five KOMs are offered.

“Past winners would indicate that [the Gila] suits someone who climbs well, but I think it has the potential for some really good time trials to take over as well,” commented Franz.

“In 2019, the GC was really exciting because it changed hands, so often. If it’s not a pure climber who wins the first stage of the climb to the top of a mountain, a successful breakaway can shake it up and a dominating performance against the clock can shake it up even more. It can really bounce back.”

James Piccoli of Team Elevate-KHS Pro Cycling won the last edition of the Tour of the Gila in 2019. He continued to do well at the Tour of Utah later that year.

(Image credit: Getty Images)

International competition

As mentioned above, the Gila is a rare opportunity for riders to earn coveted UCI points on American soil. As such, the starting rosters pack a punch with North American and international teams lined up.

“North America as a whole really lacks UCI racing. That makes Gila and the Joe Martin Stage Race so important for North American teams to get exposure and for individual riders to get exposure as well,” said Franz: “So I think the competition will be quite competitive.”

On the men’s side, 12 teams have been confirmed with up to seven riders each. It’s a truly international field with runners from the United States, Mexico, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan, Norway, Germany and France.

After a strong showing at Redlands last weekend, Franz said she expects a good battle between the Project Echelon, Aevolo Cycling and Toronto Hustle teams. Although lesser-known foreign teams may have a surprise or two in store.

On the women’s side, there are nine teams competing in the UCI race, and like the men’s, riders come from afar, including the team (EF Education-Tibco-SVB, which has just come out of its Spring Classics stay in Europe.

The pink team arrives in force with riders Krista Doebel-Hickok, Lauren Stephens, Omer Shapira, Emily Newsom, Sara Poidevin and Emma Langley.

“It will be really interesting to have Tibco here, especially who they bring with. They kind of bring a roster of leaders, many of whom are very good contenders for the GC, I think,” Franz said. see how the race goes with them I haven’t raced with any of them yet this year so it will be really fun to come back with them.

Franz said that if she enters the race in good shape, her Instafund team will also have several cards to play with Maddy Ward and Canadian Isabella Bertold both in good shape. All three finished in the GC Top 10 at Redlands last weekend.

Other teams to watch are DNA Pro Cycling and 3T/Q+M Cycling, both of which performed well at Redlands.

Live coverage of criterium races

New this year is the possibility for fans to follow certain races live. Live audio and video streaming will be available for the UCI Women’s and Men’s Criterium races on Saturday 30 April. Coverage will run from 2-7 p.m. MDT at www.tourofthegila.com and will include interviews, race updates and live announcements.

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