Celebrating its 30th edition in 2016, the Tour of the Gila took place in and around Silver City, New Mexico, consisting of three road race stages, an individual time trial, and a criterium.
Stage 1 was a point-to-point road race ending on a 6.7-mile climb that peaks at a 19-percent grade en route to the ghost town of Mogollon. The criterium is held in downtown Silver City, with high speeds, 90-degree turns and a tough climb to weed out the weak. The iconic “Gila Monster” road race final stage consists of over 9,000 feet of climbing for the men, and over 5,500 feet for the women, ending in the tiny enclave of Pinos Altos, nestled in the Gila National Forest.
This year’s edition began on Wednesday, May 4, and ended on Sunday, May 9, with Australian Lachlan Morton (Jelly Belly-Maxxis) and Mara Abbott (Amy D. Foundation) each winning the opening stage, and then holding the race lead throughout to take top honors.
Morton takes his first major win for Jelly Belly-Maxxis
In the men’s race, Morton won the brutal 92-mile opening day, holding off the chase to solo for his first stage win at the Tour of the Gila, in Mogollon. The Australian finished 25 seconds ahead of the defending champion, Rob Britton of Rally Cycling, followed by Daniel Jaramillo of UnitedHealthcare, who finished 1:15 down. All three men would ultimately finish in the top five overall.
Expecting crosswinds in the flat mesa before the final ascent, Morton and teammate Taylor Sheldon timed their attack just right in the end. “We managed to break away with Rob (Britton) before going flat out and then hung on, so it was nice,” Morton said. The win was his first racing alongside his older brother, Angus, also on Jelly Belly.
UnitedHealthcare managed to finish with three in the top 10, including current U.S. national champion Matthew Busche, while pre-race favorite, Janier Acevedo of Jamis-Sutter Home, had a rough day in the saddle, crossing the line in sixth place, 1:43 down.
Stage 2 was the 76.2-mile Inner Loop Road Race, starting and finishing in Fort Bayard, nine miles east of Silver City. Holowesko-Citadel’s Travis McCabe took the stage win he’d been chasing for the past three years.
“Now that I have been able to do [the Inner Loop] so many times and lose a couple, I knew what it was going to be like for the win,” McCabe said. “We had a tailwind coming into the finish, so I knew it was going to be fast. The team just rode great all day today. We were able to stay together, the guys listened to me, I tried to keep everything calm tell them when to go and where we really needed to hit it. And it worked perfectly.”
Italian Marco Canola (UnitedHealthcare) and Neilson Powless (Axeon-Hagens Berman) rounded out the men’s podium on the stage. Morton protected his leader’s jersey, maintaining his advantage over Britton in the general classification.
On stage 3, Tom Zirbel (Rally Cycling) won the men’s time trial, setting a time of 34:29 over the 16.15-mile out-and-back course. Canadian Alex Cataford (Silber) came in six seconds after Zirbel, taking second on the podium. Cataford’s strong finish moved him into second in the classification ahead of Britton. Powless (Axeon Hagens Berman) rounded out the podium in third, moving up seven spots in the general classification.
“This is a special race for me,” Zirbel said. “It was my first real big win as a Cat 3 back in 2004, so I put everything I had into it that year and it kind of showed me I could compete with the best around.”
On Saturday, the pro men took on a 40-lap journey on the historic downtown Silver City Criterium. Zirbel rode solo off the front for the first part of the race doing work for Rally Cycling. With 17 laps to go, no breaks had been successful. Jelly Belly-Maxxis kept Morton safe at the front as the field began to spread apart, coming together again at seven laps to go.
Former national criterium champion Eric Marcotte (Jamis-Sutter Home) made his trademark move, taking it down to the final corner with the razor-sharp precision and control that only a seasoned crit racer could manage. Marcotte stood atop the podium for the stage win, followed by McCabe in second, and Kristopher Dahl (Silber) in third.
For the final 100.6-mile (161.9km) ” Gila Monster” stage, the main GC contenders were unable to knock Morton from the top of the GC. Morton began the stage with just over a minute lead on Cataford, with Britton in third.
Jaramillo took the stage win for the second time in his career, just ahead of his compatriot, Janier Acevedo (Jamis). Tao Geoghegan Hart (Axeon Hagens Berman) crossed shortly after in third, winning the Best Young Rider’s jersey.
An unbreakable record? Abbott takes a sixth career Gila victory
Riding for the Amy D. Foundation composite team, American Mara Abbott seized the top spot on the opening stage, and never relinquished control. It was Abbott’s fourth consecutive win at the Silver City to Mogollon Road Race for the rider who came to Gila as a five-time winner, taking victory in 2007, 2010, 2013, 2014, and 2015.
Abbott beat second-place finisher Katharine Hall (UnitedHealthcare) by an incredible 2:31.
Olympic hopeful and 2012 overall race winner Kristin Armstrong (Twenty16-Ridebiker) came in three seconds after Hall.
“My team demonstrated to me how much they trust me because of how hard they rode, and how much of themselves they put on the line,” Abbott said.
Stage 2 winner Jasmin Glaesser (Rally Cycling) made several trips to the women’s podium, as stage winner, best young rider, and sprint leader. Leah Thomas (Twenty16-Ridebiker) and Abigail Mickey (UnitedHealthcare) rounded out the stage 2 podium.
Armstrong, the two-time Olympic champion and two-time Gila winner, proved her reputation as one of the top time trial specialists of all time on Stage 3, stopping the clock at 39:05 over the over the 16.15-mile out-and-back course, besting Lauren Stephens (Tibco-Silicon Valley Bank), the 2015 women’s stage winner.
Conditions for the stage were typical of the Tour of the Gila, as wind from the southwest picked up as the day went on, reaching 29mph, with gusts up to 45mph.
“Today’s conditions were quite a bit different from 2012 when I set the record, and so I had to just fight through it,” Armstrong said. “I knew what my turnaround split had to be to break the record again. But, that’s what’s so intriguing about the Tour of Gila. You never know what you’re going to get.”
The winds helped Abbott stay close to Armstrong; she finished second, in 39:27, with Stephens in third, at 39:49. Reigning world TT champ Linda Villumsen (UnitedHealthcare) finished fourth.
Stage 4 was the Silver City Criterium, a 27-mile journey around the traditional four-corner circuit. The 25-lap circuit was an aggressive race to the finish and there was stiff competition between the top female riders, with Villumsen, Emily Collins (Tibco-Silicon Valley Bank) , Brianna Walle (Tibco-Silicon Valley Bank), Alison Jackson (Twenty16-RiderBiker), and Heather Fischer (Rally Cycling) battling for the stage win.
Fischer sped to the victory on the final lap, passing Walle, who rode aggressively throughout the criterium to move up in the general classification. It was Fischer’s first UCI road stage win.
“The final lap they kept it pretty fast. I had a good teammate up there, Kirsti Lay, who was following people who were trying to get off the front. There was one major attempt made by Scotti [Lechuga], I think it was maybe the second-to-last turn. I kind of let go and I kind of followed the Tibco train into that final corner and went a little bit later and was able to take over,” Fischer said.
Villumsen and Collins rounded out the podium in second and third, respectively. Armstrong and Abbott stayed at the front of the pack to maintain their spots in the general classifcation.
On the final stage — known as the Gila Monster — Abbott, the two-time Giro Rosa winner, showed why she’s a level above the rest, sealing another overall Gila victory.
Crosswinds and massive climbs made for a brutal day on the road. Despite the challenges, the racing was aggressive from the gun, with Colavita, Amy D and TIBCO-Silicon Valley Bank launching the majority of attacks during the early stages of the race.
The ultimate aggression came from Abbott, who attacked at the base of the final climb. Only Hall (UnitedHealthcare) could stay with Abbott, but eventually she fell off the pace of the formidable climber.
The scenario seemed like a carbon copy of 2015, except for a chase group of 11 riders that surprisingly closed the gap to Abbott and Hall in the closing kilometers. Within 500 meters of the hilltop finish, Hall was overtaken by Scotti Lechuga (Hagens-Berman Supermint) and Mindy McCutcheon (Canyon), who finished finished second and third on the stage, respectively.
Armstrong held on to second place on GC, while Glaesser delivered a stellar ride to move up into third overall, one second ahead of Walle, who dropped to fourth place.