The lizard's reputation as the bad boy of the desert has made the creature the mascot of the toughest road bike race in the Southwest. The Tour of the Gila, a three-to-five day stage race in southern New Mexico, is lauded as one of the most daunting road races on the USA Cycling national event calendar, thanks to its high elevation course and long, brutal climbs.
Seven local cyclists racing under the Paragon Ski and Sport flag are battling the hard-nosed Gila presently, representing the largest contingent of Telluride racers yet to enter the event.
"This is by far the best showing Telluride has ever had at this event," said Paragon Racing Team member and first-time Gila competitor Peter Kenyon. "It's encouraging to see so many people interested in this caliber of race. It shows road biking is having a nice little rebirth in Telluride."
Kenyon is racing in the Men's Category 4 and 5 three-day race, while Pete Dahle and Master's Men's division rider Chris Cardoza are both competing in the full five-day stage race. Other competitors include Daniel Murray, Daniel Dean, Esteban Roberts and Christy Roberts.
The multi-day road race began Wednesday with a time trial held near Tyrone, N.M. Thursday marked the first big day of racing, with racers in the highest competitive brackets climbing up to 6,000 feet on the 92-mile stretch from Silver City to Mogollon. Racers in the Women's and Senior Men III brackets competed on a 70-mile course with more than 4,500 feet of climbing.
The Inner Loop Road Race takes place today, following a 73-mile loop for the longest-distance competitors and a 61-mile loop for everyone else.
Tomorrow, contestants enter Stage Four, a Criterium race in downtown Silver City that leads cyclists on a 1.08-mile course for 12 to 40 laps, depending on their competitive bracket.
Stage Five on Sunday is the grueling Gila Monster Road Race, the event that ultimately decides the winner of the Tour. All racers finish in scenic Pinos Altos after racing either a 100-mile or 66-mile course.
All in all, the top men's and women's divisions race for five consecutive days, covering 340 and 258 miles, respectively, and climbing 22,180 in elevation.
Many of the racers ramped up for the Gila by participating in the Mad Cow Classic in late April, a road race held on back roads near Whitewater (south of Grand Junction), sponsored by Mesa State College. Paragon Racing Team riders Murray, Dean and Roberts were dealt an unexpected blow at the Mad Cow, after they beat the race course marshals to what should have been a marked turn, and rode off course on an extended detour, covering 85 miles instead of the course's designated 62 miles. The positive side of the mix up was that the three men earned some extra race training experience for the Gila.
Teammate Christy Roberts grabbed the Mad Cow by the horns, finishing third in the Pro Women's Category, following a long, drawn-out sprint to the finish. Kenyon also broke away from the pack in his Men's 4 and 5 category at the Mad Cow, pulling ahead of the group in the last miles of the 51-mile course to take the overall win for his division.
"It's a brutal race," Kenyon said of the Gila, "but there have been a lot of Telluride riders really training hard and putting a lot of time in the saddle to prepare. Everyone is already racing so much stronger than they were at this time last year. I expect to see some good things from the Paragon Team at the Gila and throughout the rest of the racing year."
After the Tour of the Gila, Telluride's serious and not-so-serious biking masses will head to Durango to compete in the ever-popular Iron Horse Classic, a 50-mile climb between Durango and Silverton over Memorial Day weekend. Meanwhile, watch out for local mountain bike race contenders as the Mountain States Cup mountain bike series gets underway, May 20-21, at the Chile Challenge in Angel Fire, N.M.