This blog post isn’t quite a blog post. It defies the conventions of blogging, because first of all, its not short, and I dare you not to scroll down and take note of its length. It also has parts, and blogs don’t usually do that. I recommend everyone tries this, its satisfying to sometimes dole out great blasts of grapeshot to blogging conventions. Now, you don’t have to read this whole thing, but because I know people like to quantify things, it will probably take 10 minutes or more. If boredom becomes too strong and you want to stop reading, thats fine, but if you don’t even start reading, if you don’t even try, you are an implicit member of the zombie apocalypse.
One: To the Old West
I was a mule on the way to Silver City, New Mexico, with a Prius piled high with bikes and a trunk stuffed with wheels. Settling in on the I-5 in cruise control, I watched the agricultural enormity of the Central Valley rush by on my left as the sun dropped behind the mountains on my right. With a sad, nutritionally ambiguous Foster Freeze’s burger settling in my stomach, I thought:
This is weird, I’m driving to the high desert of the Southwest to pedal my bike as hard as I physically can at the Tour of Gila.
I stopped for the night in Pasadena, staying with a collegiate cycling adversary turned friend, Keith Wong. He was going to guest ride with Marc Pro – Strava, along with 2 other guests coming from Florida, another from Canada, and another from Texas. No team goes to Tour of the Gila with empty roster spots because the event is so unlike anything else on the calendar, the race is a brute, a legend unfolding in the thin air of mountain pines and sun-drenched desert scrub.
I had never been to the desert Southwest, I had seen the panhandle of Texas, with its wide open landscape and bobbing oil derricks on the horizon, but never real desert, with cactus, dust storms, big lizards, and vaulting painted rocks.
We met AJ Kennedy and our teammate Max Jenkins at Tucson International Airport that night amid a flurry of other drivers and cabs picking up and dropping off people. AJ would be our team director, he has a wealth of experience, is extremely articulate, an adept mechanic, tactician, and hilarious guy. Max is a climber. You know it when you see him. He looks like a stick figure and puts out a deceptively huge amount of force onto his pedals. The team would be rallying around him to get a result, he rode professionally for four years prior to the near-implosion of American cycling last year, which left a shocking number of pro riders without a job. Sadly, by bad luck, Max was one of those guys. He is remarkably undeterred and arrived in Tucson with a perfect mixture of hunger and great confidence.
At last, we arrived in Silver City, NM, signaled by the passing of Tyrone mine. Its remarkable the amount of mining that occurs in this region of the country, and even more remarkable how the mining process affects the land. It looks as though a giant was searching intently through a trunk of clothes, shoveling shale and rock over his shoulders trying to find a favorite pair of boxers. In fact, I later learned from our gracious host, Paul, that the town of Tyrone used to be a lovely place constructed in Mediterranean style, but had been plowed away. The new town of Tyrone is decidedly less lovely and more dedicated to corrugated tin roof style, but this is how things change in some parts of our country I suppose.
Paul, as I mentioned, was caretaker of the host house in which we arrived at. He’s a great guy with a big semi-fro, hippie getup, and the occasional touch of gallows humor:
“Hey Paul, how are you?”
“I’m not dead yet!”
Two: The Mogollon Massacre
Stage 1 of the Tour of Gila was one of the craziest days I’ve ever had on a bike. The necessary preface is the course began with about 25 miles of perfect tailwind and descending and furious pedaling in the 53×11. Afterwards, the course rolls along, sometimes lashed by westerly winds, all the way to the final climb, a one lane road snaking upwards to the old West ghost town of Mogollon.
A breakaway was finally established halfway through the 96 mile stage, with one of our guys, Coulton Hartrich, making it up there. We were excited to see Coulton’s sloppily written race number on the whiteboard that the race commisaires on motorcycles present to the peloton. The commisaires use this white board in order to communicate information regarding breakaways, who is in the breakaway, and what their time gap is.
Occasionally, A pro team would take all of their guys to the front in a crosswind and gutter it. To those not savvy to the pain and suffering of being ‘guttered’, allow me to explain. In a typical headwind, riders ride behind each other to obtain an energy-saving draft, however, if there is a crosswind, the line of draft moves diagonally. The diagonal draft means riders form echelons to stay protected from the wind, however, only a finite amount of space on the road can accomodate an echelon. Everyone else is ‘caught out’, which means they are riding one behind another, struggling along with only half a draft. So when the pro teams ride hard at the front in a crosswind, they form an echelon and many riders are ‘caught out’, gaps begin to form, and desperate reorganizations and chases to regain contact with the peloton ensue. Luckily, the one time I was caught out, Zach Bell of Smartstop Pro Cycling was too. He pulled our group of 4 back to the peloton on his own. It was ridiculous how strong he was.
When we were somewhere around 8 miles from the hamlet of Glenwood and thus the beginning of the climb to Mogollon, we decided to take Max to the front so he was in a good safe position when we hit the climb. Jamis Hagens Berman and United Healthcare were on the front of the race, pulling back the breakaway, which had accumulated a huge 8 minute lead. We parked 5 of us behind the two pro teams as we began a fast descent. We were reaching speeds of 50mph when I noticed that one of the United Healthcare riders ahead of us was upside down and I couldn’t see his bike. This is when everything went into slow motion. I heard the rider’s bike clash against the pavement off to the right, which began a domino effect of bodies and carbon bikes crashing against the pavement. There was no time to react, I just continued the same course I was on, passing between the first fallen rider on the left and the ensuing carnage on the right, and I escaped. Where is Max? Did any of my teammates make it through?
I looked over my shoulder. The crash was still mushrooming. I saw one Marc Pro – Strava rider escape, the last rider to make it through still on their bike, and it was Max. Later we learned that as many as 80 riders crashed. Whole teams were taken out of the race. The rest of our guys fell over one way or another and one of our guest riders, Shawn Gravois, was out of the race. The rest of the guys got of lightly, luckily. Most teams were not so lucky.
Only 40 guys were left in the front group, and Jamis Hagens Berman was still going ballistic to chase down the breakaway. Once they had the breakaway’s gap under control, I started riding in the wind for Max, who seemed to be feeling really good. I was dropped as soon as the steeper climbing started and watched them float away uphill.
The diminishing front group crossed Whitewater Mesa briefly before resuming the massive climb, eventually skirting sheer cliff faces on either side. Matt Cooke from Jamis attacked at the base of the climb and got away alone, and then there was another attack halfway up. Max held even with the pace, but a few meters back. In the drive for the finish Max finished 8th on the stage, only 30 seconds down from the winner. We were officially in the hunt for a nice GC result. Not only that, but Coulton had been the last guy from the break to get caught and finished with a solid top 30.
Three: Dirt Is More Forgiving
Stage 2, or Inner Loop, is a tough stage punctuated by some Category 3 climbs, ending in a sprint finish. Sometimes a breakaway makes it all the way, sometimes it ends in a giant bunch sprint. The variability is often related to tactics; which teams are represented in the breakaway, and as a result, which teams have to chase the breakaway and how much leash they give them.
I wanted to try to get in the breakaway, but the Cat 3 climb to open the stage had me gassed. When we crested the hill, three riders were up the road and it looked like Jamis Hagens Berman, who would be in charge for the day because their rider, Jaramillo, was wearing the race leader’s jersey, was going to let the breakaway go and gain some time. The gap was relatively small still as we entered the narrow forest roads from Piños Altos, about 50 seconds. I thought maybe I could be cheeky and attack around the Jamis guys and bridge up – I gave it try, eliciting verbal irritation from the Jamis guys. Immediately, a United Healthcare rider jumped out to me, following. There was already a UHC rider up the road in the break, so the move was not permissible and Jamis chased us down. Oh well, at least I tried.
We spent the rest of the stage looking after Max, that is, after the peloton stopped en masse to pee on the side of the road while the 3 escapees gained time. I went to the team car in the caravan that follows behind the peloton. I found the noble Prius, captained by AJ, and obtained some cool bottles of Clif Shot electrolyte mix for Max and the other guys. Its pretty fun, you take one bottle, but you hold onto it for a bit while the team car driver holds onto it, you get a little free boost, and then you stuff it down the back of your jersey through the collar. On the final bottle, AJ really gave me a good sling and I sped up to the back of the peloton hunched over my handlebars with a stack of bottles jutting the back of my snug-aero Jakroo jersey out like I was Quasimoto.
Four kilometers before the final climb of the day, we lined up and started taking Max to the front. We began to ride past the train of Smartstop riders and their last guy was unhappy about it because he wanted his team to remain in good position, not get swarmed on the side by a bunch of guys. The road suddenly narrowed. I was passing him, completely intent on following Keith Wong and Max to the front. What ensued was both the other rider and I fighting for a very small patch of road. The result was we both crashed. I slid on the dirt beside the road, feeling my shoulder pop out and back in again before coming to a stop. AJ was out of the car immediately, swapping a new front wheel onto my bike and before I knew it I was drafting off of the back of the Prius, trying to make it back to the peloton. I didn’t even think about my injuries, I just knew I hadn’t hit my head, I just began to do whatever I needed to do to get back into the race. It is a very strange, resilient, mental space that a bike racer occupies, and I’m convinced this isn’t necessarily attributable to some inherent character of the rider. I think that the bike feels like a very safe, comfortable, familiar place for all riders, so even when you crash, if you can return to the saddle of the bike, the circumstances, the road rash, the pain, is masked in the intimate familiarity with your machine.
I was amazed to learn that the Smartstop rider who crashed, Travis McCabe, finished 3rd on the stage. Woah, chapeau.
After the stage, we decided to put a big sticker on the otherwise bland white Prius. The sticker was donated by our Canadian guest rider, Jordan. It says, “Do Epic Shit”. It became something of a team motto for the trip, underscored by events that materialized on the final stage.
Four: Saw It Off! Slam It Back!
We arrived at the time trial the next morning with Max still in excellent position in the general classification.
Tour of the Gila was a UCI classified race this year, in the 2.2 category. This means a few things. First, the prestige of the race is far greater, in fact, this is the biggest race Marc Pro – Strava has ever done, which is a milestone in itself. The other added element of UCI classification is UCI rules. The intersections of UCI rules and time trial bikes is extremely frustrating: this bike is illegal because some part of the stem is a faring, that seat post violates the 3:1 aspect ration, the reach on this TT bike must be under 80cm, that seat has to be pushed back because you used your morphological exemption on your reach. It’s not fun setting all of this straight. To make matters worse, it seemed there were some inconsistencies in the UCI jig used to evaluate the time trial bikes. I wouldn’t be surprised if 60% of the riders had to move their seat back, move their bars back, etc, etc. AJ sawed off the tips of my shifters to make my measurements legal. All very strange and maddening for everyone.
Max was undeterred and maintained composure. He improved 40 seconds over his time from the previous year. He was totally empty at the end, getting off his bike and sitting down on the warm chip seal parking lot. The rest of us posted decent times, and after we had sorted out Jordan’s supposed time cut for finishing 1 hour behind the winner (you could walk half the course and still beat that), it turned out he was top 40.
Five: Downtown Silver City, Where Crits Can Get Confusing
Downtown Silver City is really cool, with its classic sign lettering, groovy little shops, excellent Mexican food, and bohemian Southwest vibe. Tons of people came out to watch the crit, Dave Towle was hootin’ and hollerin’, the sun was dropping to a soft angle. We started and I found that the wind was making it very managable to sit in the pack fairly comfortably. We spun up the climb and railed the corners for a long time and I could see a breakaway going up the road a couple of times, but it didn’t matter, our team was just riding to finish so it was pretty relaxed for us. Suddenly, almost an hour into the crit, the pace rose to a super high rate and it was getting hard… Apparently the breakaway was about to lap the field and the Optum pro team had just found out. They proceeded to drill it for a couple laps before the breakaway caught on the back and everything returned to a manageable pace. The leader’s jersey changed backs from Jaramillo of Jamis to Ben Day of United Healthcare. Pretty cool for the GC standings to rock and roll in a crit where minimal time is usually lost or gained.
Six: The Gila Monster
I didn’t make that up. Thats the name of the last stage. Its 100 miles with two Cat 3 climbs, two Cat 2 clims, and a massive Cat 1 climb. We lathered up with our Zealios sunscreen for a long day our in the sun. We wanted to get 2 guys in the breakaway. Rolando rode exceptionally and got into the breakaway early. The first hour of riding up the opening Cat 3 climb was like doing a hard crit uphill. I was feeling decent and attacked over the top, following Cameron Cogburn of Smartstop, we started bridging up to the breakaway and caught a solo Hincapie rider who sat-on. It was extremely hard riding and when we neared the break, the fellow bridgers punched it to get across. I tried going with them but started cramping, which was pretty inconvenient. So I didn’t make it across, which was definitely disappointing, but at least I could wait for the peloton to catch me and help Max however I could.
We rode in the wind for Max and tried to keep him comfortable. Keith helped me grab bottles from the car. When we reached the first Cat 2 climb, United Healthcare really pushed the pace and dropped tons of guys, myself included.
And so began the day that Max Jenkins rode out of his mind, despite everything.
The front group thinned more and more until they crested the climb and dropped down to the Gila Cliff Dwellings (You never actually see them) on the other side. As a dropped rider, I was better able to observe my surroundings during this descent off the back, railing turns on my Giant TCR. Incredible gorges all around, grand bowls of stone, red rock, light sandstone, so enormous all sense of scale was virtually lost.
The front group returned up the descent, this was the big Cat 1 climb. The pace rose higher, and at some point, Max cramped. The front group was riding away. Max was dueling against the Gila Monster, shifting his legs, trying to take the pressure off the cramping muscles. A group caught him from behind, they reached the top, descended, and the gap had ballooned between him and the front group. Five minutes. The story must be over.
But it wasn’t. No doubt ignoring the enormity of his impossible task. Max’s legs came back to him and he raged upwards through the pine trees lining the 7 mile climb towards the rollers outside of Piños Altos.
Max was riding alone, with AJ driving the team car right behind him. AJ was yelling time gaps. The gap was dropping. As the time lowered, AJ’s voice rose. Nearing the top of the climb, there were a couple of minutes left in the gap, but it was reduced enough that one could at least dare to dream.
It kept dropping. 1:25. 1:10! 1:00! :45!! :35!!! :25!!!! Mirage-like, the front group became visible again. Now that Max could see them, everything was changed, and with 1km remaining, he made contact again. In the drive for the finish, Max finished last in the group, but had accomplished such a savage solo mission and saved so much time initially lost, that he finished 9th overall. Marc Pro – Strava’s biggest result ever.
Not only did Max close the gap between his chase group and the front group on the Gila Monster, he closed the gap between “Do Epic Shit” and “Did Epic Shit”.
Do things you think that are cool, beyond the occasionally confining bounds of moderation. Imagine a huge goal and then actually take the steps to do it. It’s not “Imagine Epic Shit”, its “Do Epic Shit”. I would have a sticker that says, “Do things that people did in the 19th century”, because people would choose things to do, like, build a railroad trestle, or go to Alaska in search of gold, or invent and perfect the bicycle. But, “Do things that people did in the 19th century” sounds like I’m just romanticizing the past, like there was something special about that time, when theres not. For this reason, “Do Epic Shit”, is perfect, because its so emphatic, it pushes you to imagine something to do far beyond what you currently may be doing. But maybe you’re already doing Epic Shit. So I suggest pushing some sort of boundary, to deliver some sort of grapeshot to some convention, drive all the way to New Mexico for a bike race, drive all the way to Copperopolis to race, go ride somewhere you’ve never explored, some random lane. Do this, not necessarily always to “Do Epic Shit”, but to break free and rediscover your humanness, and find out as much as you can about life. I choose to do this on a bike, you may do it however you wish.