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Bayern Rundfahrt
Photo ©: Schaaf

Tour of the Gila - the support eye view

No sleep till Sunday

Steve Farris was in overall charge of the tech support at this year's Tour of the Gila, and also signed up to provide Cyclingnews with daily race reports. By Friday he realised that writing for us and looking after the race didn't leave any time for trivial things like sleep. By way of atonement for not being superhuman, he presents this behind-the-scenes look at a race that would not happen without the mammoth efforts of people like Steve and his crew.

Let me give you a little run-down on how the support works here.

Due to the fact that the race is run on narrow mountain roads, which are the only highways in the region, we are not allowed to close the roads. The presence of dozens of team support vehicles on the roads is not an option. In the first few years of the race, the team support drivers caused such havoc with the local traffic that the race nearly had to be cancelled.

Since that time we have supplied neutral "wheel wagons" and motorcycles for each category.

Plenty vehicles

One of many
Photo: © Chris Davidson
Click for larger image

The general breakdown is as follows: Pro Men's Race, one lead vehicle, one car/truck and one moto for the breakaway, one car/truck and one moto for the main field, three cars/trucks to cover smaller groups that splinter off the back and one sag wagon to sweep the field, and be sure no rider, no matter how far back, is left without support. The pro women's field, which is smaller, has approximately the same with only one moto and one less car.

A similar level of support is provided for the 120-130 strong amateur category 2 race, and the equally large category 3 race.

Beside this we provide support to the smaller category 4/5 men's race, the women's category 3/4 race, and the citizens' race.

In addition we provide the head commissaire in each of the pro races with a separate vehicle. The commissaires ride in the support vehicles in the lesser categories.

This means each day we have to come up with 49 drivers, 13 mechanics, 34 cars/trucks, and 15 motorcycles. All this from a town of just over 10,000 with a racing club of a dozen members, and a bike shop which probably sells one or two road racing bikes in a year. (This is mountain bike country!)

My friend Michelle is in charge of "arm twisting" the drivers (she's awfully hard to refuse), and I try to scare up the mechanics and organize the training of the support people, most of whom wouldn't know any more about Shimano and Campagnolo than they would about reading cuneiform.

I took over this task after racing in the event in the beginning years. For the last five years we have had help doing the pro men's race, first from Shimano neutral support and currently from Bontrager Racing Service (thanks to James Sharpe and CN contributor Chris Davidson).

These highly competent pros provide four mechanics, four drivers, two motos and two vans. They do the vast majority of the wheel changes in the pro men's field and cut down by 60 percent the number of vehicles and personnel we have to provide for the pro men. To support these riders we check in wheels from the riders or teams (in the pro men Bontrager provides the wheels for all the forward support vehicles.) The number of riders in all the categories comes to about 500 each year. On yesterday's road stage we had 296 spare wheels checked in. These had to be distributed between 27 vehicles to support six separate races. This is in addition to the four vehicles and 40 wheels provided by Bontrager. Following is a blow by blow of how the day went on Friday's 76 mile Inner Loop RR.

Sleep? We don't need no steenking sleep!

I work the moto with my club mate Todd Anderson in the pro women's race, but am responsible for getting all the categories organized at the start. I was up at 4:30a.m. to go over to my shop where all the wheels were kept overnight.

Bodies need fixing too
Photo: © TotG
Click for larger image

I had been up till 1a.m. that morning organizing all the checked in wheels, giving a steady stream of riders their broken and punctured wheels in exchange for the support wheels we had given them during Thursday's race. Any wheels not claimed before that evening I try to repair, so they will be ready for the rider to use the next morning if they come and exchange wheels before the race. Wheels that were used have to be retagged and the wheel check-in lists cross-referenced with the wheels to be sure all 296 wheels are accounted for. I don't get much sleep during the race.

I arrived at the shop at 4:45, put on a pot of strong coffee, cleared out the beer bottles littering the floor from the "unwinding" of the support drivers the previous evening, and began checking the pressure on all the tires, airing up the low ones, and loading them into the trucks parked outside. The race starts at nearby Fort Bayard (7 miles east of town). The first field leaves at 8:30 so I have to be there before 7:30. It's a chilly ride in the early morning air on my motorcycle.

The support vehicles for each race all gradually filter into their assembly area, and as is the usual case with volunteers, it requires a lot of directing to get everyone in their proper position. Radios are distributed to each vehicle, race signage attached, and wheels distributed. Things run reasonably well while the first races roll away. The last fields to go are the category 3 men, followed by the pro women.

Just as it seems everything is going well there is a flurry as the men are about to leave. Several riders come up for last minute wheel changes as their tires are going soft. This gets the adrenaline level up a bit with all the rushing around but the race is away on time and now just the women to go. The support caravan rolls into place and I fire up the moto, with Todd climbing on to the back with the wheels. We pull just behind the riders and sit relaxing for a brief moment, while the riders are given the daily announcements and course warnings by the officials. Jeannie Longo took the opportunity to ride over to us and chat a bit and laugh about her "lack of form". Jeannie has raced the Gila numerous times and stayed over in Silver City for training in the mountains at high altitude. Although she has a rep for being a little difficult, and I have certainly seen her when she wasn't very happy with me, overall I have always found Jeannie to be congenial.

At 9:30 the race starts and we roll off. The course follows a four lane main highway for six miles then turns towards the mountains on a narrow two lane road, to begin a five mile climb to the nearby mining town of Pinos Altos. From there it continues on an even narrower, twisting, turning road for 17miles culminating with a screaming three mile descent littered with hairpin corners into the valley of Sapillo Creek. The course then passes for nine miles over open rolling terrain around Lake Roberts, gradually climbs to the Continental Divide, then gradually descends along the valley of the Mimbres River for 16 miles, through the tiny village of San Lorenzo, where it turns west for a 15 mile long uphill over wide open roads into what is almost always a stiff headwind. A tough race, well suited for those who like to climb.


As soon as the women hit the main highway Saturn began to ride hard, and the pack quickly stretched out. With a stiff breeze coming from the left they were soon playing "gutterball", and riding through the usual debris that litters the far right shoulder of any main highway. This is not a sight to warm the heart of any support mech. Soon enough the hands began to come up, and a few quick changes. The pace let up and everyone caught back on.

Jeanson, after her escape
Photo: © TotG
Click for larger image

As the pack turned off the main road, the pace once again lit up at the approach to a 15 second time bonus. The women whose legs were tired from the brutal climbs the day before began to fall away. As the climb began race leader Jeanson went to the front and launched a blistering attack that ripped the field to shreds. Our support vehicles were strung out all over the road waiting for groups to form. On the moto we leapfrogged from group to group, trying to be there for anyone who might still get to the front. One mile from the top of the climb Jeanson had a 45 second lead on a chase group of six: Saturn's Kimberly Bruckner, Anna Millward, Jessica Phillips, and Ina Teutenberg, accompanied by Jeannie Longo, and neo-pro Karen Bockel of RONA. This group continued to chase with RONA's Bockel marking the move. Bruckner appeared to be the strongest of the group but Millward climbed impressively. Some 35km into the race Teutenberg fell off the pace as the group approached the top of the day's second climb.

As they wound around the mountains and past lake Roberts the gap continued to go up, reaching at one point nearly four minutes. The work was done mostly by the Saturns, with Longo throwing in the occasional pull, and encouraging the chase. The gap dropped somewhat and for 30km see-sawed around 2:45 to 3 minutes. After passing through San Lorenzo and beginning the climb of Acklin Hill, the gap gradually began to fall, at first it seemed the chase group might catch the race leader, but with 8km to go it became apparent the group would not catch Jeanson. At this point Longo tried to gap Bockel and sprint back up to the Saturns but Karen proved too strong to be dropped. After sitting on for over 70km she sprinted away to take second, over Millward, and Longo, fifth went to Bruckner and sixth to Jessica Phillips. Jessica showed a lot of courage on the final climbs, as she would fall off the pace and then fight her way back on each time. The women behind had formed into groups by then and the support was able to keep the top 45-50 women well covered.

War stories

Quickly off the moto at the finish, get the wheels organized and direct the wheel wagons into place. Women's race went smoothly, only 10 changes and no problems. Todd had things well in hand there, so I'm off to check on how the other categories are doing.

The category 3 wheel wagons are a beehive of riders exchanging wheels. The category 3 support crews had done 50 changes during the race and seven at the start line! One of the most experienced support drivers was taken out of the action when there was a serious crash about 70km into the race. One of the riders had his front wheel slip into a gap on a cattle guard. The accident was quite serious and other riders and the support driver stopped to render aid until the arrival of the ambulance.

In the category 2 race another rider required transport in an ambulance when he crashed during the descent to Sapillo Creek. The support crews for that race had to change about 15 wheels and things went pretty smoothly with them. Bontrager capably handled all but two changes, which were done by our volunteers, in the pro men's race. In the men's category 4/5 race there was only one change out of 70 odd riders. The women's 3/4 race went nearly as well, having only two changes.

Our tally for the day, including the last-minute changes just before the start, comes to 98 wheels changed.

At 2p.m. we load up all the wheels and head back into the shop where the wheels are counted, sorted, checked against the wheel list, and riders come constantly to exchange support wheels for their broken or punctured wheels. More activity is caused by the fact that many riders wanted to pick up their checked-in wheels to use in the next day's criterium. This takes until about 8:30 or 9:00p.m. A quick break to eat the take-out meal one of my drivers has kindly brought to me, and then begin re-tagging all the wheels that were used, and, for each category, reconciling the wheel check-in lists with the wheels in my possession, to be sure no wheels are unaccounted for. This takes another two hours and it was now midnight.

Although there is still a bit of work I could do I can leave the rest until the morning as during the criterium all the tech support will be provided by Bontrager, and I just have to recruit two mechanics for one of the two pits. A nice easy 19.5 hour workday, with one 30 minute break!

Downtown crit

Crit action
Photo: © Jon Devich
Click for larger image

Saturday, May 4, The Downtown Criterium. The first race is the women's 3/4. It starts at 8a.m. and the racing is continuous until the pro men finish at 4:30p.m. I arise at the luxuriously late hour of 6a.m. and, off to the shop. Coffee on, and begin pumping up low tires in case some one comes at the last minute to use them. We now have only 243 wheels checked in, as many people who didn't finish the race on Friday are picking theirs up to go home. I don't get to see much of the racing as I spend most of the morning in the shop trying to reconcile wheel situations, and getting things prepped for Sunday's race. I close a for a bit to run off and watch the pro women race, and then once again to watch the last part of the pro men's race.

In the women's race most expect Saturn to dominate the crit, as they did last year, seeking their only stage win against Genevieve's dominance of the road stages. Saturn however was dealt a serious blow when third-placed Anna Millward was forced to withdraw due to an allergic reaction. Apparently she got the wrong coffee order and drank hazelnut to which she was allergic.

About midway through the race on the back straightaway there was a large crash involving eight or ten riders. Apparently the most seriously injured was Jeannie Longo who suffered injuries to her right hip and leg. Longo pulled out of the race immediately, and flew home to France to have the injuries assessed.

At the end, despite all their efforts Saturn was not only unable to pull off the win, RONA managed to take the stage and finish in three of the top four places, Bockel winning the stage with Teutenberg second, NZ national champion Melissa Holt (RONA) in third, and race leader Jeanson taking fourth after giving a great lead out to her team-mates. It surely seems RONA are going to be a serious challenge to Saturn's long time dominance of women's racing in North America.

The Mercury train
Photo: © Jon Devich
Click for larger image

The pro men's race saw a small breakaway group of three riders form near the end, and hold a 20 second gap for several laps. Going into the final lap this trio still held a 15 second lead with one mile to go. It looked like Mercury's stranglehold on the podium's top step was finally going to be broken. As the pack came around the last corner to the finishing straight a huge shout went up from the crowd and many thought there had been a crash, but it was a shout of amazement as the Mercury train had pulled the break back on the final lap and Henk Vogels catapulted Gord Fraser to yet another win.

Bed before midnight

Then back to the shop to deal with the small line-up of riders who had patiently waited for my return, and more wheel exchanges until 7p.m. A quick bowl of pasta, a round of phone calls to confirm with tomorrow's drivers when they were due to arrive to pick up wheels, a trip to gas up the vehicles, a last count of wheels, we now have 232 wheels, and I'm off to bed before midnight!

4:00a.m., the alarm goes, and I groggily stumble out of bed, into the car in the cool dark air, and off to the shop. On with the coffee then I go through all the wheels, checking the pressures, pumping up those that are low, checking to be sure valve stems are closed, skewers are gapped properly, all tags are in place and sorting them to be loaded into the wheel wagons. The first support crews are due to arrive at the start line at 7:10 so I am off to be sure everything runs smoothly.

As usual the start line is a madhouse with all sorts of unauthorized or non-race involved vehicles parked in our assembly areas since once again those responsible for cordoning off the area have arrived late. I expect this by now and have built extra time into the schedule to allow for these complications.

There are the usual last minute emergencies to deal with: drivers who don't know their place in the caravan; inexperienced volunteers who have to be trained at the last minute; missing bits of equipment to be replaced or improvised; photographers who show up wanting a motorcycle and driver.

As each race rolls off the problems diminish and soon I can relax and wait for the women's race to go off. I stop to talk to Kiwi Roz Reekie-May, who is having a good tour and shooting for a top ten placing. A few pre-race crises result in a delay of 15 minutes in the start, but after that everything rolls off smoothly. A neutral parade for 4km until the race is out of town and then the race is on. Today's menu calls for a little over 100km, rollers, followed by a category 4 climb, then about 40km along a river valley, followed by a 5km, category 2 climb, then up and down through the mountains for the final 30km to the finish in Pinos Altos, at the top of a category 4 climb.

Cannibal holocaust

The women keep a very civilized pace for the first 12km along the main highway and the group stays together. As soon as the pack turns east onto a narrower road Jeanson goes immediately to the front and takes off like a moto. It really seems that Saturn has conceded defeat as the pack sheds tired riders off the back. Jeanson rides away alone, and a somewhat decimated Saturn team sets a steady tempo at the front, limiting the gap but the pace of the chase is not hard enough to shatter the field which is about 40 women by the time the turn to the north is made, heading up the Mimbres River valley. About 45km into the race we change a rear puncture and she catches back quickly. The biggest excitement we have on this stretch is when we are called forward to cover the race leader while the support for the breakaway takes a pit stop. We tear along at 80mph over the twisting roads for what seems forever before we finally catch Jeanson just in time to watch her impressive, characteristic, attacking style of climbing on the steep rolling hills around lake Roberts.

While we are away from the pack our back up support has to change a flat for Saturn's Jessica Phillips who quickly catches on. After the break support vehicle returns we head back to the main field and take up position. The race is now approaching the day's main obstacle, a 5km 8percent average climb from Sapillo Creek to Wild Horse Mesa. Suddenly two Saturns pull off to the side. US national champion and second on GC Bruckner has a puncture and teammate Phillips stops to pace her back. We're there quickly but the vertical dropouts on her bike cause a bit of a panic and the wheel change is the slowest we've done all week, of course!

Photo: © Jon Devich
Click for larger image

True professionals, the Saturn women stay calm and Phillips paces her teammate back to the field just as they hit the base of the climb. This climb is quite steep at the beginning and here Phillips peels away to ride at her own pace, her job well done. Keeping her cool, and holding a commanding lead over third place, Bruckner climbs at a steady tempo, working her way steadily through the field. About 3km into the climb she reaches the front where only Karen Bockel of RONA and Katrina Berger of Cannondale-USA are able to match her tempo. Berger gradually falls away to chase at about 20 seconds along with Diet-Rite's Cybil Diguistini. As Bruckner and Bockel reach the top of the climb they have a 25 second lead on Berger and Diguistini, and it is 1:20 back to a group of about 15. Up ahead Jeanson's lead is holding steady at over five minutes. The positions stay the same to the finish with the gaps increasing. We pull in, glad to have one more year's race safely done.

At the finish line freelance photographer Phil Marques asks me if I'm free to take him out on the moto to shoot the finish of the pro men's race, so we take off headed back along the way I just came at a high rate of speed, sounding the horn on every corner in case of the occasional cyclist. About seven miles from the finish we run into them and do a quick about face, chase them down and during the following 10-12 minutes whipping along the twisting up and down course, trying to weave in amongst the official and support motos, get close enough for some good shots and also to stay out of everyone's way at the same time provides a nice adrenaline rush.

At one mile to go we race ahead to the finish for Phil to get some shots from there. Mercury's Chris Wherry, in the purple race leader's jersey sprints ahead for his second overall win at the Tour of the Gila, while a disappointed Danny Pate (Prime Alliance), who has made several strong attacks in the last kilometres takes second, with Mexican Ubaldo Mesa of Tecos-Turbo in third and Moninger fourth.

We are occupied at the finish for about an hour handing out wheels, then load the rest up and head down to the shop, where we celebrate with champagne, another year done! I stay in the shop for several more hours, cleaning up, and handing out the last of the wheels to racers anxious to pick them up and head for home. Everyone compliments us on a well done race, and most say they will be back. I make a token appearance at the volunteer party, and then am off to work on this report, and get some sleep. I have to be up early in the morning to take some departing riders to the airport, after which I can finally relax, and perhaps even take the time to ride my bike.

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