The first stage of the SRAM Tour of the Gila 25th edition took the 66 strong women's Pro field out through the barren terrain of the high desert to a final mountain top finish at nearly 9,000 feet. The infamous Mogollon Climb is a ten kilometer challenge that compliments those riders who like to go uphill.
The start list has names with incredible palamares, including Olympic Gold Medalist Kristin Armstrong and Double Bronze Olympic Medalist (in cycling) Clara Hughes. Although not a huge field, it is a field with tremendous depth, with Peanut Butter & Co. TWENTY 12, Diadora/Pasta Zara, Colivita, Tibco to the top, Map My Ride, Pactimo, and Team Juvaderm/Specialized all bringing their "A" players to the race.
With well known climbers like Mara Abbott (Diadora/Pasta Zara Team), Catherine Cheatley (Colivita), and Kristin McGrath (Peanut Butter & Co. TWENTY 12) the teams had little incentive to race hard prior to the climb. The initial hour of the race saw little action at the front. As everyone settled into the altitude, the wind and the big rolling terrain, none of the teams were eager to force the pace. After 30 miles of racing, Colivita began to put some pressure on the field by firing off attacks. Kristin Sanders finally snapped the elastic and quickly put nearly four minutes into the field.
With 20 miles to the finish, Peanut Butter & Co. TWENTY 12 began their machine like rotating formation at the head of the field, shattering the group in the cross winds. The gap quickly came back to a minute, and there it stayed until the base of the climb.
After the right turn onto the 10 kilometer climb, the terrain made a natural selection and soon it was Abbott pressuring the field as she powered her way to the top. Behind her, Hughes methodically ticked away the kilometers, minimizing her time loss on Abbott and putting time into those behind her.
Peanut Butter & Co. TWENTY 12 had three riders with Alison Starnes, Kristin McGrath and Alisha Welsh in the mix. In the end though, it was Abbott taking the win, and Hughes in third at less than a minute down. Starnes finished 11th, McGrath 13th and Welsh 15th.
Further down the climb, Peanut Butter & Co. TWENTY 12's Armstrong was literally turning herself inside out from a stomach bug that left her barely able to finish the climb. With help from her teammates, Coryn Rivera and Lauren Tamayo, Armstrong made her way to the top using everything she had to do so. Kristin's symptoms worsened has withdrawn from the race and will return home to recover.
Tomorrow's stage is a 77 mile loop with two major climbs, the promise of a lot of wind, and a lot of tired riders. It has always presented itself as an opportunity stage, with strong power riders managing to initiate a break late in the stage.
Stay tuned to see how the five day race unfolds. With hundreds of miles and thousands of feet of climbing remaining, this is still anybody's race.