Tour of the Gila returns: what to look out for at the famed US stage race

International cast seizes rare opportunity to earn UCI points on US soil

Brodie Chapman
(Image credit: Getty Images)

After two long years, the iconic Tour of the Gila is back for real-life racing this week. 

Known for being the most challenging stage race in American road cycling, the New Mexico race attracts professional and amateur racers alike. And with the rare opportunity to earn some coveted UCI points, the international competition is set to be fierce. 

Now in its 35th year, the Tour of the Gila — or simply ‘The Gila’— is one of just four UCI-sanctioned road races still remaining on US soil. Its rich history is filled with cycling greats including past winners such as Levi Leipheimer, Phil Deignan, Lachlan Morton, Jonathan Vaughters, Kristin Armstrong, Mara Abbott, Clara Hughes, Brodie Chapman, and Jeanie Longo

The Tour of the Gila features a men's and women's UCI 2.2 classified race as well as seven categories for amateurs. For the pros, five hard stages of racing await.

“I've always kind of feared this race going into it, but I love the racing that happens here,” commented Heidi Franz, road captain of Instafund Racing. “The toughness [of this race] brings out some really top quality racing.”

Franz is fresh off her win at the five-stage Redlands Bicycle Classic that took place in California last weekend. In California, the 27-year-old former Rally Cycling rider gave a dominant performance to win the opening road race and finish second in the fifth and final stage after having spent half the day in a two-person breakaway with Erica Clevenger (DNA Pro Cycling Team).  

The Tour of the Gila, however, is a bit of a different animal.

“It’s definitely a race that’s won by someone with a strong engine who can climb well, but also needs to time trial well,” Franz said. “It’s a wild one. It’s the Wild West out here.”

Heidi Franz at the Vuelta A Burgos Feminas 2021

(Image credit: (Luc Claessen/Getty Images))

5 Hard Days of Racing

The five days of racing will see the UCI men climb some 22,000 feet (6705 meters) over 328 miles (525kms). The UCI women will complete an equally hilly 254 miles (408 kms) with 17,000’ (5182 meters) of elevation. It’s not called the toughest race in America for nothing. It starts hard, ends even harder and is fast and fierce in between. Never truly flat though. 

The Gila starts on Wednesday, April 27th, with its iconic race up the Mogollon Climb. Leading up to the climb, rolling terrain allows for the riders to warm up their legs, have a go at the bonus sprints, and perhaps try to shake off or tire out some the pure climbers before heading toward the ghost town of Mogollon, where the road narrows and the climbing begins. The men’s and women’s races share the same mountain top finish, which comes after 6.7 miles (10.8km) of steep climbing. This ascent can be race-defining and in the past, some climbers have run off with the GC win here. Mara Abbott did so no less than six times!

From there, the pelotons will tackle the undulating Inner Loop Road Race on stage 2, the 16-mile climb-y Tyrone Individual Time Trial on stage 3, and the downtown Silver City criterium on stage 4. 

With nearly a 1:100, miles-to-feet ratio, the fifth and final race on May 1st is even more brutal and aptly named “the Gila Monster”.  The UCI women will tackle 65.9 miles of narrow mountain roads with 5,610 feet of climbing and 4,714 feet of fast descending. Along they way, they’ll contest two bonus sprints and three QOMs. Similarly, the UCI men will face 100.6 miles with 9,131 feet of climbing and 8,252 feet of challenging descending. On offer along the way are two bonus sprints and five KOMs. 

“Past winners would indicate that [the Gila] suits someone who climbs well, but I think it has the potential for a really strong time trialists to take over as well,” commented Franz. 

“In 2019 the GC was really exciting because it changed hands, so frequently. If it's not a pure climber who wins stage one on the mountaintop climb, then a successful breakaway can shake it up and a dominant time trial performance can shake it up even more. It can really bounce around.”

James Piccoli of Team Elevate-KHS Pro Cycling won the last edition of the Tour of the Gila in 2019. He went on to do well at the Tour of Utah later that year. 

(Image credit: Getty Images)

International Competition 

As mentioned above, the Gila is a rare opportunity for riders to earn some coveted UCI points on US soil. As such, the start lists pack a punch with both North American and international teams lining up. 

“North America as a whole is really lacking in UCI races. It makes Gila and the Joe Martin Stage Race just so important for North American teams to gain exposure and for the individual riders to get exposure as well,” said Franz. “So I think the competition will be pretty hard fought.”

On the men’s side, 12 teams have been confirmed with up to seven riders each. It’s a truly international field with riders coming from the US, Mexico, Canada, Chile, Columbia, Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan, Norway, Germany and France. 

After a strong showing at Redlands last weekend, Franz said she’s expecting a good battle between the Project Echelon, Aevolo Cycling and the Toronto Hustle teams. Though the lesser known foreign teams may hold a surprise or two.

On the women’s side, there are nine teams contesting the UCI race, and like the men’s field, riders are coming from far and wide, including team (EF Education-Tibco-SVB, fresh off their Spring Classics stint in Europe. 

The pink team is showing up in force with riders Krista Doebel-Hickok, Lauren Stephens, Omer Shapira, Emily Newsom, Sara Poidevin and Emma Langley.

“It'll be really interesting to have Tibco here, especially with who they're bringing. They’re kind of bringing a roster of leaders, many of them are really strong GC contenders, I think,” said Franz. “I’m excited to see how the racing plays out with them. I haven't gotten to race with any of them yet this year, so it'll be really fun to get back in it with them.”

Franz said that while she’s going into the race in good form, her Instafund team will also have several cards to play with Maddy Ward and Canadian Isabella Bertold both in good form. The three all finished in the Top 10 of the GC at Redlands last weekend. 

Other teams to watch are DNA Pro Cycling and 3T/Q+M Cycling, both of which had strong showings at Redlands.

Live Coverage for the Criterium Races

New this year, is the ability for fans to follow some of the racing live. Live audio and video broadcast will be available for the UCI Women’s and UCI Men’s Criterium races on Saturday, April 30th. Coverage will run from 2–7 p.m. MDT at www.tourofthegila.com and will feature interviews, race updates, and live announcing.

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