Cavner's Corner: Gila Affair – Part 1

11/15/2016 | by Jonathan Cavner

I remember doing my first master’s open race in 2009.  It was the 3 day, 4 stage Tour of Bisbee.  Here I was a 35-year-old with unshaven legs.  I was a newly minted cat3 racer and proud of my unshaven legs.  I had to have been close to the most “un-pro” looking cyclist there was. I had quickly gone through cat5 and cat4 in a half season and had a false sense of my ability.  However, I quickly found out that this was a whole other ball game.  The 4 stages consisted of an opening hill climb prologue, a road race with some low angle climbing at the end, a flat TT and finishing with another long road race with a decent and relatively steep climb at the end.  I started out ok with the hill climb prologue, but then quickly discovered I was completely out of my league in the other stages.  I remember attacking the bunch on the final climb of the last stage.  I easily built a gap with another rider and then a few minutes later I was being passed like I was standing still.  I had no answer as group by group caught and passed me leaving me completely in the dust.  Even so I knew at the end of the extended weekend that stage races were to be my jam. 


As many famous stage races have recently Tour of the Bisbee went away the following year.  With the loss of the race I lost my opportunity at redemption.  However, I remembered the conversations with my cycling buddy’s during that weekend. In hushed tones they spoke of the Tour of the Gila.  Based in the wild, wild west of Silver City New Mexico supposedly this was the hardest of the stage races, the one race to rule them all.  Gila was 5 days consisting of 3 difficult road races, a long time trial and a crit.  The race starts on a Wednesday and finishes on Sunday.  The final day was the famed Gila monster road race which was certain to exploit any weakness.


My first run at the race was a real learning experience.  Some would say a complete disaster.  The weekend prior to the start we had a software install at work of which I was responsible.   The install seemed to go ok, but that Monday morning it was clear that something had gone wrong.  I ended up working the issues that day, through the night and into the next morning.  Finally, the problem was resolved and I had just enough time to get packed and make the trip to New Mexico for the early morning start on Wednesday.   So, with no sleep in 36 hours I found myself arriving at my host family’s house just before dark on Tuesday evening. 


John and Nancy, my host family, were unbelievably supportive.  This was their first experience hosting racers.  They had two of us.  My roommate was a young cat2 college student living in Dallas.  David was originally from Spain where he raced as a junior and had ambitions of becoming a doctor.  He was incredibly friendly and a real joy to be around.  John and Nancy treated us like their own kids, taking pictures and handing us feed during the stages.  It was clear they loved the race and had huge hearts.  Their house was an oasis in the hills above the city, incredible views, and abundant wild life.  Little did I know but John and Nancy were to become lifelong friends and their home a most favorite destination for years to come. 


Still a cycling neophyte I looked and dressed the part, nervously lining up in a 100 person cat3 field.  I had slept as much as possible that night, but knew that the energy levels weren’t fully there after staying up all night on Monday.  The first stage is a downhill, flattish very exposed affair until the final 6 miles when it kicks up to the mountain top finish.  The last 3 miles truly cause separation, but even before the final miles I was off the pace and in a chase group.  The last pitches of 10%+ really got me and I resigned myself of not being able to compete for the general classification.


The 2nd day I had a full night sleep and woke up with ambitions of making a breakaway.  That notion was quickly put to rest as I slipped off the back of the bunch on the first climb.  The winds really kicked up as I struggled in a group of chasers.  Our group swelled in numbers and we did finally catch the bunch.  There was a small breakaway that contained my future Sonic Boom teammate, Daniel De Mos, had escaped on the mid-race rollers and ended up being the ultimate race winning move.  On the final climb I was again reduced to chasing.  This section was long and undulating and incredibly exposed to the elements.  I went very deep here in a dust storm that ended up closing the highway into Silver City (to cars at least).  I remember being in the bunch when a gust of wind would hit the racers.  The whole group swung 5 feet to the left.  It was a wonder that we stayed up right.  This day proved to be my complete undoing as the cold, dust and wind caused an asthma related reaction that I had not yet experienced. 


I was incredibly sick for the remaining stages. With sheer will power and thanks to the nurturing of John and Nancy I was finally able to finish the race.  I remember on the last stage we ended up plowing through a sea of tacks that an unfriendly local had thrown across the course.  I fortunately did not flat, but my buddy Dan De Mos did.  I pulled over to help pace him back to the bunch.  He finally got a wheel.  I proved to be no help getting him back as he quickly dropped me.  In retrospect I should have given Dan my wheel, but in my condition I wasn’t thinking too clearly.   Unfortunately for Dan his wheel only had about 40PSI of air pressure and he lost his high GC ambitions due to this.  As with the Bisbee race I left Silver City being completely beaten, but knowing that this was the racing that I really wanted to be good at. 


Fast forward to 2014.  I was a veteran of many stage races, but had never made it back to Silver City.  I was 40 years old and able to race the Master’s race at Gila which is a 40+ 1,2,3 event.  I had been wanting to race Gila again for some time, but had been racing other Colorado events instead.  With the disappearance of the Wyoming event, the Dead Dog Classic, it left a gap in the calendar that was begging to be replaced.  Tour of the Gila filled that vacuum.  Over the years I had made progress with my riding and was no longer the shabby newcomer to the sport.  I traveled with my teammate, Raik Huster, and reunited with John and Nancy the evening before the 2014 Gila event.   We were both cat2 racers and had previewed the star studded start list.  I remember the similar chills on the starting line that year as I had 5 years prior.  This was going to be one heck of a ride! 


–Jonathan Cavner