It seems so long ago, the start of Stage 2 at Tour of the Gila. The mornings are early, the sun and wind are fierce, and the miles are long. And then I think about the athletes and what they are encountering with each pedal stroke.

It’s been an inspiration to watch 60 or so women pound the pavement, fierce and determined, every single day. If racing is hard, stage racing is another five levels of hard. Day after day, riders attack, defend, and struggle to hang on. Outside of the physical demands, other forces fight to draw away focus and pull energy.

There is no doubt that as the day begins, the massive crash on Stage 1 of the men’s race that sent 12 riders to the hospital, 2 of those by life flight, is bouncing in the minds of every rider on course. I was invited to ride with Unitedhealthcare Pro Cycling in the their team car for the the women’s race. DS Rachel Heal was in the driver’s seat, team mechanic Adrian Hedderman occupied the back seat, wheels and tools within reach, while I was the front passenger.

As I looked at the course description one of the other photographerss asked me how my breakfast would fare – 75 miles beginning at Ft. Bayard, 5,854 ft. of climbing – with several miles of technical descent and “numerous sharp corners, hairpins and two switchbacks.” My mind wandered to the days of growing up in Kentucky where my Dad taught me how to drive a car on country roads, “you could have taken that corner a little faster” he would say.

“I think I’ll be ok” I said.

But what I wasn’t prepared for was the intensity of the competition.

The women came off the line racing in Ft. Bayard. By the first turn the group was starting to string out. As we headed Northeast the women were hit with a cross wind and several riders dropped off the lead group. The next several miles saw steep climbs and long technical descents. The peloton shrunk to about 30 riders.

Riding in the UHC car, I was able to get an inside perspective on team tactics. Rachel and Adrian were very helpful with any questions that I had. As we sped through the turns I obsessively tried to take pictures and send updates with the satellite phone to the race twitter updater Clara Beard. At the end of the day, I felt every muscle in my body from constantly bracing for quick turns while hanging out the window in hopes of grabbing a few good shots.

For most of the day the lead group stayed in tact with several attempts from DNA, TIBCO, and Twenty16 to break off the front. Each time the peloton responded and closed the gaps. For most of the race UHC and DNA controlled the pace. Several times I saw Alison Powers and Katie Hall of UHC driving the train. When I asked Rachel if they were setting Powers up for the win she smiled and said “if the pack is still together at the finish, then yes, otherwise we are focused on the GC, not the stage win.” At the end of the day they wanted to see that Mara Abbott was maintaining her leader’s jersey.

Annie Toth, an unsupported rider from Wyoming also spent a good deal of time on the front. For a young rider, she is really strong. “She’s a great hill climber” said Rachel Scott of Naked Women Racing, “I mean like on another level.”

Large rollers with wind and spitting rain challenged the riders on the last 20K. The pace intensified and the peloton moved all over the road. Short attacks came and went as the select group of riders sped toward the finish.

Abigail Mickey of Twenty16 riding in the Best Young Rider Jersey flatted. Thanks to a quick change and a supportive team she was back rolling and in the peloton within minutes. “I have the best team on the planet” Mickey said of her teammates.

Inside 3K to go Sharon Laws of UHC also got a flat and I was able to witness Adrian in action. Within moments we were roadside, Sharon had a new back wheel, and Adrian was giving her a push back on to the road. Truly impressive.

As the peloton took one of the final turns, Alison Tetric of Twenty16 went down but she soon found herself back up and rolling to cross the finish a short distance behind.

The great upset of the day came with 500 meters to go. Alison Powers went off the front and Carmen Small, guest rider for DNA Cycling, responded. Maintaining her sprint for the full 500 meters Carmen Small, who usually races for Specialized-lululemon held off TIBCO duo Joanne Kiesanowski and Lauren Stephens for the win.  Kiesanowski took second and Stephens third.

“I worked so hard that last 20K” said Alison Powers after the race.

“That was a long stage” said Mara Abbott, who held on to her GC lead, “Our girls are strong, we have a special team. With only 5 riders, we are outnumbered but it’s a testament that all 5 of us were in the select group at the front of the race the entire day.”

At the end of the day Flavia Oliveira (FCS) remains in the QOM jersey and Twenty16’s Abi Mickey holds on to her Best Young Rider lead. 

This was an amazing stage to watch, and I learned several lessons along the way, the most important being, the next time someone asks you to ride along in a pro team car during the Tour of the Gila, I highly recommend grabbing and few dramamine and saying “HELL YES”.

[metaslider id=4627]

by Sarai Snyder – Boulder, CO