It was critical moment in the most important stage of the 2017 Tour of the Gila. Rally Cycling’s Performance Director Jonas Carney had just watched his 23-year-old climber Adam de Vos set a tempo over the last 18km that annihilated all but seven other riders, three of whom were his teammates. Among those teammates was Evan Huffman, the race’s GC leader, and the rider the Rally boys were hoping to guide home as the overall winner. Carney watched helplessly from the team car as de Vos’s shoulders rocked back and forth from the effort. He had given all he could and his body was shutting down as they neared the summit of the fourth and final mountain pass of the day. No longer able to match the tempo of his teammates, he watched as the lead group slowly pulled away.
“C’mon de Vos.”
There were still 15k left in the race, and Carney wanted Adam to be there to support Huffman in the finale. Rally riders Rob Britton and Sepp Kuss were now putting in huge efforts at the front, and an additional rider up there at the end could mean the difference between winning and losing.
As de Vos separated from the group, the race commissaire waved our car through the growing gap, knowing we would need to be up at the front for Huffman should he suffer a mechanical. Jonas slowed beside de Vos and hung his head out the window.
Adam somehow found the energy to stand on his pedals, fighting his bike as he pushed hard toward the top. Jonas nailed the accelerator and passed him, yelling more words of encouragement to his young rider as we flew by. We watched in our mirrors as de Vos faded out of site, assuming we might never see him again during the stage.
Carney rolled up to his three hard working riders at the front of the group and rolled down the window.
“Hey guys, what do…”
“Coke in a bottle!” Said Britton, interrupting his director as sweat poured down his face.
“I have a can of Coke, will…”
“Coke in a BOTTLE!” yelled Britton again, his breathing labored as he pushed the pace up the steep grade. Before Jonas could ask, Rally mechanic Rick Barrow was already dumping water bottles and filling them up with Coke from the back seat. Barrow moved like lightning, getting each of the riders a bottle before the commissaire could tell us to back off. As we neared the top of the climb the road began to flatten out. Jonas looked in his mirror…
“de Vos is back!”
Viewed from a team car, window down, pro cycling looks and sounds like a completely different sport altogether. As we roll up on Rob Britton, Sepp Kuss, and Evan Huffman at 7000 feet, 150km into the final stage of the race, you can see the stress in their faces – the sunbaked lines extending from their bloodshot eyes, the glisten of sweat as it pours from their chins, their mouths hanging open, gulping air into lungs the rest of us didn’t get. The only comparison that comes to mind is the image of a thoroughbred moments after crossing the line at the Kentucky Derby – eyes rolling, body shiny with sweat, spit hanging from churning lips, the animal dizzy from effort.
And then it’s over. Evan wins the overall, Rob wins the KOM, Rally Cycling takes four out of five stages, plus one stage in the women's race, and poof! Gone. Vanished. Within two hours of the stage finishing, all the Elvises have left the building.
So what’s left? The Copper Manor is certainly thankful to have all its parking spaces back. The remedial internet in town has half a chance of functioning now that hundreds of bike racers are no longer streaming Netflix while resting the legs. Hopefully, the local businesses are flush and can get through the ebb and flow of revenue inherent to most tourist-centric towns.
Also left are the most important things - things not so mercenary as a bike racer. The passionate community is still here. The volunteers who marshal crit corners from 7:30am to 5:30pm with only a T-shirt and bottled water as a thank you remain. The endless contours and enchantingly-forested roads that lead to breathtaking views are still here. The people and the parcours of a classic American bike race are still here and will welcome the prospectors back again next year, for another edition of The Tour of The Gila.