Race organizers of the Tour of Gila have certainly had an up and down ride this winter and spring. The popular New Mexico stage race was in danger of folding up shop when sponsorship woes raised their ugly head. At the last minute component manufacturer SRAM stepped in and saved the day. Then only a few weeks before yesterday's first stage, rumours started circulating that Lance Armstrong and his Team Astana might be on the start list.
There are a lot of interesting tidbits surrounding Team Astana's participation at Gila. First off, the team rides SRAM components on their Trek bikes. Having your marquis riders show up at an event you are sponsoring is always a good thing. Secondly, both Armstrong and Horner are recovering from broken collarbones, Lance at the Vuelta Castilla y Leon and Horner from the Vuelta Pays Basque a few weeks later. These two guys definitely need some racing miles if they want to be competitive at the upcoming Giro d'Italia which starts on May 9th.
Teammate Levi Leipheimer on the other hand has been racing and winning for the past several months starting with the Tour of California then the Vuelta Castilla y Leon and most recently at the Sea Otter Classic. As Levi will most likely be the Astana team leader at the Giro he needs to do what is necessary to arrive at the start in Venice ready for major action.
One interesting point about Gila is that the race takes place out of Silver City, New Mexico which is 6000'. As anyone knows who has tried to perform at altitude, you need to acclimate if you want to be competitive. Lance has been training in Aspen at 8000' and Levi has been in Park City at 7000' so both should be ready to roll at Gila.
On Wednesday, Levi proved that he was ready to race winning the first stage, which included a 5-mile climb to the finish, by almost one minute over his nearest rival. Lance and Chris Horner, who were there to support Levi's bid for overall victory, were active during the critical parts of the race.
There was a bit of drama before the start with the UCI almost preventing both Astana and Team BMC from starting citing a almost-never-enforced rule that restricts the top professional teams, those with Pro Tour and Professional Continental status, from participating from non-UCI events as either a team or individuals. A last minute truce allowed the three Astana riders to compete as Team Mellow Johnny, Lance's bike shop in Austin. Team BMC, which is competing as Team B, had to send five of its eight riders home to comply with the three rider limit.
While Levi looks on form to take another victory, most eyes will be on Lance to see how his fitness is progressing after his broken collarbone. But, keep an eye on Leipheimer as he will most likely be leading Team Astana at the Giro.