It’s been nearly 10 years since Team Colavita/Bianchi’s Amber Pierce sat on the starting line at the Tour of the Gila. During that time, Mara Abbott and Kristin Armstrong dominated the stage race, Abbott winning a record 6-times. Both retired from the sport following their Olympic races last summer in Rio. Pierce tells us what she expects from the race this year, and recalls her surprising Inner Loop stage win in 2008 as one of her favorite stories from her career.
Pierce spent the past several years living and racing overseas, primarily in Austria, but was ready to return stateside this season. “I love the racing in the States, especially the big classic stage races – Tour of the Gila is one of my favorites!” Pierce said.
The American veteran classifies herself as an all-arounder, and has truly grown to love racing in a supporting role. “I think there’s some magic in sacrificing for your teammates and seeing the whole group coming
together for one goal. This is one of the things that I love about bike racing; you really have to stay present,” Pierce explains. “It’s easy to set up a plan ahead of the race, but the challenge is maintaining that mindfulness of the present so that you don’t get so caught up in the plan that you don’t react instinctively in the moment.”
The Tour of the Gila has been a staple in American stage races for decades, keeping the same routes year in and year out. Despite the familiar coarse and terrain, the race is often contested up until the final day’s Gila Monster stage.
“As we know, there is no way for you to predict what other teams will do, though you generally have a pretty good idea,” Pierce says of her expectations next month. “I know the terrain, I know places where people classically attack, places where riders can get time advantages. In the end, you really never know how it’s going to play out.
“I think huge places for the GC riders to gain time will be up Mogollon, in the TT, and then potentially on the last stage of the Gila Monster. In the crit, it’s hard to gain time advantages and on the Inner Loop stage, you do not have much time between the descent and the valley, coming back in through the last rollers. When I won the Inner Loop stage, I was actually covering a move.”
In 2008, Pierce was nursing a broken rib ahead of the Inner Loop on stage 2, racing for Team TIBCO at the time. “The night before in the team meeting, our director was going around the team assigning everyone a job,” Pierce said. “When he got to me, he just looked at me and shrugged, ‘You’ve got a broken rib, what can you do?’ I said I’d keep an eye on what is going on in the race and pitch in where I can.”
Pierce had been dropped on the first climb to Pinos Altos, but was able to catch the front group on the descent on the Sapillo that included Alison Testroete and Anne Samplonius. The three broke away, working together to try and make it to the finish.
“I was looking at the group thinking, ‘this is really bad.’ I have a broken rib and haven’t been able to ride in the drops. These two riders were short riders, and as you know, that stage is traditionally very windy,” Pierce recalled. “It was so windy that day, I was trying so hard to get low and breath with a broken rib. I was also thinking, these two women are incredible sprinters, so this is a bad situation. But, our director really believed in me that day, and he just said ride it. I thought – this is crazy.”
The break ended up sticking. “As we were coming into the finish, I was in so much pain because we were working really hard in the wind. I was getting way less of a draft than anybody else and could hardly breathe. I was trying to hunker down with this broken rib, I just wanted the pain to stop. When we were coming over the rollers into the finish, Samplonius was throwing attacks and it was so brutally windy. I was accelerating with so much torque on the cranks and yet it felt like I was moving through molasses! It was so frustrating because I was tired and in so much pain. I was trying so hard to get to her wheel…I finally get there and I’m still not getting any draft.
“We came into the finish into Fort Bayard together, and I just attacked first for the sprint. I went a little bit early, but took them off guard. I think Allison Testroete was coming around really quickly as we approached the line but I managed to hold her off. I still don’t know how I did that.”
Pierce had caught them by surprise, blinded by pain as she crossed the line to win her first stage at the Tour of the Gila. The previous year she had just missed winning the Gila Monster, coming in second.
“By the time they realized what was happening, I already had a small gap,” Pierce added. “It was so windy, even though I might have had maybe a bike length at the most, by the time they jumped, Allison had to do a lot of work to get to my wheel to slingshot my draft. I was seeing red because I was almost blind with pain at that point. I’d been riding most of the race on my hoods because it was so uncomfortable to be in the drops. When you’re sprinting, you’re in the drops and you’re really pulling on those handlebars. It was such an unlikely result. It goes to show you that even on your worst day, you don’t have to be the strongest or even the healthiest in the field. The way the tactics can play out, you’ll never know what can happen. It’s always important to keep in mind that you have to be ready for anything.”