When Matthew Riccitello (LUX/Sideshow p/b Specialized) was 14 years old, he wanted another challenge – something more than a weekend’s worth of racing.

He wanted to experience what the UCI pros do week in and week out. What is it like to race your bike for five days straight over longer distances, challenging climbs and tough competition?

He got his answer at Tour of the Gila.

Matthew Riccitello (LUX/Sideshow p/b Specialized), center, races in the Men’s Pro 1/2 field at this year’s Tucson Bicycle Classic Circuit Race.

Riccitello was a mere Cat 4 back in 2016, pushing up the Gila Monster – the queen stage – just like the pros. Now, he’s 17 and one of the top junior riders in the U.S., heading back to Tour of the Gila this year for more.

“Tour of the Gila is unlike any other stage race amateurs have the opportunity to do in the United States,” Riccitello said. “It’s a combination of long stages, real climbs, and switchback-filled descents, as well as a 30km TT three days in, which sets it apart from other stage races.”

“Tour of the Gila is unlike any other stage race amateurs have the opportunity to do in the United States.”

Although Tour of the Gila is one of only a handful of UCI-sanctioned races in the United States – and one of the toughest – part of its appeal is that it caters to amateur and masters racers, who want to experience the challenge of a five-day stage race and courses not unlike those on the World Tour.

Riccitello will compete in the Men’s Cat 1 field this year (he’s still too young to compete in the UCI peloton).

“Personally, most of the races I do in the U.S. are shorter and don’t have as much climbing, so to have a race like Gila where amateurs are climbing up the same climbs as the pros, and going down the same descents, is really special,” Riccitello said. “Just the overall distance and rigor of the race helps gain a lot of fitness for anything later in the season.”

Tour of the Gila at a glance

CATEGORIES OFFERED:
  • UCI Men
  • UCI Women
  • Men 1/2
  • Men 3, with additional GC prize for 35+
  • Men 4/5, with additional GC prize for 35+
  • Masters Men A 40+ 1/2/3, with additional prizes for 45+, 50+ and 55+
  • Masters Men B 40+ 3/4/5, with additional prizes for 50+ and 60+
  • Women 3/4/5, with additional GC prize for 35+/45+
  • Citizens races
STAGES:
  • Stage 1 Mogollon Road Race: Olympian and multi-time Gila winner Mara Abbott summed it up: “It ticks all the boxes – startlingly steep pitches and switchbacks. The barren solitude of the terrain lends a surreal nature to the experience. I love the area, I think it is an incredibly special part of our country.” Mileage and elevation gain varies depending on category.
  • Stage 2 Inner Loop Road Race: Climbs near the beginning can sort this race out before some technical descending to Sapillo Crossing, on to Mimbres and a finish in Fort Bayard. Mileage and elevation gain varies depending on category.
  • Stage 3 Tyrone Individual Time Trials: Staged in the town of Tyrone, riders tackle two longer climbs, two descents and some small hills for a total of 1,188 feet of elevation gain over 16.15 miles.
  • Stage 4 Downtown Silver City Criterium: A 1.08 mile course with 80 feet of climbing per lap and four corners.
  • Stage 5 Gila Monster Road Race: This iconic course with relentless climbing on the final day will let you see what your legs are really made of.

Course maps and descriptions

“I still get sometimes euphoric on training rides and can’t believe that I ride my bike in America in this wonderful surrounding.”

The ‘A’ race of ‘A’ races

Marcel Berger (Zia Velo Cycling) prepares to race the Tour of the Gila crit.

As one of the hardest stage races in North America due to mountainous terrain and elevation, Tour of the Gila makes a great “A” race for many cyclists, preparing them for the bulk of the race season, said Marcel Berger (Zia Velo Cycling).

Berger, a German native who has lived in New Mexico since 2011, has raced Tour of the Gila several times.

“Personally, it is especially the astonishing desert surroundings and the history of the area with its Native American roots that makes Tour of the Gila, for me as an European, so amazing,” said Berger, a Cat 1. “I still get sometimes euphoric on training rides and can’t believe that I ride my bike in America in this wonderful surrounding. Especially, the scenic and course diversity plus the good weather here in New Mexico, creates the perfect cycling destination.”

“Personally, it is especially the astonishing desert surroundings and the history of the area with its Native American roots that makes Tour of the Gila, for me as an European, so amazing.”

Hanneke Lourens, raced at Tour of the Gila in 2016 at a Cat 4. As someone who participates in very few races, Lourens said she knew it would be hard, but that’s why she did it.

“Knowing I had to get myself up all those hills was great motivation to train as much as possible,” said Lourens, who originally hails from South Africa.

Riccitello added that racing more miles over a longer period of time will make you stronger.

“Tour of the Gila is beneficial to long term development because of the fact that you are racing hard for three or four hours, several days in a row, at altitude,” Riccitello said. “Getting in that many race miles is super helpful for the long term.”

Racing Gila age categories: A first-hand account

Nathalie Potvin (AZ Women’s Racing) takes a drink during Tour of the Gila.

Nathalie Potvin (AZ Women’s Racing), a Phoenix resident originally from Montreal, Canada, competed in Tour of the Gila twice as a Cat 4 amateur and in an age category within the amateur women’s fields.

The amateur women’s field includes an additional general classification prize for 35+ and 45+ though it isn’t labeled a Masters race. Men have Masters fields options and similar GC prizes for age categories.

Potvin shared her experience on competing as an amateur and for the age category prizes:

“Considering my late start to the sport without any athletic background or ability and doing my first race at 50, Tour of the Gila was an impossible dream which I eventually realized, twice.

If I can do it, anyone can, but it’s hard. The suffering is totally worth it, the course is spectacular with grueling climbs transforming into speedy, winding descents. I feel Gila is the closest experience to a pro race an amateur from Arizona can enjoy.

The entire city is tuned in to Tour of the Gila. It is an atmosphere you can only encounter there, and after all these years it’s a well-oiled machine with solid organization, volunteers and sponsors.

It’s a reasonable drive, nice and dry warm weather but can be windy. Registration is affordable, lodging is whatever you want, camping or motel, etc. I was lucky enough to be hosted with my teammate Jane Berger, two years in a row, by a retired couple living on top of Silver City, which is a lovely quaint town with historic district.

Many residents look forward to hosting teams and the city is welcoming in so many ways. I became a frequent shopper at the Coop on main street and a fan of Don Juan Burritos drive-thru.

The entire city is tuned in to Tour of the Gila. It is an atmosphere you can only encounter there, and after all these years it’s a well-oiled machine with solid organization, volunteers and sponsors.

Historic Downtown Silver City, NM

What I appreciate the most about about the racing category structure is that all amateur women race together, so Cat 3, 4 and 5; and within, age categories 35+, 45+ that have specific prizes. This works. My typical experience as a Women’s 50+ Master racer is a thin field of maybe three or four women, sometimes combined with Cat 4 and 5.

Since Tour of the Gila is a demanding four-day stage race, there is a definite advantage for all the women to stay together on the first day for the first road race to save energy. That was a most enjoyable day of racing, being able to stay with the group of much younger women and being led by seasoned racers. We did get to know each other well in the following stages, and although our times were not competitive we did not get pulled. There is an effort made by the organization to make this race one that can be the pro race experience with no worrying about time cuts.

Best of all is that unique feeling of having accomplished the four-day event you thought was out of your reach.

On time trial day, you get to hang out with all the pros, all warming up furiously. I visited with all my favorites. I benefited from the Shimano support tent having some tire issues. This TT course is unique: 16-miles with 1,000 feet of climbing. The ending is a crazy descent to the finish.

The crit is as unique with a punchy climb and tricky turns all in the historic downtown Silver City with crowds cheering even at 7:30 a.m. for the Women’s Masters field. It’s hard to imagine that the last day is a road race. It was just as spectacular. You have to be prepared to endure the  four days, but the rewards are plentiful.

Lots of social fun including a welcome party at one of the local craft breweries and great food – you must have anything hatch-chile. Best of all is that unique feeling of having accomplished the four-day event you thought was out of your reach.”

Silver City charm

Riders may only have tunnel vision for racing, but spending some chill time in Silver City is a must-do.

From kitschy shops to beautiful outdoor surroundings and history, Silver City has an undeniable charm that makes you forget about the hard days on the bike.

30-SECOND HISTORY LESSON
Silver City sits atop a site that has been home to Native American, Hispanic and Anglo settlers for hundreds of years, according to the Town of Silver City’s website. It was formed in the 1870s after the discovery of silver in and around the town, and it quickly became a boom town. It’s wild west past includes the first arrest of William Bonney, better known as Billy the Kid. Although Bonney moved on, the Kid’s family lived in the area for many years, and his mother is buried in the town’s cemetery. Today, Silver City is a bustling town with a diverse business community, a four-year university and an award-winning historic downtown.
5 MUST-DOS
  1. Historic Downtown Silver City. The main strip of shops and restaurants downtown – Bullard Street –  orients you to Silver City. It’s filled with great shops and restaurants. Diane’s Restaurant is one of our favorites. Gila Hike & Bike is there for all your cycling needs.
  2. Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument. The Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument offers a glimpse of the homes and lives of the people of the Mogollon culture who lived there from the 1280s through the early 1300s. Containing 533 acres, the dwellings are located 44 miles north of Silver City on Highway 15.
  3. Catwalk Recreation Area. The Catwalk National Recreation Area is a passage to hidden, secret places. Sheer cliff walls rise out of the streambed and the walkways, that are supported on steel beams 20 feet above the stream, and zigzag from cliff to cliff as they wind through the canyon. Find out more
  4. Little Toad Creek Brewery & Distillery. Get your suds fix at Silver City’s premier brewery and distillery, where you can sample a range of brews and some interesting liquor – it wouldn’t be New Mexico without green- and red-chile flavored vodka!
  5. Watch the crits. Whether you’re a spectator or a racer, it’s hard to peel yourself away from watching exciting live bike racing in a downtown atmosphere. Even if you race, take some time to watch and cheer on other fields while you’re grabbing some recovery food. There’s nothing like the electrifying energy of a crit encircling the center of town.

Article Written by: ClippedIn Sarah Muench