Westward Ho with GFNY — The Santa Fe Special Edition!
Part I — The Course
It would have to be a wormhole. But wormholes are rare. From the minute I learned that GFNY would be reaching across the U.S.A. into the heart of New Mexico, I knew a recon mission would be a requirement. But there would have to be a wormhole…
…and there it was. Boise on Friday, Seattle on Monday. I would have to either stay in Seattle for the weekend, fly all the way home to New York, OR figure out a short hop to Albuquerque to check in on the GFNY Santa Fe route, and see it for myself.
Let’s get one thing straight — we will always advocate for the bringing along of bicycles on trips like this, but the situation I had created left me with several stitched together trips, three airlines, three completely separate itineraries, and very little time to get out to ride. In retrospect I keep kicking myself. But I digress.
I had been teasing the idea to the organizer of the race Mike McCalla. Mike was a pro mountain bike and road racer, and for several years the organizer of the Santa Fe Century. An event that he inherited, Mike created the competitive aspect by introducing chip-timing for interested participants that wanted more than just a century ride. Mike was into having me come out, figuring out some time to drive or ride the course (we drove, please see paragraph 3), and to talk about his life in cycling, bringing GFNY to Santa Fe, and the history and beauty of this spectacular place.
And so, I played it fast and loose with the wormhole, worrying about making the connection in Seattle to get on that flight to ABQ so that I could make the drive to Santa Fe. Until I was sitting on the plane to Albuquerque I barely believed that I would make it. So, I had the entire flight to get hotels and rental cars booked, and off I went.
The logistics were easy — and that’s notable. It’s notable if you are thinking about making the trip. Wherever you are coming from, once in Albuquerque, you are only an hour and fifteen from Santa Fe. Once in Santa Fe, everything is in reach. The art, the architecture, the food, and of course — the cycling.
After a restful night about a 10-minute drive from where I would meet Mike, I grabbed a cup of hotel coffee and set out to Mellow Velo, near the center of Santa Fe so that we could explore the course. It was 8 AM and Mike was waiting for me when I got there. We loaded into one car, hit the espresso shop next door, and got out on our way.
In just a few minutes we were making our way through Santa Fe, with Mike starting to fill me in on his background, and how he inherited the century ride that he had been organizing over the last few years. Mike is a self-proclaimed “Los Alamos nerd”, with a graduate degree in music, a deep understanding of cycling science, and an encyclopedic knowledge of New Mexico history, customs, and lore. I would learn more about New Mexico today, than I had ever known. But as I heard us chuckling about on the interview recording “it doesn’t really come up that much in New York.” Until now.
The first GFNY in the U.S.A. outside of New York City, the inaugural GFNY Santa Fe, will take on an 81-mile course, with about 7,500 feet of climbing. (130km and 2,300 meters). A challenging course, with a summit finish, at the top of the Santa Fe Ski Basin, just outside of town. As we rolled forward, Mike pointed out some points of interest that included the right turn that would go up to the final climb on the right, the Governor’s mansion on the left, and the first drag of the race up ahead.
“It’s not not really steep enough to be any real selection, but everyone will definitely feel it.” We were rolling now, away from town, and heading on the out of the “out and back” that would encompass the long course. For the short course, Mike’s feeling was that while shorter, it would be no less challenging. “The medio will have 3,300 feet of climbing and will be pretty challenging, as it will be steady, steady work — and you will need to keep working to get through it.”
So as we continued to roll, we started to hit some narrower roads, and some twists and turns. As we went, Mike described the history of each area, and by mile 5 of the course, Mike was rolling us onto Highway 599. “This is not a road we would normally bike on, but it was a great way to make the route, and an easier thing for law enforcement to control on race day. This will be a fast and slightly downhill stretch for 10–12 miles. You can sit in here, and go really fast without putting out a lot of energy.”
Thinking about going fast made me wonder — who was this course made for? Climbers? All-rounders? Roleurs? What would the winning time be?
“To be a winner on this course, you are looking at four hours. And that is fast! A five hour time on this course is absolutely respectable. But the course will reward patience. You can’t go too early and hope to survive the rest of the way. Chances are you will be pulled back during the climbing.”
As we progressed onto Route 14, the juniper forests were pointed out, “very typical landscape and vegetation for New Mexico. You have to get on it here for 30 seconds at a time, but it’s not to taxing here. You sit on the front for a while, and it can become pretty taxing pretty quickly.”
On through La Cienega, a small town that runs through the river basin took us to the lowest elevation on the course. (La Cienega literally translates to “the swamp”). With a start at 7,000 feet in Santa Fe, we began to talk a little about the realities of the altitude. With the Santa Fe Ski Basin finish at 10,000 feet, I wondered if acclamation to the altitude would be an issue. “You don’t want to be up here too long”, (before the race), Mike noted, “if you are traveling time zones and getting your body sync’d up, maybe get here a little early. But if you can’t get here until Friday or Saturday, your not losing much physiologically. If you are just here the day before though, you will have some water weight that won’t help you.” Mike agreed, get here Thursday, hydrate, and all will be well.
We got onto some new stretches of road, one with a long and deceptive climb that will be one of the places that you will be rewarded for your patience.
“Realistically with the summit finish the people that are going to win are climbers. But you have to be a climber that is smart and stays out of the wind. A strong, strong, all rounder can do well too. A climber might be a bit punished by the time they get there. If they didn’t do a good job conserving, if they stayed out in the wind a little too much, a climber that wasn’t aero enough in their position. They’re not going to win either. It’s a strong and patient racers race.”
As we made our way through the town of Las Campanas, Mike pointed out where one of the feed stations will be, but it was notable that there were rollers that would be tough to hold a wheel on. While they didn’t present a chance for a clean breakaway, they definitely presented a challenge in staying with a group, and balancing the work of the rollers, with the work of staying with the group. As we kept moving through some of the scenic vistas, Mike noted that New Mexico really deserved the title of “Big Sky” country, more so than Montana. “In Montana the mountain basins and ranges are closer together. We have really big views here, more so than where the mountains are closer together.” As he described this phenomenon, he pointed out that in the spot we were rolling through, we could see all the way through to Colorado.
We turned into a small town, and into a “warm up climb”. Mike noted that, “if there are people with good legs left, and people are getting antsy and waiting all day for the climb, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone lets it rip here — however — if that happens, I wouldn’t panic because the climb that comes right after this is much longer, and much more important. Any gap that forms here is really not that important.”
It was notable that the weather should not be a factor. With the early start time, and overall speed of the course, most riders should be finished or close to it, by the time any summer heat builds up. On top of that, with the final ascent to 10,300 feet over 15 miles on the final climb to the Santa Fe Ski Basin, the temperature should be quite reasonable. We were about to hit the climb, and it was almost time for lunch. With the great conversation that we were having, and the two hands required to type, take video, and a few still photos, it was easy to ignore the burrito I had grabbed at the espresso shop earlier.
“At this point , you need to be thinking about what is my 90 minute to 2 hour pace, and be patient. No need to go anaerobic here, but you can get close to it. Don’t worry about what anyone else is doing, and stay in a group if you can.
Finally, we were back past the Governor’s mansion and on to the climb. We would pass the famous 10,000 Waves spa a few miles up, and would continue to twist and turn, until we came to the steeper bits. The climb definitely kicks up for a bit, to 8–10%, and for a lengthy stretch. This is where the patience will pay off, and where the final selections will happen. This will be a test for any cyclist, to see how they can challenge themselves over a 15 mile stretch to the sky.
When we are at the top, we can see all the way out. “This is the highest paved road in New Mexico, and one of the top 10–15 paved roads in the country.” From here, riders will have a relaxed descent into the finish line festival. Knowing that they have leveraged their seasonal fitness in race to the sky in New Mexico!
But there is more — so much more — about the Santa Fe recon mission. A giant green chili on a burger, a discussion about cycling and racing with Mike, and a tour of the Canyon Road art gallery scene — please stay tuned!