D  e  s  e  r  t     E  x  p  o  s  u  r  e  April 2006

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Heaven on Wheels

With next month's Tour of the Gila and mountain roads that would defeat most mortals, Southwest New Mexico has become a year-round bikers' paradise.

Story and photos by Donna Clayton Lawder

It's January—months before the Tour of the Gila bike race comes to Silver City—but I am already thinking about it. So are the racers, who have just started their training in earnest, and I've gotten word that the TIAA-CREF men's professional cycling team is coming to town for a kick-off training camp. Holding no illusions about my own chances to actually race in such an event, I have wondered what it would be like to ride in the lead car, keeping just ahead of a pack of lean, mean bikers.

Today that wish comes true.

The TIAA-CREF team in close pursuit of the lead car.

 

I have arranged with Beth Selliga, who handles travel and public relations for the TIAA-CREF team when they're on the road, to ride in the team car during a training run here. I meet her in the lobby of the Holiday Inn Express, where the cyclists are staying. Young and fit, Beth is personable and enthusiastic, just what any company would want in its public-relations arm.

The cyclists, having already consumed a large quantity of bananas, yogurt and peanut butter, are out behind the hotel, getting ready for the morning's ride.

Beth takes me out to the parking lot and introduces me to Ben Turner, the team's logistics manager, who is giving direction and helping ready the bikers. Ben is somewhere in his 20s, and has a biker's build. The team members mill around the gear trailer, a mobile storehouse of spare parts and cases upon cases of meal bars, water bottles and drinkable carbo-goop.

Some of the bikers fiddle with their clothing, switching in and out of jerseys, trying to find that perfect layer of comfort for a brisk morning's ride. Others adjust various parts of their bikes, and stretch out their human parts as well, on the ground, on the sidewalk, up against the trailer. There are 21 team members, 12 of whom are at this training camp.

"The others are in Los Angeles, at the Velodrome camp," Ben tells me. They are due to arrive later in the week and will stay for two weeks before Beth and Ben head back to the home office in Boulder, Colo., and the cyclists head to their respective homes, a concentration of them in various Colorado towns, others in California, Missouri, South Carolina and Washington.

"Aside from the training camps, we pretty much just see each other at races," Ben adds.

One cyclist on the team is French-Canadian, residing in Quebec. Looking over the cyclists' profiles Beth has given me, I note that while his teammates list their hobbies as everything from "playing with my dog" to "bear wrestling" (is he kidding?), the boy from Quebec spends his spare time "reading newspapers in cafes."

Mais oui!

The team kicks off its training year in January in Silver City for a number of reasons, all having to do with conditioning. Temperature is one: Silver City reliably has warmer weather in January than, say, Quebec. Training at higher altitude also gives the cyclists an edge, not only for competing in the Tour of the Gila, but for other races as well. Also, Ben says, "You've got great roads here. A little winding, good hills, they're in decent condition and, dude, you can ride for two hours and never even see another car!"

A large number of the TIAA-CREF team will be racing in the Tour of the Gila this year. I ask Ben, who won the race in 1995, how he thinks the team will do.

"To be really bold, I'll bet one of our guys takes it," he replies. But when he's pressed to name his pick, Ben's boldness yields to diplomacy—or perhaps to holding his cards close to the vest: "Well, we have a couple of guys who are known to be climbers [bikers who do really well on hills—think Lance Armstrong] and that's key to this race," particularly as the final leg includes the grueling climb to the Gila Cliff Dwellings.

Today's ride, Ben tells me, is just to help the cyclists "keep loose." Putting on about 500 miles a week, they train in three-day cycles, taking a day of rest in-between. The rides increase in duration and intensity as the camp goes on, so the racers build their endurance. On this sunny Sunday morning, a day "off," we are going out for "just a few hours."

 

Finally the bikers are ready to head out and Beth, Ben and I head to the team car. The cyclists pull out of the parking lot in a group, cross the highway and disappear up Hwy. 180. I take the front passenger seat, with Ben driving. Beth is in the back seat sitting amidst her cameras, spare bike parts and other gear, a huge cooler of drinks at her feet.

In a while, she tells me, she'll perch herself in the way-back compartment, hydraulic door up and nothing but road rushing under, to take live riding photos of the racers.

"We particularly need shots of one guy," she says. "Yesterday he had the wrong gloves on, and I have to get new pics today for the sponsor."

Sponsorship is, after all, what keeps those spoked wheels turning. Sponsors cough up $10,000 to $20,000 just to have their logo on the uniforms, Ben informs me. The team itself is named after the nation's biggest teachers' retirement and insurance fund, TIAA-CREF, which has more than $360 billion in combined assets under management and presumably can afford to help buy a few bikes.

The bike-saddle sponsor has been the same one for years, Ben adds, and one company pays for special placement on the uniform, right above the riders' butts on the lower small of their backs. Companies also pay money and supply new products to the bikers to have the products field-tested. It's a big feather in the cap, Ben tells me, to be able to claim your product was field-tested by a pro team of TIAA-CREF's caliber.

"You'll see it in their ads," he says. "'A high-level race team rides in these saddles, or rides on these wheels.'"

Beth puts in, "The guys are helping develop a line of luggage right now. They were given this great luggage that they're using as they travel, and giving the company feedback on how it could better serve bikers. You know, making it lighter, with more convenient compartments, whatever."

Beth reaches into a white cotton sack and pulls out several kinds of meal bars. "They [sponsors] give us all this stuff, too," she says. "It's all part of the deal."

She pulls out a cellophane pack of some strangely colored square globs, shoots a look over to Ben—who gives a knowing nod—and rips open the bag.

"Try one," she says, almost like a teenager's "I dare you." The squares are called Bloks, and they have the look and feel of oddly geometric gummy bear candies. The one I'm offered is strawberry. Having eaten a number of items while biking and hiking that some people would hardly call "food," I pop the square blob into my mouth with an open mind. I am pleasantly surprised, as the flavor truly comes across as something I can identify as strawberry!

"I like it," I proclaim. OK, the texture is a little weird, but it would be easy to chomp while riding, and the taste isn't half bad.

Beth looks incredulous, so I reach into the bag and grab a few more and chug them.

"I can't believe it," she says to Ben. "I swear I can taste the individual electrolytes in them." She hands me the rest of the bag of gummy squares and opens two meal bars, one for herself and one for Ben. The bikers may have enjoyed breakfast back at the hotel, but it seems their handlers do more eating on the run.

 

We wind out of the parking lot, cross the highway and make a quick right. Up around the bend, we come upon the riders in a clump, climbing their first hill. They thin out to single file and we pass them, taking the lead.

Two of the riders are not wearing bike helmets, I notice. I wouldn't think of coasting out of my driveway without my beautiful Trek helmet, blue with hibiscus print and a visor. These guys are rolling along at speeds up to 55 miles per hour without headgear.

"Oh, that's Johnny, our director in Europe," Ben says. "The Europeans are much more used to riding without."

Both Ben and Beth have been with this team for over three years now, "before the team was TIAA-CREF," Beth says. Her position, handling travel and PR for the team when they're on the road, has evolved over time.

"This is definitely the most fun part of the job, being out on the road with them," she says. "They're having fun today. They're doing all sorts of silly stuff."

Suddenly she calls out to Ben, "They're coming up on you hot!" He speeds the car up to resume proper distance ahead of the riders.

Beth and Ben speak of the racers, now laughing and weaving in and out of the pack, now climbing up on our tail, as if they were so many frat boys—most of them being 18 to 24 years of age, after all—for which the two in the car have chaperone responsibilities.

They're both glad to see one rider back in the saddle after a near-fatal accident in 2004. He was in a time trial, riding flat out, and a motorist decided to ignore the race and pulled straight into the path of riders.

"He T-boned that SUV," Ben recalls. "Broke 20 bones, punctured both lungs and had a serious head trauma. Came close to dying. I'll tell you, it's great to see him up there, riding again."

Another racer, they note, has really loosened up this season.

"He used to be so shy when he was off the bike," Beth says. "I think shaving his head helped."

Ah, youth!

One biker had his 21st birthday during this training camp. For his special birthday dinner, the team dined at Shevek and MI—and dropped around $500, Beth tells me. "Yeah, we've been good for the local economy," she says.

The boys have enjoyed recent additions to the Silver City downtown scene, Beth says, noting that the Silver City Brewing Company has been a popular place to reload carbs.

They loved the fabulous shakes at Messiah's, she says, and they also ate at Jalisco Cafe and the Buckhorn up in Pinos Altos, all taking turns being photographed with "Regular Joe," the Native American mannequin posed at the Buckhorn's bar.

And, yes, you really can eat whatever you want—not just square strawberry globs—if you're a pro bike racer.

"Yeah, you do have to eat right most of the time, but in the off season, you can enjoy your desserts, your wine and cheese," Ben says. "During heavy training for the race season, from February through September, you're burning 3,000 to 4,000 calories."

 

It's time for photos, and Beth climbs into the rear compartment of the car and starts fitting lenses on her cameras. A rider comes to the head of the pack, just a few feet from the car's open hatchback. This is Stu, whose photos were not "sponsor-worthy" due to wearing the "wrong" gloves in the last photo shoot.

Stu takes off the previously offending gloves and removes a fleece jacket, throwing it into the open back of the car. I check the speedometer—we're cruising along at 25 miles per hour. He zips up his team jersey, making sure the logo will look perfect in the picture. Beth starts snapping, calling out cues: "Head more back, OK, now one out of the saddle." He shifts obediently. "OK, now back in the saddle."

A few more snaps and Beth finally calls out, "You're done! Now send Nate up."

Stu drops back, there's more laughter and talk among the bikers, and a cyclist, obviously Nate this time, rides up close to Beth and her cameras.

Nate adjusts his team jersey and Beth takes aim.

"No, wait!" he suddenly cries, and makes a few frantic passes over his black, GQ-esque hair. "OK, now!" He relaxes his face, smiles, then throws in a look of intense concentration.

"Terrific," Beth says with a laugh. "They're gonna love that!"

She waves Nate off and he falls back into the pack.

A rider pulls up along the side of the car, holding the frame of the open window, letting the car pull him along.

"Hey, Beth, Jon ripped Timmy a new one!" he shouts, laughing.

A couple of riders are weaving in and out of the pack, one obviously chasing the other. One has a hole in the seat of his bike shorts; the other swoops in, gets a finger in the hole and rips the shorts wide open to hysterical laughter from the rest of the team.

The "exposed" cyclist rides up on the other side of the car and calls in the window, "Hey, Beth, I've got a photo for you," pointing to his bare butt cheek.

Suddenly the whole team passes the car and leaves the three of us in their dust, as they cruise to the top of a hill that would have most people panting and walking the bike. At the crest, they stop and some go to the shoulder of the road.

"Oh, sorry about that. Pee break," Beth says. Ben sticks a hand out his window and makes a circular motion. We're turning around, heading back home. Ben turns the car and we wait on the shoulder for the bikers to hop back on their machines and catch up.

Heading back to the hotel, we talk about what it takes to become a pro cyclist. Team TIAA-CREF gets "a lot of resumes," Ben says. Becoming one of the "chosen" takes "commitment and just getting attention. Success turns heads. That makes a racer stand out.

"If you show some aptitude and then get an opportunity to ride with a good team like ours, that moves you along on the pro circuit," he says.

He pauses, gets a faraway, kind-of-thoughtful look, then adds, "You know, it takes passion. They do it because they love it. I mean, think about it, it's a great life."

We pull into the hotel parking lot and the bikers swarm around the supply trailer. Ben and Beth make plans to go golfing up at the Copper Crest Country Club.

"After all," Beth says, "we've just been sitting in a car all morning."

A couple of the cyclists come over and talk to Ben. "OK," he says. "Dinner's at six," he tells them.

"They're going to go out a little longer," Ben says of the foursome that get back on their bikes and head out of the parking lot again, this time out Hwy. 180 toward Deming.

Talk about passion.


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