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Redlands, Tour of the Gila, Joe Martin: The Stage Races That Shaped the Future

By: Julie Goldsticker  April 05, 2023

What do Neilson Powless, Brandon McNulty, and Megan Jastrab all have in common? Like many of the top Americans in the World Tour, they raced in some of the country's best domestic stage races like Redlands, Tour of the Gila, and Joe Martin.

Many of the biggest names in American cycling competed in stage races early in their careers here in the United States. From providing an invaluable platform for riders to showcase their skills, to testing cyclists’ limits and ultimately showing teams and athletes where they stand, stage races can be a key part of cyclists’ development.

A stage race is a multi-day competition with different types of events, including a road race, time trial and criterium, being contested over a series of days. As riders must compete in multiple events over consecutive days, stage races can truly test a rider and their team both physically and mentally.

“Stage races are actually a critical part of cycling development in that they provide opportunities for riders to challenge themselves in a variety of different types of races over a period of days, so it helps them build stamina. It also helps them build confidence as racing cyclists. It helps them develop teamwork components, which don’t really exist in the same way in single day races because you’re having to protect riders over multiple days and you’re setting up riders to do multiple things each day. There’s a lot of tactical day components that you don’t see in single day races,” said Redlands Bicycle Classic Team Liaison, Sean Wilson.

Each of the three stage races in the United States offers a different challenge for the riders and teams that compete in them, and the staff of the Redlands Bicycle Classic, Tour of the Gila, and Joe Martin Stage Race take pride in what their races provide for their participants. All three races have been existence for multiple decades, and they continue to bring incredible experiences to every type of participant.

“It’s not like a weekend race. We are doing long races, 60-70 mile road races and a 16 mile time trial. Every day you race hard. You’ve got to go home and recover; eat well and do it again for five days.” Tour of the Gila Race Director, Jack Brennan, said. “It’s multi disciplines of cycling, mountain top finishes, long hard climbs, long dangerous descents, they’re thrilling but you can reach very high speeds. You have to know how to handle a bike. One day we have a sprint finish, you’ve got to hang in the field. This race has probably the longest descent in north America for the pro men, high speeds, difficult turns on these descents.”

Joe Martin Stage Race Director, Bruce Dunn, points to the many elements that athletes and their teams must have in order to be successful in a stage race and produce a breakthrough performance. “Stage racing is multiple days and its attrition. It’s endurance. It’s tactics. It’s teamwork. Your body’s ability to recover and go again but it’s definitely team oriented, Dunn said. “That’s the key thing in a stage race. One person can probably do a big effort on a road race or a crit and do alright but in stage racing, you better have a good team too plus be talented.”

Decorated cyclist, team director and former USA Cycling staff member Michael Engleman has experienced stage racing from every position and he feels strongly about their educational tools. “It’s the ultimate development. In stage racing, you have to put so many more pieces together. In a one-day race or a crit, you are hanging on technical, tactical skills and stamina. Stage racing is how you put your skills and your interaction with the team overall together over a two-, three-, five- or 10-day day periods. There’s been a lot of pride lately in how many Americans are racing Tour de Frances and all those riders were developed through stage racing. Stage racing is graduate school,” he said.

Brennan also points to his race, the Tour of the Gila, as a preparatory event for riders looking to advance to the next level. “I think our race lets people experience that and develop their knowledge on what’s needed to be better in all these disciplines. If you have aspirations of racing in Europe and that’s the big leagues for our sport is racing in Europe, you have to have these skills,” he said.

In addition to the educational components and ability to truly test an athlete, stage races provide a tremendous platform for up-and-coming riders to showcase their skill set and abilities to teams and decision makers. Many future professional stars and Olympians enjoyed breakthrough performances at stage races in the United States prior to earning spots on professional teams and scoring victories on the biggest stages. Engleman remembers the Redlands Bicycle Classic as his breakthrough event in 1988 and has memories of athletes such as Allison Powers, Clara Hughes, and Mara Abbott persevering through challenges and impressing in multiple stage race events.

“Throughout the cycling community, everybody knows that coming to Redlands is that first steppingstone for you so the athletes that are really trying to move through the sport really like at Redlands as one of those places that they can gain a foothold in the sport and show what they are made of,” Wilson said.

Brennan is proud of the visibility his race has and continues to provide its talented participants. “It gives the opportunity for the domestic elite teams, both men and women to show what they have. I think our race is a race that people watch, especially team directors. Seeing the folks that have come out of the race as amateurs and have gone on to professional careers is satisfying. That’s reassuring that we have kids that can take their racing to Europe,” he said.

Stage race veteran Engleman sums up their value best. “It’s the ultimate learning opportunity. It takes a million pedal strokes to be a really good cyclist and stage racing will accelerate that a little bit. Some people come out of stage races shattered and thinking oh, I’m not as good as I thought I was,” he said.

The Redlands Bicycle Classic, the Tour of the Gila and the Joe Martin Stage Race will all take place later this spring.