Rookie Report: American frequent flyers

Sam Boardman's rookie report returns with an impassioned tale of travel woes – and winning bike races.

This season, Sam Boardman (Project Echelon) is making his first foray into the European peloton, and writing about it along the way. This instalment digs deep into the extensive travel of a Continental bike racer, and retells the tale of the team’s first UCI win in Europe.

You can (and definitely should) read Sam’s previous dispatches, including his first three one-day races in Mallorca, the Trofeo Calvià, Trofeo Serra Tramuntana and Trofeo Pollença. Attention then turned to stage racing at the Tour de la Provence where it rained. A lot.

On a training ride the other day, I was listening to a recent episode of one of my favorite radio programs called Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me, a comedy news quiz from National Public Radio. To those of you reading this who need no explanation, congratulations on your tote bag collection. We are all very proud of you and your local station salutes you for your contributions. For the folks who aren’t familiar, here’s the basic premise: every week, comedians and writers gather to answer questions about the week’s news, both serious and ridiculous, accompanied by a special segment in which the host brings a celebrity and/or famous public figure on to play. During this particular episode, I learned of the existence of Tom Stuker, a New Jersey car dealership consultant who, in 1990, bought a special promotion package from United Airlines that guaranteed him unlimited flights in first class for the rest of his life. In the thirty-four years since his purchase, he has racked up an utterly insane 23 million miles of airtime, the most of any human in history.

Why do I bring up Mr. Stuker? Well, while I can’t corroborate this next claim with hard data, I would be willing to wager that there are a hefty handful of cyclists operating in the Continental level of UCI racing that could each be potential competitors for the world’s most traveled person. 

It’s a bold assertion, so I’ll elaborate. I’m currently writing this piece in the lobby of the Rodos Palace Hotel, a resort parked right on the northwest coastline of Rhodes, the largest of Greece’s Dodecanese Islands and one of the more remote archipelagos with respect to distance from the mainland. In fact, if I look out from my little couch nook right now, I can clearly see Turkey and its towering mountains not too far away on the other side of the Aegean Sea. We are, as the youths like to declare, “out here”, a not so uncommon state of being for racers in our stratum, but a feature of cycling that is often unseen if you are not yourself an active participant.

Cyclists travel a lot, and, somewhat ironically, the ones who are competing in the lower rungs of the sport well below the UCI WorldTour probably travel the most, and to some truly random places. Take, for example, Patrik Tybor, a relatively unknown Czech ex-pro who retired last year and now works as an assistant sports director at the Dukla Banska Bystrica cycling team, the program with which he spent his entire career for an impressive 18 seasons. He’s here directing the team, and when I saw him walking around the dining hall, I actually exclaimed to my teammates in what is probably the most tell-me-you’re-obsessed-with-cycling-without-telling-me-you’re-obsessed-with-cycling moment I have ever had in my life. You see, along with his several UCI wins [ed. six, all at 2.2-level stage races between 2009 and 2016], Tybor holds the distinct honor of being the record holder for the most countries raced in at a whopping 46, competing in events in places as off-the-beaten-path (for cycling) as Egypt, Estonia, Cameroon, Gabon, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Uruguay, Montenegro, Azerbaijan, and even Iran. Stuker would probably have a field day chatting to this guy about how he maxes out his frequent flyer miles and points. 

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by Sam Boardman (@boardmanito)

I myself, as part of my first ever amateur team in 2018, had the privilege and pleasure to race in China, The Dominican Republic, and Rwanda, and, after signing my first professional contract in 2019, would go on to add Malaysia and Japan to the docket, none of which I would imagine are top of the list of obvious destinations when you think “bike racing.” I should also say that, back in 2018, my former teammate, the one who helped organize trips to the first three aforementioned countries, also had invites to races in Burkina Faso and Madagascar, both of which we were seriously considering until our research revealed that: a) a no-travel advisory had been issued for Burkina Faso by the U.S. State Department because of “terrorism, crime, and kidnapping”, none of which sounded like a great time; and b) it would probably take around at least 50 if not more total hours of travel to get to Madagascar, and none of us were willing to do that. This teammate still races bikes and can regularly be seen doing so with other Americans in other such random countries as Guatemala, Ecuador, Panama, Costa Rica, Honduras, and Trinidad and Tobago, among others. 

This all brings me back to my original point: cycling can bring you to a lot of places you wouldn’t have otherwise gone to, and Greece is far from the first country I would think of when considering cycling competitions. It is, in fact, far from a lot of other things too, which made travel here … involved. While mine was relatively smooth – four planes and three airlines over 36 straight hours of travel door-to-door – I can’t say the same for a lot of my teammates. Travel to and within Europe has been complicated by the recent Lufthansa Airlines cabin crew strikes, and consequently many on our team had some pretty harrowing adventures to get here. Take Tyler [Stites], for instance. Are you ready for this? How could you possibly be. Scroll down quickly. You see that whole next paragraph? That’s how long it’s going to take me to explain, so take a deep breath, buckle up, and here we go *inhales deeply, Ace Ventura style*.

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by Sam Boardman (@boardmanito)

Tyler’s original itinerary took him from his home base in Tucson to Chicago, then Chicago to Philadelphia, then Philadelphia to Amsterdam, then Amsterdam to Athens, and finally Athens to Rhodes. To avoid spending an absolute fortune, we all booked two round-trip tickets – one between America and a connecting hub in Europe, and another between the connecting hub in Europe and Greece – so we would all have to re-check our bags once in Europe. I’ll pause here and reiterate that this was supposed to be the easy path, the one Tyler was expecting. Before leaving Tucson, however, he learned his original flight from Chicago was canceled, and he was forced rebook on an entirely different airline, which would take him from Tucson to Chicago, then Chicago to London, and then London to Amsterdam, where he would theoretically be able to make his connection on the new airline to Rhodes. He made it to London, but after landing, he learned that his flight to Amsterdam was also delayed, and he would miss his connecting flight to Athens. When he enquired about a direct flight from London to Athens, he was informed that there were such flights, but if he were to take this option and forgo the flight to Amsterdam, the return trip that was part of this original itinerary would be voided and he would have to book an entirely new route on the way back. Why? WHO KNOWS. The only solid answer anyone could give him was that the airlines saw both sides of the round trip as one giant itinerary, and to miss a single flight rendered the whole thing null. With time running out and a race to get to, he was forced to fly from London to Amsterdam, and back again in order to catch his new direct flight to Athens, where he would have to stay the night before finally boarding his plane to Rhodes, arriving around 10:00am local time 24 hours before we were supposed to race. Tom Stuker, are you listening to this?!

Honestly, the more I travel, the more I feel that 99% of the time, airline staff have no flippin’ idea what is going on and they are just wingin’ it when they clickity clack on those ancient computers of theirs that were last updated when Methuselah was a kid. The number of times my teammates and I have been told “I don’t know” or some variation of that phrase after asking why the relevant airline’s system is so friggity fucked is incomprehensible. I have heard that utterance more times than miles flown by Tom Stuker, and my word, it’s devastating every single time. We cram into these giant metal tubes and blast ourselves into the sky and over the oceans of the Earth at 600 mph, covering swathes of land that would take our ancestors years to navigate with death and disease and famine and scurvy along the way, all the while accessing this magical thing we call the internet, including more time in uploaded videos than there has been literal time in the history of the known universe, during which the development of technology has been so profound that I can now purchase and place a traceable computer chip inside a piece of luggage that uses signals and particles and waves that my goldfish brain can’t even begin to understand in order to track its whereabouts at any given time and YOU STILL CAN’T TELL ME WHY MY BAG HASN’T ARRIVED ON CAROUSEL TWO YET??? I CAN SEE IT PARKED OUTSIDE THE STUPID TERMINAL ON MY STUPID PHONE!!! JESUS H. CHRIST ON RUBBER CRUTCHES I’LL GO WALK THE TARMAC AND GRAB IT MYSELF. 

I digress. 

A plane passes over the peloton at Trofeo Palma 2024.

Despite the hellacious travel, we all made it. It may have taken some folks’ bags a couple extra days to complete the trip, but eventually everything ended up right where it was supposed to be just in time for the start of the Rhodes GP presented by the Culture and Sports Organization. Though my jetlag was something fierce, my excitement to compete in a new country, and an utterly gorgeous one at that, overpowered the exhaustion that was making me want to go to bed at four in the afternoon, and, luckily, by the time race day rolled around, I had managed to get on a relatively normal sleep schedule. 

To our benefit as well, having completed the first European block of high-level races such as the Challenge Mallorca one-days, Valencia, and Provence, the difference in stress going into the event was tangible. At lower-tier UCI continental races such as these, the lack of WorldTeams and the fanfare that follows them generally make them much more relaxed affairs, with no giant team buses, no large media swarm, and smaller crowds overall. Indeed, rolling up to the start line, we were met with only a tiny but enthusiastic group of locals who took pictures of us as we posed on the stage to the tune of the announcer reading our names, but that was the extent of the tifosi’s presence. With that said, during the race itself these smaller events can actually be some of the most stressful, as the relatively small pool of high-level participants not only means that the skill-level disparity is greater within the group (a recipe for sketchiness), but it also yields greater expectations and consequent anxiety across the board since everyone’s chances to get a good result are inversely proportional with the amount of WorldTour legs present and capable of dunking on everyone and tap dancing on our corpses. Ergo, no WorldTour teams, no ProTeams? More opportunity.

The race, which consisted of a single lap of the island, amounting to just over 180 kilometers total, started as most any other race would: the flag drops, the whistle blows, and four riders attacked off the front and began to amass a small gap. The key teams that we were looking at to dictate the day’s structure included the Norwegian outfit, Team Coop-Repsol (the defending champions of the event), and Austrian squads Team Felt Felbermayr and Team Voralberg. Our plan was to ensure a weak break of three or so riders got up the road, and our expectations were that these teams would work to do the same. With a fairly large gap to the four-man break and no teams taking up the chase just yet, I made a dig to quickly bridge up to the move, the logic being if the break was legitimately dedicated to make it work, they would pull and I could sit on. If the organization collapsed, then we would all be caught and the race could reset once again. The latter occurred, and we were back in the group. 

However, here is where the dynamic of the race became a bit odd. With a strong cross-headwind coming from the northwest, there was potential for separations into echelons, but it being so early in the race, teams weren’t inclined to attempt to split it yet. So for a solid 45 minutes we rode gruppo compatto in one ginormous blob, nervously twitching around each other as no one wanted to attack or take up pulling duties.

Finally, on a tiny 1.5-kilometer kicker around 41 km in, a group of three went clear, but the day’s first major feature – a stair-stepping 9 km climb, 4.7% average) – was barely 4 km ahead, and Team Felt Felbermayr’s firm pace up the entire climb reeled in the short-lived escape. We weren’t going ballistic up the climb. We would still have a hefty 100 km to go once we’d descended back to the coast, and I guessed the idea was to ride a steady tempo and thin the herd as much as possible without exerting too much energy. Riders were getting shelled, but the only significant damage I saw was the result of a ridiculous crash at the very bottom of the descent. In what was literally the last turn before the road flattened out – a right-hand sweeping corner – a rider simply failed to turn, crossing in front of me and barely avoiding overlapping my front wheel before taking out the several riders he careened into. It was a crash that made absolutely no sense. Had he not seen the turn? Did he have a flat tire and couldn’t steer? Did he have a stroke? It wasn’t clear to me until after the race had finished and Ricky [Arnopol], who was next to me at the time, brought light to the whole situation, explaining that he had seen another rider chatting with the one who crashed and pointing up into the hillsides on the straight section of the descent. So, based on that, it seems that the rider who caused the crash was taking in the scenery a little too enthusiastically at the recommendation of another rider, and promptly went body surfing on the asphalt. 

Watching the whole thing unfurl in real time was horrifying, but the show must go on, and I quickly closed the gap that had formed after I braked and skirted around the mayhem. There wasn’t much respite after that as Team Felt Felbermayr, who were still riding, by the way, hit the gas hard and shredded the field the instant we began to head north again and the crosswinds reappeared. Scott [McGill] ended up being the only rider who had made the front group, the rest of us floundering and struggling with the fatigue of the travel starting to catch up to us. With 70 km still to go and clear indications that Team Felt Felbermayr were the only ones wishing to set a hard pace, my calculus was the groups would eventually come back together when Felbermayr realized they couldn’t sustain the split for the rest of the race. Sure enough, this ended up being the case and the groups would blob back together, resetting the race once again. Unfortunately, the back and forth wouldn’t help Brendan [Rhim], who had gutted himself not only trying to chase back on after going for bottles and effectively getting barraged off the back of the peloton, but also when he ripped it in a fourth echelon to get Cade [Bickmore], one of our designated sprinters, back on to the group. 

This splitting apart and welding back together would be the state of play for the next 60 km through crosswinds and over rollers. It’s not a great way to race, complacently relying on the lack of gumption at the front to ensure that the peloton would bunch up again. I don’t recommend it because it’s lazily reactive instead of proactive racing, but it was all I had to get me through the thing. My stomach had started to turn for the worst some time during the first echelon pattern and the collective fatigue from lack of decent sleep was wearing me extremely thin, and I wasn’t the only one. At one point I rolled up to Tyler and asked him how he was doing, to which he moaned, “Oh my goooood, I have to poop so badlyyyyyyy.” Scott, not too far behind, floated past and stated, matter-of-factly, “Just ride until you shit yourself,” before stealthily disappearing back into the group like Homer into the hedges. Well, alright then. 

At 152 km in and with roughly 30 to go, we tackled the last serious climb of the day, 3 km at 6%. We were positioned well into the base and climbed as a group throughout, but juuuuuuust when I thought I was going to make it over in the front group, an acceleration over the crest forced a split that meant I was back in a chase once again, desperately wrestling to get back to the main bunch. Let that be a lesson to all: the climb is not over at the crest; the climb is over 300 meters after the crest, and gosh darn it, make sure you pedal through. Being a little further behind the front group on the downhill, however, actually offered me a bit of a fleeting vantage point of the race ahead, and I could see a small group of six riders squeeze their way off the front, with Tyler on the tail. “Holy crap,” I thought, “he’s in the move and it looks like they’re gaining traction.” 

As with all previous instances, the groups eventually made their way back together, but with a hefty selection of teams represented among the escapees off the front, few were keen to take up a chase until the Czech outfit, ATT Investments, and American U23 development team, Aevolo, took to the front and started setting the pace. Meanwhile, after Cade had said he wasn’t feeling great, we had decided to go all in for Scott in the bunch sprint, so those of us who were still in the group – Hugo [Scala Jr], Scott, Cade, and me – lined it out and began to negotiate the pack as we edged closer towards the finish. Tyler’s group was still holding a consistent 15-second gap going into the final 3 km, so we were waiting for as long as we could before getting to the front, then with a hair over a kilometer to the line, we knew Tyler’s group could hold the gap and any effort we put on the front wouldn’t bring him back, so I gunned it to the front, deposited Hugo on the wheel of a Team Coop-Repsol rider who led Hugo out, who then peeled off to drop Scott off at the line to win the bunch sprint for seventh with Cade sweeping his wheel.

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by Nassos Triantafyllou (@nassostphoto)

Oh yeah, and while all of this was happening, Tyler was busy *ahem* WINNING THE RACE! In the closing meters Tyler opened up his sprint from his group of six and powered to win the Rhodes GP by a bike throw, marking the team’s first UCI win in Europe, and the first ever UCI one-day win in Project Echelon’s history. It was a thrilling race to be a part of and I was proud to have actually played a role in the team’s overall success, rather than just racking up anonymous finishes without any kind of meaningful contributions, as I had felt I had been doing in the previous block. We now have momentum that I’m excited to be able to carry over into our next and final race here on Rhodes, The International Tour of Rhodes, a 4-day stage race consisting of a short uphill prologue and three road race stages that should produce some pretty dynamic racing.

And yes, for the record, I did ask Tyler, and no, he did not shit himself.

What did you think of this story?