Rookie report: Inside a pro’s first European road race

Sam Boardman made his name on the 90-degree corners of American crit racing. How would he fair on the switchbacks of Mallorca?

This season, Sam Boardman is making his first foray into the European peloton. The former Legion rider signed with Project Echelon over the off-season and the team’s program kicked off in Mallorca this week with the Trofeo Calvià.

Calvià is one of a handful of season openers on the Spanish island, and this year was won by EF Education-Easy Post’s Simon Carr, just ahead of Alexandr Vlasov and Brandon McNulty. These used to be chill early-season openers, taking in some Spanish flavor and a bit of sun, but there’s no such thing these days. It’s a UCI 1.1-level race chock full of World Tour teams that want to win. The following is Boardman’s view from the inside.

I’ll start with emotions before I go into anything else, and the biggest one I’m currently feeling is absolute joy.

Today was a new kind of difficult, but was one of the coolest experiences I’ve had on the bike to date. I know that I probably sound like an idiot and a true dork when I try to convey this to a lot of folks, but I’m just such a fan of the sport and to compete on the turf of cycling’s cultural epicenter (a goal of mine for as long as I’ve known about bike racing) is so neato that it makes me giddy.

Of course, coupled with that was the fact that we have the privilege to compete here on Mallorca specifically, which has proven to be a truly stunning place to ride one’s bike, offering cliffside vistas peppered with ancient coastal Spanish villages that I made a promise to myself to soak in at least once today amidst the chaos and the pain.

Which brings us to the race itself. There are three key lessons I learned today, each of which will be addressed over the course of this report, and they are the following:

  1. There is “dry”, and then there is “Mallorca Dry”;
  2. The island’s road infrastructure strategy was born from a conversation between two civil engineers, which was just one saying to the other, “Betcha can’t put another switchback in there,” again and again and again;
  3. And, finally, there are funny things said in races, there are angry things said in races, and then there are funny angry things said in races.

And with that, let us proceed.

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by Project Echelon (@projectechelonracing)

Purely by the numbers, this was going to be a *checks notes* hard day, with an undulating profile that offered literally no flat road at any point along the entire 150-kilometer route. The first of the day’s ascents would kick off immediately after the neutral rollout, where yours truly — absolutely ZOOTED off of a pre-race cocktail of taurine and caffeine — decided it would be just the absolute best idea to kick off the day’s festivities by initiating a first attack.

How did that go? The better question is, “Where did that go?” the answer to which is, “Nowhere.” I was tagged immediately and peeled off accordingly, but it felt good to get my ya-ya’s out, even if I made a complete fool of myself.

From that point, I tried to follow moves as best I could with Ethan [Craine], Cade [Bickmore], Colby [Lange], Ricky [Arnapol], and I swapping turns to suss out a break, with Scott [McGill] and Tyler [Stites], our designated leaders, waiting for the more decisive moves and splits later in the race. Much of the next 45 minutes would be a herky-jerky, grabby-brakey affair through narrow rural roads and old-town streets that, more often than not, were no wider than a golf cart path, made worse by the fact that any turn we confronted came with a PTSD flashback to this past Monday when three of our riders went down on a completely innocuous turn because, as I have come to learn, Mallorca roads are just like that?

A former teammate of mine even texted me to ask about the trip, starting with the inquiry,  “Have you slid out on Mallorca roads yet? It’s a rite of passage.” I’ve been given a couple explanations as to why this is the case, ranging from “the oil secreted from the local trees coats the roads” to “the composition of the asphalt itself that the roads are made of has a lot of concrete in it to keep the heat down during the summer,” none of which actually did all that much to help alleviate the absolute mindfuck I would have to get over. I have spent the last three years on the American crit circuit honing my cornering ability with the express hope that one day I could apply them to European roads, but given what I had just seen and the countless other accounts I have since been told of just how naturally slick these roads are, there was no snowball’s chance in hell I was about to get my lean on like I normally would have been inclined.

So, with that fresh in mind, every corner on the course — and, as you will find out, there were A LOT of them — was taken with a gingery nature and altered cornering style that made me feel like an utterly fredly jabroni.

We proceeded to navigate the winding first 50 kilometers, which claimed casualties through flats for both Ethan and Colby. Ethan would be able to chase back on before the major descent, but the nature of Colby’s flat and the poorly timed difficult section in which it happened meant it wasn’t going to be possible for him to chase back on, forcing him to abandon.

At this point, we found ourselves on the straightest part of the course, a flat, wide, false flat drag that would deposit us at the base of the day’s feature climb, the Col de Sóller. Decisive points in a race are more often than not obviously so, i.e. it is a large climb or a signature section that is particularly easy to notice on the route map or profile. Consequently, every team director and their dog will have the same brilliant idea and tell their riders to “get to the front eh” and maintain good position going into the feature of the day, which results in the chaotic game of leadout bumper cars. The false flat ended up being harder than the climb itself, as we were riding the dang thing at something like 65kph going slightly uphill.

Tyler, Ethan, and I would be grouped together, and would try to move up as best we could as a unit amidst the fray of frantic upper-echelon teams also trying to position their top talent. We would deposit Tyler within the first 40 or so wheels, a place we deemed good, and Ethan and I promptly seato ejecto’d ourselves from the scrum.

After a moment’s respite, we quickly found our rhythm again, and settled into a small grupetto of fellow dropees who were riding tempo up the climb. A notable late addition to our group was the German rider of Bora Hansgrohe, Anton Palzer, who was recruited to the sport of cycling after an extremely successful SkiMo career. He came blazing up to us and passed us, presumably with the intent to catch on to the tail of the main group, which was juuuuuuuuuust barely out of reach up ahead. However, he promptly slowed down through the next switchback (whether because of a mechanical or because he just didn’t have the gumption anymore, it’s hard to tell), and proceeded to grumble very audibly next to all of us as we rode by him again, “Fuck this, I hate this fucking sport.” I’m sorry you feel that way.

For the rest of the race, Ricky, Ethan, and I settled into a rhythm, pacelining with our grupetto, which, though not particularly exciting, would be punctuated by little bouts of entertainment, the first of which was the fact that in the course of 10 km, up the Col de Sóller and down the ensuing descent, we negotiated almost 60 switchbacks. Don’t believe me? Zoom in on that Strava map and count them for yourself. This island appears to be where switchbacks are made and exported to the rest of the world. Good god, so many switchbacks, made all the more treacherous because, as I alluded to earlier, there are sections of road on Mallorca that, no matter what, are just wet all the time, and have amassed a green sheen of moss making them buttpuckeringly slick.

One switchback of many.

After tackling that, and waiting for our sphincters to finally uncinch, we then mozied to the coast where we would enjoy some of the most stunning roadside views I have ever seen from a bicycle. And by “mozied,” I mean we ripped it, and by “enjoyed some of the most stunning roadside views,” I mean I caught them out of the corner of my bleeding eyeballs while trying to hold the wheels in front of me so as not to force a gap in our gruppetto and make everyone h8 me 4ever.

Luckily, I wasn’t alone in my thoughts that the pace seemed unnecessarily brisk given that we were racing for 90th place at that point, and the Italian members of the crew made their voices heard loud and clear with an emphatic, “EHHHH BASTARDO! Fuck you,” to the dudes setting the hard pace on the front. *Chefs kiss*

Ricky would, unfortunately, get dropped from the group on account of a raging upset tummy, but still rode it in like a champ, with Scott not too far behind. Cade was forced to abandon too after having a hard day, but not without putting up a fight to do so. Tyler would unfortunately get caught behind a crash at the very bottom of the major descent, causing a split to the main front group that he wouldn’t be able to bridge.

Personally, I notched an utterly anonymous 113th place on the day out of the grupetto with Ethan, but I couldn’t be happier. Not only do I think we raced well and we raced strong given the caliber of the field, our relative inexperience at this level, and our extremely low rung on the pecking order hierarchy here, but I also was just proud to have ticked a couple of boxes I was hoping to tick on my first European professional race day. I helped a teammate (kinda maybe sorta?), and I finished. WOOHOO!

Tomorrow, with a day off of racing, I’ll soak it all in and prep myself for last three days of the Challenge Mallorca with this amazing group of people at Project Echelon, where I will no doubt be taught many other lessons, but ones that I am extremely excited to learn.


What did you think of this story?