Rookie Report: Racing Hard or Hardly Racing 

We got Nils Politt to his flight on time.

This season, Sam Boardman (Project Echelon) is making his first foray into the European peloton. In this installment, he pulls back the curtain on the myth and reality of the training race from Trofeo Palma.

You can (and definitely should) read Sam’s dispatch from his first race, Trofeo Calvià, and his second, Trofeo Serra Tramuntana, where he got in the day’s breakaway, and Trofeo Pollença, where he got dropped.

With each year that passes, the concept of a “training race” appears to become more a relic of a bygone, pre-pandemic era of cycling than an applicable term in the modern iteration of the sport. We’ve heard multiple pundits and professionals alike observe and bemoan, respectively, that these days you don’t gently wade into the season, slowly letting the body acclimate to the intensity of competition as the year builds. Rather, the current approach seems more akin to this.

Adjustment period be damned, we go in hot, we stay hot, and, god willing, we get hotter and hotter until we fizzle out like one of those squealing firecrackers and come crashing down to earth just in time for the off-season. Bing bang boom, Bob’s your uncle, that’s cycling baby, and that’s just the way it is now. 

Or is it? Is it actually true? Is the training race really dead? I wouldn’t know, as I’ve never been in the luxurious position to be fit or talented enough to approach a high-level race like those in Challenge Mallorca as just “training.” I don’t know if you’ve all been reading my rookie reports lately, but, in case you haven’t, allow me to summarize: for the last week, from the moment I clip into my pedals, I spend approximately four hours with my jaw unhinged in a neanderthal stupor registering only the most basic carnal instinct signals that a human body can produce, which are limited to ‘tHiRstY dRiNk’ and ‘hUnGRy foOd.’ If this is training, I’m pretty sure really real racing would actually kill me. 

But with this being said, there were still signs of the old “training race” mentality poking through subtly but distinctly as we capped off our time in the Balearics with the final event, the Trofeo Palma, and it perhaps played a bigger part in our last race on the island than I would have originally thought. 

On paper, the Trofeo Palma is the equivalent of the ceremonial last-day circuit race you see in bigger stage races, with a flat meandering course that starts with an extra-long neutral (along what felt like a boardwalk at one point), that eventually guides the peloton back to the city center of the island’s capital, Palma, for a series of laps around the downtown area. 

Once the flag dropped, it was game on, and attacks started flying immediately. As a team, we later reflected on this first hour or so of racing with a lot of pride, as we were all so eager to make the most of our last day of racing in the series that there wasn’t a single move that tried to go up the road that didn’t have at least one Project Echelon rider in it. We had come to push pedals and gosh darn we were doing just that, making it known we weren’t just here to get towed around. 

Notably, amidst this brouhaha to get into the breakaway, we also noticed something a little strange. Traditionally, the breakaway has been a more-often-than-not doomed endeavor reserved primarily for lower-tier teams as a means to get their sponsors and rider names out in the public view with the added hope that they’ll still be out front by the time cameras roll in and the live broadcast starts. TV time is extremely valuable, and often is used as a benchmark to determine whether continental outfits such as ourselves contributed to “animating” the race and are worth another invite back to the event. But this time around, everyone appeared to want a piece of the fuga pie, with larger teams such as UAE and Movistar even taking several concerted whacks at getting up the road. 

And this brings me back to my earlier question: were these riders genuinely hoping to strike out on the day in the hopes of sticking it to the line? Or were they just trying to get a little snap in their legs before upcoming bigger races? Well, according to my teammate Ethan and newly-minted WorldTour professional, Luke Lamperti, on the line, a Mr. Nils Politt of UAE Team Emirates, a former runner-up at Paris-Roubaix and stage winner at the Tour de France, was seen tapping his wrist and announcing to riders, “Eh chop chop fellas, I got a plane to catch at 4:00.” 

Lo and behold, it was he who ended up attempting multiple tries at keeping the race alive and buzzing, and though his quip in the morning was likely a joke and only that, the fact that he followed through with the bit leads me to believe that there was some truth to his request of his fellow co-workers, which is…humbling, to say the least. Here is a man who is worried about being late for something after a race, so what does he do? He makes the race faster. It forces you to wonder if world records would be more likely achieved if important engagements were right afterwards. I put it to folks like Dan Bigham and the like to explore this possible new avenue of performance gains. Doing the hour record? Make sure you plan your PhD dissertation defense the same day. Want to go solo and win a Tour stage? Schedule your destination wedding in the arrival town later that very day and you will be guaranteed to win by minutes. 

Consequently, with WorldTour talent putting their pistons through their paces, the race pace was kept at a steady burn for just about an hour until Laurent expertly snuck his way into the day’s move that floated off the front and would be kept on a tight leash through to the circuits. 

Our protagonist in one of the many micro-moves that defined the early hours of racing.

The run-in to town was hectic, with a series of 90-degree lefts and rights in close succession stringing out the group and making it almost impossible to move up. I have been struggling with positioning ever since I got here, and I have no hesitation in admitting it’s largely because I’m just really scared basically all the time. I reckon it has a lot to do with the fact that I haven’t been exposed to this kind of racing and therefore haven’t been dulled to it yet, but riding the bubble at the high speeds that we do always gives off the sensation that everyone is about to crash, and I just haven’t adjusted to existing with that sensation in a fluid way.

Everyone is twitchy, everyone is stressed, and lots of people are shouting. I’ve been finding myself backing off and losing tons of positions anytime there is a little flinch in the pack, and this time around was no different. However, as we were just about to enter the circuits, I found a little gap on the left that I  blasted through, finding my way back up to my teammates with the resolution that I was going to be confident and ride like it. 

‘SCOTT!’ I yelled, knowing he was a day’s protected rider, ‘Don’t be afraid to tell me to nut up. I gotta get my head straight, SO LET’S DO THIS!!!!’ It was my pathetic and cheesy This is Sparta! moment, but it got me pumped and back where I needed to be, mentally. And then…

CRACK. I plowed right into a crack in the road that I couldn’t see until it was too late, slicing my tire and forcing me to sit up and fall back in the hopes of getting another wheel. Unfortunately, the radio wasn’t conveying my message that I had flatted and the caravan was going by so quickly that our director wasn’t able to see that I had a punctured, which meant I wasn’t able to get a wheel, which meant my day was done. I babied the bike on the flat tire off the course and back to the team car to wait for the race to finish and process my first European DNF.

It’s frustrating that my last day was effectively decided by bad luck rather than bad legs, but it didn’t take long for the annoyance to dissipate, as I would get word that Cade would nab 25th and Scott would crack the top ten in the sprint in truly impressive fashion. News of the results also came with not only the realization that many other people had flatted or otherwise destroyed their bikes on the shitty pavement of the downtown circuit, but also learning of the hilarious incident of a rider from Bora posting up 2 laps early, thinking he had won the whole thing. At least I didn’t do that. All things considered, my day wasn’t so bad, and neither was the team’s by any stretch of the imagination. 

In five races, we were in four of main breakaways, came away with an intermediate points classification award, and earned a top-ten finish. For our little program that could, we did, and I think that’s pretty dang good. 

My next event is the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana, which I’ve actually started as of this piece’s publication. There will be more to come on that, but it most likely won’t be a play-by-play for each stage, as I’ve come to discover that trying to write one of these for every race day is perhaps a little ambitious. But with that, I hope you all have been enjoying reading these as much as I have enjoyed writing them. Something that I have neglected over the years is trying to process all the experiences I’ve had on the bike in a meaningful way, and it has meant a lot that so many people have found some entertainment in what are inherently self-indulgent ramblings. 

Anyway, keep an eye out for the next installment of the rookie report. In the meantime, I’m going to book a dentist appointment for when I get home because my teeth are taking an absolute thrashing from all these gels I’m having to consume. 

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