Rookie Report: Scalpel or Sledgehammer? 

How do you get in a pro breakaway? Sam Boardman finds out.

Sam Boardman
by Sam Boardman 27.01.2024 Photography by
Genia Tkacheva
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This season, Sam Boardman (Project Echelon) is making his first foray into the European peloton. He started his second race on Friday, Trofeo Serra Tramuntana, and spent his day in the breakaway.

You can (and definitely should) read Sam’s dispatch from his first race, Trofeo Calvià. The following is his view from the inside of race number two, which was won by young Belgian Lennert van Eetvelt. Second and third were exactly the same as Wednesday: Alexandr Vlasov and Brandon McNulty.

Of the heaps of aphorisms and platitudes within cycling’s vocabulary (and there are a lot of them, as Dane Cash examines in his recent Escape Collective article), one of my favorites has to be the excellent breakaway strategy adage: you get in either by scalpel or by sledgehammer. That is to say, you either: a) cleverly, neatly, and inconspicuously ghost your way into a move that just floats off the front, using nothing but your highly cultivated intellectual race savvy and expert pack positioning to do so; or b) you dumbly bludgeon your way to the front, fueled on a high-octane mixture of adrenaline, anxiety, and sugar, having convinced yourself that the reason you were put on this big rock we call Earth is to get in that friggin’ breakaway today and, god dangit, with the spirit of cycling as your witness you will do so or catastrophically implode trying. 

Take a guess which strategy I chose. Keep reading to find out if you were right. 

Today was a classic day of survival then revival, with one of the most savage starts to a race I have ever seen. From the little village of Selva, we had a blazing downhill neutral of approximately 1.5 kilometers, which offered us a stout 3 minutes of warm-up before we crossed the true startline and plowed immediately into the base of a 9-kilometer climb to begin the day. Regrettably, I had made the mistake of stopping at the Port-o-John as the team was rolling to the start, which, as I would come to learn, would cost me dearly, leaving me near the back of the pack when we started, and therefore at the back of the pack by the time we hit the bottom of the first col. 

The next 17 minutes and 45 seconds were completed with squinted eyes, gritted teeth, and inflamed legs that were wholly rejecting this rather rude shock to the system with every fiber of their constitution. I’ve noticed that a rather unnerving feature of these Mallorcan climbs is that the switchbacks are so tight that, unlike most mountain roads in America, the straightaways are effectively parallel to one another, meaning that if you’re a dingus, like me, you can actually look up and see the faces of the people ahead of you responsible for the monstrous pace that is making you question life choices that brought you here, and realize that most of them are just here for the exercise, nose-breathing to make it harder. 

Were the climb longer than 17 minutes and 46 seconds, I would not have made it over in the group, but I managed to convince myself that, no, holding the wheel in front of me would not kill me, and scraped by over the top still in contact with the pack. 

We then started the descent, which included several rollers that would force the stretched pack to compress. This accordion effect would allow a couple of riders to use their momentum to slingshot around the front row and initiate the day’s first breakaway. 

At this point, I had been able to catch my breath, and after a few minutes of bicycle yogalates to stretch my searing legs and back out, I realized that, painful as it was, the full-stick effort out the door might have actually woken my legs up in a way they hadn’t been on Wednesday. I realized I wasn’t feeling that terrible, which I convinced myself meant I felt great, so what better thing to do than attack? Which brings us full circle back to where we started: I picked up my sledgehammer and just started swingin’ that shit like a moron. 

I want to pause here and explain my game plan with a little bit of context. As an American Continental-level team, not only are we in the lowest tier a UCI-registered team can be, but we are also the black sheep of the pack as non-Europeans. Our director and manager even mentioned in our team meeting tonight that they overheard some European directors calling them “the fucking Americans” as they were walking around. Accordingly, I think the expectation for us from a lot of folks is that we aren’t going to do all that much while we are here, and it almost feels like higher-tier teams race with the mindset of, “you all won’t do anything, so why even try?” 

And to that, all I want to say is, for us, trying is doing. It’s hard to explain, but at this level of races, we know we’re jumping into the deep end. We’re not complete idiots (as much as I love to bash myself), and we are realistic about what we know we can do, and the whole point of why we are here is to attempt something (anything) and then learn from it. If we don’t do the former, how does anyone expect us to do the latter? Today, after the initial move of three went up the road on the rolly part of the descent after Coll de sa Batalla, I tried an attack on the descent and was promptly reeled in by a rider from UAE Team Emirates, who then came up to me and said, “hey, it makes no sense, eh?” 

Boardman (number 258) in the day’s breakaway.

I assume he was referring to me trying to bridge, and, you know what, maybe it doesn’t make any sense, but what also doesn’t make any sense is complacency. If I figure I’m going to end up in the same grupetto at the end of the day after the freaks of nature take over and start shitting watts like a pigeon off a lamp post, why wouldn’t I give it a whirl and see if I can get something out of it? We discussed in our team meeting last night that if there was an opportunity to keep the racing alive, we should take it, and we did just that. 

So back to the race: I didn’t listen to that rider from UAE Team Emirates. Moves started flying up the road as we reached the valley section of the course and folks realized that there was still a chance to bring back the three up the road and re-start the race for the break. There’s no other way to put this: we were going fucking fast. At one point, I’m pretty sure we were doing close to 60kph on the flats, with attacks flying left and right in the hopes of keeping the pace high, and eventually we swallowed the original escapees, which meant it was now officially game on.

Moves kept going on every corner of the road, which was still fairly wide at this point, but eventually, at just around 60 kilometers into the race, a collection of roughly seven riders broke the elastic and separated themselves. To my left I heard a rider yell, “Let it go!” and I knew this was it, as the bigger teams were amassing at the front and beginning to fan out and block the road. I bolted to the right and narrowly squeezed my way through an ever-shrinking gap to pop myself out the front, and seated-sprint my way onto the break to make it an octet. I looked back, and the pack had sat up. Holy shit, I had just made my first breakaway. 

From there, it was just about seeing how long we could last as we rotated through the tiny Spanish hamlets on our way to the last two climbs of the day. We would be out in front for just about an hour before I was blown out the back of the breakaway roughly 3 kilometers up the Coll de Sóller (yes, THAT Coll de Sóller with a bajillion switchbacks that we rode on Wednesday), and was caught by the charging peloton not too long after 1.5 kilometers from the top of the climb. I would roll the descent and enter the last of the day’s climbs, the Puig Major, a 14-kilometer-long doozy of a climb that was ridden at a pace that I can only describe as truly uncomfortable. 

Ricky [Arnapol] and Hugo [Scala] linked up with the grupetto that was effectively the other half of the peloton, and we rolled it in to cap off another day’s beating. 

All the riders–Matt Zimmer, Caleb Classen, Laurent Gervais, Ricky, and Hugo rode great today and powered through an utterly grueling course, and all the riders yesterday rode great too. Ethan Craine got the Mountains classification in the Trofeo Ses Salines and Scott McGill finished an impressive 16th with the help of Cade Bickmore, Colby Lange, Hugo, and Laurent. All of this was thanks to the support and direction from our staff at Project Echelon, including our manager, Eric Hill, our director, Isaiah Newkirk, our soigneur emeritus, David Greif, and our wonderful mechanic, Ozzie Fisher. I know everything I write is nothing but “I” statements, but truly this is a “we” team that does quite a lot with what we have. I can’t say it enough, but I am truly proud to sport our jersey and our cause. [It’s a great cause, which is why I’m letting this not-so-sneaky string of plugs slide ? – ed.]

It’s 10:33 pm now, and I’m pretty sure I’m keeping Hugo up with my typing, but he’s too nice to say anything, so I think I’ll leave it at that. 

¡Hasta mañana!

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