Riding is Life


Rookie Report: The (rather ugly) art of racing in the rain

Priorities shift under a ginormous torrential rainstorm.

Sam Boardman
by Sam Boardman 23.02.2024 Photography by
Xavier Pereyron
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This season, Sam Boardman (Project Echelon) is making his first foray into the European peloton. In this instalment, it rains. A lot.

You can (and definitely should) read Sam’s previous dispatches, including the one 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.

I have a confession to make. But before I divulge my deep dark secret, let me bring you up to speed on the past couple of weeks, as a lot has transpired since my last update. 

I finished the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana, and watched our guy, Tyler Stites – or as I like to call him, “Style’r Tights” (he absolutely, unequivocally loves that nickname, no doubt about it) – notch three top-10 finishes over the course of the race’s five days. I say “watched,” but the truth is that I never saw any of the action at the pointy end of the race, as my presence throughout the week was an exercise in tailgunning if nothing else, and my contributions could best be described as participatory rather than competitive.

Still, I did my best to be aggressive in the early phases of each day whenever I could in the hopes of getting into a breakaway, or otherwise fetch bottles and offer any service to my teammates, who deserve a ton of recognition for toughing out what was – as most of us decided – one of, if not the single hardest race we had done to date. If you’re interested in reading day-by-day play-by-plays, you can head over to my Strava for abbreviated recaps for each of the stages. 

Now, on to more recent events, and the focal point of this instalment of the Rookie Report: Tour de la Provence. As if reading our thoughts regarding our conclusions on the difficulty of Valenciana, our final event in this early season block cracked its proverbial neck and knuckles, and confidently stated, “Hold my beer, s’il vous plait.

With a prologue and only three road race stages, none of which had the caliber of insane inclines as those of the previous week, the French race’s parcours, on paper, appeared extremely friendly and digestible. But like an enticing serving of gas station sushi, anything that appears friendly and digestible can quickly turn on you with a fiery biblical vengeance. 

We had been peeping the forecast for Provence as soon as Valenciana had ended, and were crestfallen to discover that our weather apps – and, believe me, we consulted many of them – all said there was a 100% chance of rain on tap for the following weekend. There was no getting around it: our good luck under the warm Spanish sun had run its course, and it was about to get sloppy. 

A Project Echelon rider time trials on a coastal road next to the Mediterranean. The sea is calm and the sun shines down brilliantly.

The looming dread of the season’s first competition in a ginormous torrential rainstorm hung over us like a … well, like a ginormous torrential rainstorm. The threat of precipitation was made all the more jarring by the fact that the prologue – a five-kilometer out-and-back along a section of coastal promenade just south of Marseille – was conducted in utterly gorgeous conditions.

It’s a funny level of cognitive dissonance one employs when it comes to weather, especially sugar-cube cyclists such as myself who melt at the first drop of water. I had seen the reports. The part of my brain rooted in logic and science knew it was going to rain with almost complete certainty, but here I was, staring out at the Mediterranean Sea, the sun shining upon me, a warm breeze on my face, and not a cloud in the sky, steadily convincing myself that, if the weather is as good as it is right now, how could it possible rain during tomorrow’s stage? Screw science, that just doesn’t make any sense, man. Meteorologists? Ha! More like meteoWRONGogists. We’ll see about this whole “rain” business. 

As it turns out, we did see about that whole “rain” business, and what a contemptible business it was. The meteorologists ended up getting this one right, and we awoke the following morning to dumping rain nearly flooding the parking lot of the Campanile where we were staying. Packing up the vans and shipping out to the start of stage 1 was a subdued process, with most of us quietly wrapping our heads around the prospect of the next four hours in what would turn out to be truly harrowing conditions. 

Project Echelon riders roll to the start at a stage of Tour de la Provence. The roads are wet and the riders are kitted up in rain gear. Aside from one resident, no one is out to watch the race.

Racing in the rain is as much a mind game as it is a physical slog, and the mental gymnastics start well before the flag drops. As I got ready, I was looking around at the other riders noodling to and fro as they waited to line up in the starting corral, scanning them up and down and assessing what their apparel of choice was. Unhelpfully, it varied greatly. Some riders were bundled up like they were about to go for a ride out in the snow, with full winter caps under their helmets, neoprene gloves, rain shells overtop thermal jackets, full leg warmers, and neoprene booties. Others, on the other hand, appeared like they were still stuck in the weather from the prologue, with no more than a pair of arm warmers and some latex shoe covers as their chosen added layers.

I was left second-guessing literally every possible option I was entertaining, a common symptom of the rainy day blues, yielding an internal monologue that went a little something like this: 

Should I wear a thermal jacket?

What if I get too hot when the race starts kicking off? 

I don’t want to have to ditch a jacket mid-race, so let’s go with a short-sleeve thermal Gabba. 

Yeah, that’s good. 

I’ll put that on over a jersey, so I can chuck it later in the race when things get ~spicy~.

I’ll wear only arm warmers and that should totally be plenty, and I won’t regret that at all later. 

I’ll complete the ensemble with some latex overshoes that should keep my feet warm for a while, but no leg warmers, because I don’t want to seem soft. Plus my legs are freshly shaved and they’ll look terrific when they’re all shiny from the water. 

Oh yeah, it’s all coming together

Two Project Echelon riders compare notes at the start on clothing. One has his hands raised in front of his face, wearing neoprene waterproof gloves.
Are these the right gloves? Nobody knows.

Confident in my choice of clothing, I lined up with the team, and, soon enough, the race had begun. Our logic for the day was simple: get in a move because that’s where you’ll be the warmest. Accordingly, we were slinging ourselves left and right amidst the sheets of rain that were descending upon us with increasing intensity.

Ironically, in some aspects, racing in the rain ends up feeling somewhat safer than doing so in the dry. Riders understand that our collective braking, vision, and tire grip are all compromised, and consequently give each other a little more wiggle room to move around and adjust. Rather than constantly operating millimeters away from another racer, we were much more comfortably spaced out to accommodate the longer braking distances and to mitigate getting spray in our faces from the wheels in front of us. 

Unfortunately, the added mobility that came with the wet weather wouldn’t do us any extra favors, and the day’s breakaway, composed mostly of riders from French Continental outfits with a rider from TotalEnergies and one from Cofidis sprinkled in, would go up the road without us in the first 30 minutes. The larger WorldTour teams proceeded to fan out, creating a human blockade from one shoulder of the road to the other, making it clear to the rest of the peloton that this was the breakaway they would allow. Any attempt to breach the wall and try to bridge would be met with an instant response in order to snuff out reigniting the race, with maybe a little castigation here and there, a tactic I’ve bemoaned in a previous Rookie Report, but one that I have since just come to accept. 

With the breakaway established, and the structure of the stage set, the reality of the rest of the day in a ginormous torrential rainstorm hit me like a … well, like a ginormous torrential rainstorm. I was about to get really, really, very, really cold. Welp. Shit. 

With the larger teams setting pace on the front, and the rest of us surfing the pack, my teammates and I weren’t actually pedaling that hard, and over the next couple of hours, my body would descend into a level of crippling frigidity I have only ever experienced once before in my life (a story for another time). Having worn minimal clothing under the assumption that the race would be intense from the start – a lot of good that internal monologue did, eh? – I began to shiver only an hour into the race and didn’t stop until it was over and I had climbed into the car some time later.

I was desperate to find a way to warm my body up, and was even contemplating going up to the Lidl-Trek train leading the charge and asking them if I could pretty please pull for a little bit. Eventually, with the last big climb of the day fast approaching I came to the conclusion that the best thing to do would be to stop to pee, and then ride super hard to chase back on before we started the ascent. It’s one of the only times in my life that I can think of where I was looking for opportunities to senselessly pedal hard in a race. 

Riders carefully navigate a corner on a descent in Tour de la Provence. The road is wet, the sky a flat gray, and everyone looks cold and unhappy.

Having pulled over, done my business, I boosted my way back through the caravan hoping my muscles would unthaw in the process. They did not, and not only did I arrive to the base of the climb still properly frozen, but I found myself stuck behind a small crash right as the road kicked up. I tried to avoid it by moving to the shoulder of the small village street, which turned out not to be a shoulder, but instead a curb, the lip of which I couldn’t see through my dirty lenses. I caught the edges of both my wheels and promptly hit the deck. I would attempt to chase back on for the entire climb before giving up the ghost and just riding at a steady pace I knew I could sustain in the hopes of making time cut. 

Eventually, I linked up with my teammate, Ricky Arnopol, who was suffering through the early stages of sickness, and we would ride the rest of the route together. I owe him a great deal of thanks because not only did he give me continuous words of encouragement, reassuring me that we were going to make it, but he also, somehow, put up with my incoherent blubberings for close to two hours as I let my body and mind collapse and allowed the shivering to take full control. Miraculously, we made the time-cut, and lived to fight another day, which, to our dismay, looked to be the exact same weather if not worse. 

However, the similarity of stage 2’s forecast brought a unique opportunity to immediately test out changes we could make to our wardrobe and strategies in identical race conditions so that we wouldn’t succumb to the same numbing cold. So, put bluntly, I wasn’t fuckin’ around this time. Stage 2’s outfit included a long-sleeve Merino wool base layer, a jersey and arm warmers over the long-sleeve base layer, a thermal long-sleeve jersey over all of that, a Gore-Tex rain shell just for good measure, a neck gaiter, full leg warmers, and rain-proof booties.

My big gamble of the day was not wearing gloves. In my opinion, wet gloves are as bad as no gloves, if not worse, and waterproof gloves will eventually make your hands sweaty and cold anyway, while also making it almost impossible to get food from out of your pocket. My theory was, if I could keep my core extremely warm, heat wouldn’t have to be diverted from my extremities, and I would still have the dexterity of my bare fingers to reach for gels and such when I needed them.

Was this a science-based assessment? Absolutely not. Am I stubborn and just hate wearing gloves with all my heart? Guilty as charged, and I’ll find any excuse to avoid them any time possible. 

A Project Echelon Argon-18 team bike sits at a race start. The head unit is dotted with rain, and the route profile is taped to the stem and already getting wet, colors bleeding slightly.

We lined up, got going, and, sure enough, the weather was just as soggy and miserable as it was the day before, but this time I was actually warm, and staying warm! Scott got into the day’s break, which meant we were back to sitting in the bunch, but this time the chill I had succumbed to so early in the previous stage was making no advances upon my toasty meat-carcass of a body stuffed into this sausage-casing clothing combination. It was a relief, especially given the weather somehow managed to deteriorate even more as we made our way from Forcalquier to Manosque.

Just take Mads Pedersen’s word for it. In a post-race interview with the Dutch website Wielerflits, he admitted that atage 2 was “one of the worst days ever on a bike.” This is coming from the guy who won a grueling men’s elite world championship back in 2019 in these conditions. If he’s saying it’s shitty, I’m going to go ahead and assume that means it’s genuinely abysmal out, and my griping is merited. 

However, no amount of layers would abate the exhaustion of two straight days of racing in the rain, which quickly began to consume me, dulling my senses and forcing my body back into pure survival mode once again. And this, finally, brings me to my confession. You see, having pulled over to pee the day before in the hopes of warming back up when I chased back on, I almost never rejoined the pack at all. Consequently, I had decided I wasn’t about to make the same mistake twice. So, this go-around, when it came time that I couldn’t hold it in any longer, I simply floated to the back of the pack on a downhill, and, while coasting *inhales and sighs* peed my pants. That’s right. I just tailgunned the group and had my own private Dumb and Dumber moment. And I would be lying if I said it wasn’t glorious. 

Is this gross? Totally, and you are well within your rights to cringe, but context is important here, and given I had spent the past two days with a bunch of other dudes freezing my ass off, inhaling rooster-tailed doo doo water chock full of French farmland run-off, I considered this to be low on the list of improprieties committed in the last 48 hours. And, you know what, I’m pretty sure I saw several other people subtly doing it too because why the heck not. Who was going to know? There is a point at which one becomes so wet that it just isn’t possible to get any wetter, and we had surpassed that point 10 km into the race.

Jerry Seinfeld put it best: “You can’t overdry. Same reason you can’t overwet. See, once something is wet, it’s wet. Same thing with death. Once you die, you’re dead.” In this instance, just shy of submerging myself in a lake, I was as wet as I had ever been and was ever going to be, and I’m pretty sure I had died and wasn’t going to get any deader either, so smoke ‘em if you got ‘em. 

If anything, the only direction I had to go was back towards revival, and, by the good graces of the universe and all its mystery and wonder, somehow I found myself reborn somewhere along those sopping wet French roads on that second day, and I wasn’t alone. After the eventual winning group had flown the coop on the day’s final climb, I was floating in the gruppetto when my teammate, Cade Bickmore, rode up beside me. I asked him how he was doing, to which he responded, “I think I fell in love with racing in a whole new way today. Maybe that’s the delirium talking, but this is what it’s all about, isn’t it?” I didn’t ask him to expand, as we were both back to shivering and just wanted to finish the dang day at that point, but I reckon what he was referring to by “this” was the sheer ridiculousness that is quintessential to our sport. 

Cycling is insanity. It is a mortar and pestle that possesses a frighteningly effective ability to grind people down to the most basic pulp of existence in which, for example, peeing one’s pants is acceptable, justified, and even anticipated with excitement. And yet, like my teammates demonstrated to me, there is still love, reinvigoration, and, on more than one level, warmth to be gleaned from such depths. Fittingly, we arrived at the finish line to the news that Tyler had ended up netting the team’s best result of the season so far with a 4th-place finish on stage 2. It was inspiring to see how excited he and the rest of the team were, and euphoric to know that our run in the rain was over for this race. 

The pack crosses an overpass in the Tour de la Provence. The group is finally riding on dry roads under the sun but is strung out from the pace and crosswinds.

That isn’t to say, however, that the third and final stage was a perfunctory romp in the sunshine. After a couple of days of some of the most horrid rain I’ve ever ridden in, let alone raced in, I was hoping for some respite from the beat-downs, but the organizers made sure that stage 3 packed its own unique punch, having designed a course that appeared specifically to bank on the potential carnage of crosswinds for an epic finale. Despite a thinned herd thanks largely to the Road-Spray Double-Barrel Juice Cleanse™ many riders had been subjected to the night before, the violence of the inevitable echelons meant that even a smaller pack was no less vicious. We would scrap and lean our way through 190 kilometers of bumpy coastal backroads until we crossed the line in Arles and called time on the week, the wind having blown every last bit of energy out of us. 

This ended my first block of the year, and my first stint amongst the professional European racing scene. It was absolutely brutal and absolutely beautiful. It was brutiful. There is a lot of pride in watching our little program mixing it up in the cultural birthplace of the sport amongst some of the top names in cycling, and I owe an infinite amount of gratitude to our directors, staff, and mechanics who made all of it possible. 

I’ve been back home in the States for a little over a week now, spending some much-needed time playing in the snow at home in Montana with my wife, Jess, and our dog, Emory. But I’m now back on the road for team camp in Tucson for the next two weeks, and I plan on using that time to process all of the experience I have had the privilege of accruing over the past weeks. Hopefully, by the time we head back out to Europe next month, I will have let it all wash over me and soak in like a … well, like a ginormous torrential rainstorm. 

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