Rookie Report: The weird and wonderful world of American bike racing

It mightn't be pretty, but there's a lot to love about racing Stateside.

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 many idiosyncrasies that make road racing in America so flawed, so unusual, and yet so very appealing.

You can (and definitely should) read Sam’s previous dispatches, including from his first three one-day races in Mallorca – the Trofeo CalviàTrofeo Serra Tramuntana and Trofeo Pollença – his time at the Tour de la Provence – where it rained, a lotand most recently, his also-wet visit to the Tour of Rhodes, in Greece.

It’s approximately 9:30pm, Eastern Standard Time. It has been an hour since the sun set, but the early springtime heat is humid, thick, and lingering. I’m sitting in our team’s race vehicle, a 2013 arctic blue Subaru Outback, whose interior more resembles that of a stuffed turkey broiling in an oven than that of an actual motor vehicle. Snack wrappers, bike bags, luggage filled with dirty fermenting kit and clothing, and a tangible cloud of post-race body funk all crowd the cabin and band together to put a colossal collective strain on suspension that’s working the graveyard shift, and a waning transmission that does not play well with gradients above 1%.

Amidst it all, I exist in the passenger seat, one of the vegetables crammed into the carcass, cooking on a low heat and patiently waiting for the last of my brain cells to stop firing and die. 

The car is parked in the near-empty lot of a Pizza Hut in Braxton County located between the rural towns of Sutton and Gassaway, just off of Interstate-79, the major transit artery straddling the length of the Allegheny Plateau and the Appalachian Mountain range that run through the heart of West Virginia. We are about an hour outside of the state capital, Charleston, where we just completed the US National Championships. Scott McGill, my teammate who, earlier in the afternoon, blazed his way to a stunning fourth-place finish behind a high-pedigree WorldTour podium, is inside the establishment grabbing two large meatlover’s pizzas, one of which won’t survive the hour.

Down the hill from the Pizza Hut is a GoMart gas station that we will stop at next in order to top off the car’s tank, and where Scott will procure a liter of Mountain Dew that will land his total caffeine intake for the day squarely on the amount that the FDA formerly recognizes as a technical overdose. I have already consumed three slices of pizza in the amount of time it takes him to finalize the fuel and beverage purchases, adding to the bubbling cauldron of gels, chocolate milk, and Nerds Gummy Cluster balls that gives my stomach a volume of cheesy oil that could very easily grease a tractor. We are ready to go. 

Scott closes the gas cap, slides back into the car, turns on the engine, and begins to pull out. He and I cruise towards the highway and I can see the bright beige haze outlining the signature Pizza Hut roof on the hill fade into the distance, now behind us with the rest of the US block of racing that has defined the past two months of our lives. I grin, reminiscing about it as we drive into the night and my synapses begin to sputter and flicker. But before the lights finally go out and I fall asleep, I take one more look around at our surroundings and realize, to my utter delight, that we have done it: we are living out in real time a hot and soupy episode of “The European Mind Can’t Comprehend This” – Appalachia Edition, a discovery I would not have the privilege to be able to make were it not for the extensive season that we have had so far this year. 

It comes quickly into stark relief. This ain’t your Uno-X. This ain’t Remco’s Pizza Hut. This side of the pond, this experience of riders flocking to the radiant midnight lights of garbage fast food and gas station chains like moths to a campfire with the instinctual sole purpose of curb doggin’ and consuming trash in the middle of nowhere, is so quintessentially part of American bike racing that ticking through such activities as I just laid out may as well be an intermediate points classification in and of itself, complete with its own special jersey (most likely in the form of a heavily stained team T-shirt that has been worn and sweated through for four days straight). They are some of the many features that make bicycle racing in America exhausting and quirky, but nonetheless add to the romanticization of its own beautiful and unique narrative, upheld by a relatively small but devout core of skinny-tire evangelists like myself.

The truth is that the bulk of the calendar in the United States is almost exclusively bike racing consumed by bike racers. As a former teammate of mine alluded to in a recent call to arms in which he stated “we [the riders] really need to become our own media outlets in this sport [because] the big publications don’t care, but we care,” those who comprise the competitive side of road racing here just do it because we love it, will always love it, regardless of whether the world outside loves it too.

Now, I know that we are neck-deep in consuming Tour de France content right now, which makes pretty much any other race happening in the world of cycling irrelevant, but there is a lot of other stuff going on, and I’m here to convince you that there is indeed so much to love in the weird and mysterious niche world of Stateside bike racing, and I’d like to spend some time shining a light on it, preferably that of the nearest American chain restaurant’s neon sign.  


With the state of long-form road racing in this country declining consistently for several years, I’m honestly grateful that I’m still getting to write about stage races and road races in the US in any capacity right now. With just shy of five decades worth of editions that allowed it to claim the title of the oldest stage race in America, Joe Martin Stage Race pulled the plug this year after it lost funding and was unable to make up the difference in time for the race, stating that it now looks to 2025 to make its comeback. Coupled with that, one of the newer additions to the North American calendar, the Maryland Cycling Classic, based out of Baltimore, cited irreconcilable logistical complications stemming from the collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge back in March that made the event no longer feasible to put on in 2024.

In addition, the National Cycling League (NCL), formed only last year, “paused operations” (read: went belly-up) and shuttered the business, leaving dozens of riders out of work. And on top of all that, the one glimmer of hope that many racers saw in the emergence of a new UCI professional-amateur one-day race associated with Gran Fondo New York were dashed when we all found out that the US National Road Race Championship would be hosted on the same day, and that racers would have to choose between one or the other.

Indeed, it has not been a great year for the development (or even maintenance, for that matter) of professional road racing in America, which is why I think it’s all the more important to highlight the events that we do have that are still here because, for so many who are still competing in this space in the States, and for many who have advanced in the sport having started in the North American scene, these are the same races that were pivotal milestones in their development, myself included.

Upon the completion of Project Echelon’s team’s trip to Greece, I had the three days that it took me to get back to my final destination in the US to decompress and soak in everything that I had gathered over the past two months of racing exclusively overseas, before snapping myself back into the mental and physical space of concerted training again. It was a quick turnaround because I only had less than two and a half weeks before the start of the US block, which began with one of the major goals we, as a team, had set for ourselves at the start of the year: deliver Tyler [Stites] to his third consecutive win at the Redlands Bicycle Classic.

Truthfully, the mindset switch after our return from Europe was totally abrupt. I had spent the last couple of months almost exclusively getting my shit kicked in, as I endured first-hand the extent to which the folks over there could hurt themselves more than I ever could. To come back to the States and go from the insecurity of “How am I going to get dropped and try to survive this ass-whoopin’ today?” to the confidence of “Let’s try and win this friggin’ bike race” was borderline jarring, but it didn’t take long for us to find our rhythm, not least because, upon our return to the States, we were back in the land of familiar creature comforts. 

Racing abroad presents a number of unique challenges that obviously include the actual competition itself. In Europe, for example, as the cultural epicenter of cycling that commands a significant amount of mainstream attention, garners large financial investment, and touts robust youth development, that level of competition is typically much higher across the board than that of America. But, in broad terms, some of the more initially subtle yet gradually more noticeable differences while racing overseas can manifest themselves mostly in gastronomy and accommodations.

Generally, races on the UCI calendar are required to provide lodging, breakfast, and dinner to all teams from the day before the race start to the day of the last stage as part of their organization. Now, over the course of my time in the sport, I have raced in a bunch of countries, and have stayed at a variety of random places, ranging from the world’s largest hotel located in Malaysia to the neglected Centro Olímpico of The Dominican Republic. A lot of them have been great, most have been good, and some have been pretty terrible, but there is a consistency that remains the same amidst all of it: you live and die by the meal times set by the hotels. And I’m not simply referring to the carnal need of an endurance athlete to ravenously eat all the time.

If anything, trying to recoup the kilojoules we’ve burned throughout the day can be a bit grim and labor-intensive. As cyclists, eating becomes extremely utilitarian, especially in a stage race setting. We tend to stick to what I call “The Biker’s Beige,” a diet of simple foods of an almost identical, uniform color palate: rice, toast, pasta, grilled chicken, some nuts here and there, and, to borrow the wonderful words of retired US racing legend Evelyn Stevens, a lot of fucking oatmeal.

If you were to look at most of our plates, they would probably look something like this, a bland combination that generally sees little variance so that we can maximize caloric intake, replenish glycogen stores, and other physiological sciency stuff that I won’t pretend to know about, all while making sure we don’t have anything too heavy that could upset our delicate little tummies. Couple this with the regimentation of the prescribed schedule of the hotels, and the fact that the rest of the day is consumed by transfers to the stage, the stage itself, and transfers from the stage back to the hotel, you realize quickly you are not left with a lot of agency. We are told where to go, when to eat, what there is to eat, and that’s that.

Accordingly, the sauce you add to spice up your meal is the socializing you get by sitting down with your teammates and staff who – hopefully – are also your friends, converting time at the table from a functional necessity to the entirety of your social life. You decompress from stress on the bike, you debrief on racing, you crack jokes, you talk shit, and it’s this distraction of conversation that I have found is the only way I am able to cram the metric fuckton of carbs into my chewhole and down my gullet that I need in order to survive the next day’s inevitable beatdown.

I have honestly spent more hours sitting at random dining room tables across the globe while I am at races than I have spent actually racing, and anyone who has had this same experience can corroborate that this is as valuable a part of the racing as the racing itself. You can always tell which teams have a good environment by looking around the race hotel dining room, seeing which ones are laughing and chatting and which ones are composed of riders sitting in silence on their phones. I can say with confidence that at every dinner, our table has usually been the loudest, and I believe the colossal amount of time we spent gathered around the table shooting the breeze genuinely helped foster a camaraderie between us all that we carried throughout our time learning in Europe. 

So what happened to this dynamic when we came back to the States? Not much! It simply changed settings from that of a hotel dining room to the more intimate and uniquely American setting of the host house!

As I implied before, since cycling in America is a fairly niche sport, the level of financial investment from entities such as local municipal governments into large-scale cycling events is a lot lower than you would find in Europe. Host housing emerged as a way for organizers working off of shoestring budgets to save on costs associated with booking hotels en masse while still providing accommodations to teams traveling in from out of town.

By communicating and working with locals who can volunteer space in their homes to incoming racers, many of America’s marquee events that still exist have created a cyclist’s version of Airbnb and I have personally loved it as long as I have been in the scene. Not only has it allowed me to meaningfully connect with so many lovely members of the communities in which I race (many of whom I try to stay in touch with because they’re rad), but also because I am of the opinion it returns to you a bit of the control you lose by operating exclusively in a hotel setting, which is pretty much standard at foreign races.

With host houses, you generally have full access to the kitchen and all its amenities, meaning you can wander in and out at your leisure to scarf down whatever you want whenever you want without the hustle and bustle of a dining area. Yes, it can be a bit crowded sometimes, but, speaking personally, I love that you abandon the isolation of being split amongst hotel rooms and instead enjoy socializing in the setting of an actual living room or patio space together. It’s not a host house, it’s a host home. 

But onto the racing itself! I realize it’s a bit ironic that I want to spend an entire installment of the “Rookie Report” detailing my time at races that I’ve competed at for years, but the truth is there was no shortage of novelty during this entire two-month period for me.

I arrived to my sixth edition of the Redlands Bicycle Classic, one of the premier stage races in the country, not only with the most robust block of early-season racing in my legs and the resulting fitness because of it (a phenomenon another former teammate of mine accurately referred to as “Euro Pizzazz”), but also with the appointed role of general classification domestique that I had spent little time inhabiting until this year. Our arrival to the race with the two-time defending overall champion, as I mentioned above, spelled out our intentions pretty clearly, and Tyler got to work quickly making sure everyone knew he meant business. 

Stage 1 was a circuit race in Highland, California, notorious for its heat and a brutal uphill sprint to the line, which he won in convincing fashion from the bunch kick, and stage 2 saw him successfully defend the jersey during a gruesome slog up to Onyx Summit on what I can only describe as the biggest fuck-off hill I have ever raced up. There was no doubt: the first two days set the tone for what would be an exciting and successful week, but the time trial of stage 3 was where I bore witness to a truly special occurrence. 

TTs are isolated affairs, and unless you are racing the Tour, crowds on course are either extremely small and mellow, or pretty much non-existent, even at the finish. You have some random people cheering for you along with the announcers, but you generally cross the line, look at the clock to see your time, and then head directly back to your team area after a cool down with very little fanfare. This time, however, our team was the fanfare.

As we each went off one by one and crossed the line, instead of just rolling back to our tent, we sat at the line and waited for our next rider to come in, cheering them on as they did. By the time Tyler, the last rider to go, had gotten on course, all of us were parked up at the finish line simply because we wanted to scream at him as he rolled in and see how much he could rip the course. It’s not to say that we couldn’t necessarily do this in Europe, but I think there’s a level of playful aloofness to American cycling that makes this seem completely natural. If we had tried this at any of the previous races we had been at in Spain or France, for example, our competitors would have looked at us like idiots (they already do look at us like we’re idiots, which, given the way I have chosen to present myself on a daily basis, is fair, but still. Quit lookin’ at me like that, my dude). 

Tyler ended up winning the stage by 15 seconds over the next-best finisher, our very own Brendan Rhim – an impressive, but not surprising result if you knew Tyler. He is one of the most consummate and monastic bike racers I have ever seen, briefly demonstrated by the small example from earlier that day when he walked into our host house dining room where we were all sitting and getting prepped for the stage and asked of us, “Do you all know what time it is?” to which we responded, “Probably not.” He then declared, “It is time to tape over every single hole on my bike. But first I have to shave my arms.”

You may not like it, but this is what peak performance sounds like, and to see that dedication once again yield a victory to the roars of his own teammates (four of whom had also managed to slide into the top 10) on what should typically be the loneliest day of the race was not only something you really don’t see often in the sport, but also a sign that the proverbial gears of the team had once again clicked so beautifully into place.

The next two stages, our execution felt dialed, with the downtown criterium on stage 4 crowning Scott as the day’s winner after a hectic and, quite frankly, very scary 90 minutes of racing, and the infamous stage 5 Sunset Loop circuit seeing Brendan take his second win on the course since his last in 2018, in his signature solo fashion. Tyler would take the general classification for the third consecutive time, only the second male rider in the race’s near-40-year history to do so, wrapping up a week that saw the team claim four of five stages along with the overall. Needless to say it was a good week, and I felt proud that I had been able to contribute to the team effort. 

The momentum didn’t stop there, carrying over into the next stage race on the docket a couple weeks later – the Tour of the Gila, a five-day UCI 2.2 stage race in the quiet mining town of Silver City, New Mexico. The last time I had competed in the race was in 2019, which I remember as a week defined largely by being in a constant state of pain. My body has always been awful at altitude acclimation and given I climb like a brick on my best days, as I’ve explained in previous Rookie Reports, the added strain of no oxygen doesn’t help my cause of going up a hill, of which there were many in this race. But unlike previous years, when my altitude prep had been non-existent or, at best, sporadic, I took advantage of my parents’ recent relocation to Sante Fe, New Mexico to get in one of the most concerted blocks of altitude training I have ever had in my life and properly asphyxiated myself in the process. It was something I knew I had to do if I wanted to have any sort of impact on ticking off our next major goal for the year: win the team’s first UCI stage race. 

Like at Redlands, Tyler came out of the gates flying with a point to prove, and finished runner-up on the Mogollon summit finish of stage 1 to a rider who, I feel compelled to mention, returned last year to competition after a four-year suspension for EPO. Just thought I’d throw that one out there. Stage 2 would be a more perfunctory romp as we helped patrol and control to ensure we had a shot at a victory on the day, which Scott nabbed handily. On stage 3, Tyler played another blinder, winning the infamously unforgiving Tyrone Time Trial (to the same cheerleading squad of teammates as a couple weeks prior). It was clearly just a warm-up for him, as he proceeded to then ride the front for virtually the entire race the next day during stage 4’s downtown crit, which was a nail-biting battle against the breakaway taken down to the wire, but ultimately won by none other than Cade Bickmore for the second year in a row.

Good and tired from the four days of racing, we then had one final day to tackle: the notorious Gila Monster stage. With 165 kilometers and 3,200 meters of climbing, all at elevation, this stage is probably one of the hardest in North America. But with Tyler having banked a heap of time in the earlier days to give ourselves a comfortable buffer, we only had one job to complete, and that was ride ourselves into oblivion and deposit Tyler at the finish with at least one second over his next-closest rival on the GC. Stage win be damned, the GC was our only objective and anything after that was a bonus, and gosh darnit, every single person on the team contributed to achieving it. From riding the front in the valley sections to safely leading the technical descents to setting pace on the steep climbs, everyone played their part and it was an emotional experience to cross the line and learn that Cade had won the points jersey for the second year in a row and Tyler had secured the win, and with it the team’s first UCI stage race. 

But once again, the time to celebrate was short-lived, as the team had one more major target in America at the National Championships in Charleston just three weeks away. Having been in Knoxville, Tennessee for six straight editions of the race, the National Championships as of this year had found its new home in Charleston, West Virginia, a capital city that, albeit a bit hard to get to, was nothing but warm and receptive to the race’s presence. We arrived early in the week to get situated, with a visit to the local women and children’s hospital on Tuesday, the time trial on Wednesday, the crit on Friday, and, finally, the road race on Sunday. Tyler, Zach, and Brendan would compete in the time trial, with Tyler claiming the silver medal behind notable WorldTour pro, Brandon McNulty. The team then shifted focus to the crit, which would be one of the most bittersweet moments of my time in cycling. 

For whatever reason, organizers had us starting the race at 8:30pm, and with sunset scheduled for 8:33pm in Charleston that night, we had a little under five minutes of racing until it became completely dark, a reality made even more pronounced by the fact that it was pissing a biblical amount of rain. The rather bumpy downtown course required extreme gingerness to navigate, as almost every corner had a manhole cover or a painted crosswalk in it, both of which were buttpuckeringly slick when wet.

For the most part, the peloton was handling the rough nature pretty well. We were riding the front as a team with the hope of placing either Cade or Scott into a position to contest the win and also to keep the pack strung out and limit the argy bargy. For 82 of the 90 minutes we were out on course, we were riding like clockwork. But then, in the penultimate lap, when the pace increased ever so slightly, we leaned into turn two of the course, and I lost my front wheel on a sliver of painted crosswalk, and took out myself and Hugo, who was right behind me, in the process.

Anyone who knows me knows how I fixate on things, and this is no exception. It’s a mistake that will haunt me for a long time, if not forever, not least because I caused my own teammate to crash and I hate the idea of the outcome of a race being affected by a mistake, but more so because I was not there in the finale to play the role I love as teammate in service of my friends that I had felt I had honed so well over the past two races.

But once I had come to terms with it, and meandered my way back to the start-finish, I learned, to my utter joy, that we had swept the podium. Stephen would wear the stars and stripes back to the Airbnb we were staying at, with Brendan and Scott securing the other two steps on the box in second and third respectively, adding to the UCI one-day victory and the UCI stage race win another first for the team in the form of an elite national championship jersey. 

Which left us with one more opportunity in the road race to add to what had been a remarkable season.

There are a lot of words I could use to describe the nature of the course we raced on that frighteningly toasty Sunday back in May, but the one I seem to use the most is “unnecessary.” At 210 kilometers with 3,200 meters of elevation gain, this was far and away the hardest out of the six nationals I have competed in and I reckon everyone else who went out on the soul-searching journey that it provoked would agree with me. I won’t dwell on this race too much, as I’ve been rambling for sometime now and you probably have a Tour stage to watch at this point, but suffice to say, this course chewed people up and spat them out, and all things considered, I’m pretty happy with my ride. 

With the crit still fresh in my mind, I had a bone to pick with myself and I was looking for some kind of redemption, and finishing this god-awful monstrosity ended up being the best way I could find it. I resolved, as I got dropped and caught and dropped and caught, going from group to group until I was finally with the last pack on the road, that there were only three ways this would end: they’d pull me, I’d finish the fuckin’ thing, or I’d explode into a cloud of dust. And guess what, I’m still here in one piece typing out this novella to you now, and I can say that I got it done. It wasn’t pretty, and I had enough salt caked on my kit to make even the most beige of Biker’s Beige meals well-seasoned and appetizing, but I was proud that I was one of the 23 out of 133 starters who finished.

I crossed the line so colossally fucked up and cramped that I could barely squeeze my hand to brake as I pulled up to the team, but I stopped just in time to hear the news that Scott had ridden himself to a miraculous fourth place after one of the hardest-fought days of his and everyone else’s life. I was elated, and we hugged and reveled in the success we had seen throughout the week.

But there wasn’t a moment to spare, as Scott and I had a plane to catch back to Europe the next day, so we showered off, stuffed our bags and bikes into the team car, and rallied our way back to Scott’s place all within the next couple of hours.


This brings us full circle to that Pizza Hut in the middle of nowhere between Charleston, West Virginia and Fallston, Maryland, “The American Block,” as we had come to call it, all but over. We would race Tour of Norway the following week (a tale with its own Rookie Report to come soon), as well as the Armed Forces Classic in Virginia (where Scott would claim third on day one and Brendan Rhim would solo to yet another win on day two), but I think that midnight drive through the hilly countryside marked for me the culmination of what had been some of the most rewarding months of racing I have had the pleasure to be a part of. And in that personal reward I think we can see American racing in a nutshell.

There isn’t a whole lot of money involved, you’re often sleeping on top of each other in someone else’s house, and more riders than not have a day job or some other side gig they have to go back to once the racing’s done because that’s what funds this cockamamie obsession of ours. Yet, despite all of this, there is something that attracts most of us to it over here that simply isn’t big contracts or fame. You do it because it does something for you. Maybe you want to push yourself physically. Maybe you want an excuse to travel around a country that’s too big for its own good. Maybe you want to party in the diviest of dive bars after races (ask anyone about the Soundpony in Tulsa, and I guarantee you they’ll have a story). For those that yearn for the fun, frightening, and freeing nature of racing, the American scene can offer it all, and there’s a big gulp and some shitty week-old roller dogs sweating under a heat lamp waiting for you when you’re done and ready to talk about it.

So, come on over partner, there’s a comfy-lookin’ spot on the curb right here and you’re welcome to it. Sit on down, and let’s have us a chin wag. Don’t worry, they won’t kick us out because this gas station’s open 24 hours. We’ve literally got all day. 

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