We prepare some breakfast, we go to work, we pick up the kids, we try to fit in time for ourselves regardless of what that entails– for some, a recliner and a television, for some, a book, for others, some form of exercise.
Responsibilities swarm our minds as we thing about what’s next on the list.
For me, fortunate enough to call riding my bicycle an “obligation” and a “commitment” as a racer for Project Echelon, my day’s escape comes in the form of training, going about preparing my body to perform at the pro level in the sport of road cycling. It’s an extreme version of a human necessity: the physical outlet. This surplus of physical activity won’t be a reality for me throughout my entire life as I ultimately phase out of the elite level of sport and into the next chapter. Regardless, I plan on sustaining this outlet even if opportunities become limited– riding two or three times weekly.
For some of us, privileged enough to compete at a high level in sport, this outlet sometimes feels like a burden. Some days it’s necessary to force myself onto my bicycle with muscles fatigued, cold temperatures, mind elsewhere. I bring my focus towards the millions of people who don’t have this opportunity– stuck into their daily obligations with nowhere to turn, no ability to re-set their internal compass and resume their routine mindfully.
I return from my ride. I’m sore, tired, hungry, but with endorphins flowing and mind teeming with potential, with positive thought. I look at my Garmin screen– ride time: two hours. But more often than not, it’s my 30 minute easy rides that provide this for me. I embark into the rest of my day with clear thought and defined purpose.
Us at Project Echelon are dreamers. What if we started acknowledging this outlet for what it is: a human necessity? The equivalent of a multivitamin, proper hydration, or adequate sleep.
The physical outlet can clear the mind. It can provide rational insight into the complex issues we face everyday as humans. It can heal. Let’s start treating it as such. start treating it as such.
In this off season, I had a better mindset that if I wasn’t hurting, I wasn’t training right. My mental state reminded me of the old adage "No pain, no gain." This helped me focus and become a stronger rider. This mindset helped me push my limits, allowing me to dig deeper at the end of a race.
Training when the weather isn't ideal is hard. Its mentally tough to sit on a trainer for two or more hours and give 100 percent. To avoid that mental and physical stagnation I diversified my training by indulging in as many cycling disciplines as I could. This included cyclocross, mountain biking, a gravel race, and even a fat biking adventure. This diversification of riding helped me keep my head on straight and focus on the goals I have for the 2018 season without the burnout that happens all too often with winter training.
Prior to "Valley of the Sun" I entered a gravel race to see where my fitness was before heading to Arizona. The race was only 50 miles but being on gravel it was about as hard as an 80-mile hilly road race. I didn’t know what to expect so I went out hard and figured I had nothing to lose and the race would end up being a great training day. That it was. After a few minutes of throttling it on some back-country gravel roads I found myself in a break with one other rider and we eventually spent the rest of the race together trading pulls and sprinting it out on the final climb. This race eased my nerves a bit coming into VoS giving me a bit of confidence that my offseason training paid off and my fitness was there.
Two weeks later, the journey to "Valley of the Sun" began. Driving 1,500 miles in a car from St. Louis to Phoenix with five bikes, multiple wheelsets, and all the essentials three college dudes could ever need is no easy task. The drive down was broken up into two parts, with the first segment ending in Amarillo, Texas. We got about seven hours of sleep and started the next block bright and early giving us time to stop at a coffee shop, grab food, and ride our bikes in a small town just past Albuquerque, New Mexico. Eventually we made it to our wonderful hosts in beautiful Phoenix, Arizona where we joined the rest of the Project Echelon squad.
The Thursday before VoS was a day of spinning the legs, working on bikes, lots of bike talk, and some next level Italian. With bikes prepped and a full stomach we got some needed rest and prepared for the opening time trial.
I was nervous for the TT as I've never been a super great time-trialist, so I took everything as serious as possible with a long warm-up and proper pre-race nutrition from CLIF to get any advantages I could. I did my best and rolled in with a time that was good enough for 49th. Not being one of the GC contenders for this race I knew I was fine not logging the fastest time, but it is something I am working to perfect and eventually be competitive in. Aside from my result the team rolled in with some of the fastest times in the category. Cory Lockwood had a great ride slotting himself into second in the General Classifications competition. Other team members posted solid times as well with our next best rider being Evan Hartig in 11th, Eric Hill in 12th, Time Savre in 13th, and Ricky Arnopol in 15th and Wesley Phipson in 72nd. That’s five riders in the top 15. Better than any other team attending the race which was fantastic. Being the most dominant team in the time trial we had some work to do in the road race the next day.
Our goal rolling into Saturday, the road race, was to move Cory into first in the GC. That is no small feat with so many strong teams looking to do the same with their riders. The road race was 94 miles doing a 16-mile loop almost 6 times. With one decently challenging climb and the rest mostly flat it was the perfect early season road race for our squad. We went in with a plan to cover any breaks that rolled in the first few laps and shut down things we weren't happy with to save Cory's legs for the later parts of the race. Sometimes things don’t go to plan though, and, in this case, the winning move rolled in the first mile of the race. Eric Hill was in the original move sitting on until I made it across shortly after. Two Project Echelon riders versus 25+ others became the story of the break. Covering moves from countless riders all day and keeping Eric as fresh as possible became my job as he was now sitting the highest in GC for our team when the break gained over six minutes on the field at one point. Coming into the final lap we had 2 minutes on the field with two riders up the road. This was not ideal for us because the gap they had would take Cory out of second and drop Eric and others in the GC. Eric and I did what we could to bring the gap down, but then we would open the gap to Cory and potentially take him out of the GC which is something we did not want to do. Coming into the final climb I did what I could to keep Eric where he needed to be and eventually got shelled midway up. Eric rode strong to finish off the climb and snagged a solid 11th, three minutes back from the leaders on the day. After a long battle with countless attacks, Cory's rapid attacks finally paid off allowing him to escape the field dragging only one rider along and nearly bridging to the break on the final climb where he placed 17th only three minutes nine seconds down on the leaders of the day ahead of myself in 19th.
Tim Savre was able to sprint to 29th place. Arnopol rolled in, grabbing 41st after putting in lots of efforts, working for and defending Lockwood with Hartig who came in 68th.
Saturday night consisted of race talk. What we did right, what we did wrong, and everything in-between all while watching the most exciting Olympic Curling ever. A few riders took advantage of the hosts ice cold pool and soaked the legs in that while others got a few flips in on the trampoline. Probably wasn’t the best choice but it's not every day a trampoline is available to get rad, post-race.
Sunday, was the crit, an hour-long rage fest on the streets of the Arizona state capital. The 7 corner crit was flat and fast. Our goal was to get Lockwood up the road to gain back the time on the new leader after Saturday's road race. Cory gave it his best but unfortunately nothing stuck and we went through with plan B, leading Tim Savre out for the sprint. Arnopol made it to the front with one to go giving a monster pull to line things up with Hartig in tow and Savre right on his wheel. With a crash on the last lap and some mixing up we didn’t quite get Savre where he needed to be into the last corner, but he was still able to come away with a respectable fourth.
Although we did not win the GC we still raced well and got the team out there and recognized. We need to work on riding as a unit and communicating more. In the crit we struggled to stick together and have everybody at the front where we should be. Being in the front is key to performing your job on a team. It is hard to cover a move while surfing the back. It is also harder to communicate when we are spread apart throughout the field. In the road race, Eric and I were able to communicate and make decisions in the break, but we had no clue what was going on in the field behind us. It is hard deciding what is the right call when we don’t have all information present. Race radios would have been very beneficial in Saturday's road race. Luckily, we didn’t fair too bad even though some of the calls we made were not ideal for our goals after looking back on it and realizing what could have gone wrong.
All in all, we had a solid weekend of racing with lots of top notch results. We learned from each other, learned what we need to work on to become a unit and race smarter and more efficiently. Valley of the Sun was just the start to a killer season that will be riddled with even better results and unity.
Now, we get back to work for some big goals ahead, with the team racing some smaller races at Tour of St. Louis, Tucson Bicycle Classic, and San Dimas Stage Race before heading to our first big test and opportunity to show our strength at Joe Martin Stage Race.
With numbers pinned, bikes checked and pre-race rituals completed, 50 or so P 1-2 men line up for neutral roll out for a 1 o’clock P.M start time. Chris Black, the moto ref, gave us the speech about how to be smart and stay up right on the course today and his advice is well heeded because that man has pretty much seen just about all of it.
The moto rolled and and everyone clipped in, licking their chops for their first shot at glory in the seasons first road race. I thought to myself that it was windy, with 20 to 30 miles per hour wind from NNE, which should make for a devastating race during the 6 times around the 14.2 mile circuit. Just as I finished my thought, there was an initial flyer at the drop of the flag with two riders going up the road. Other than the two highly motivated men off the front opening up a gap on the field from mile one, the rest of us enjoyed our coffee ride lap and hid from the wind. While its slow I take the time to see who is who in the race and mentally check who needs to be watched and where on the course.
The fastest men in the race were the Williams brothers and, if left unchecked and allowed to contest a field sprint at the end, they would surely take the win. So for the advantage of myself and my two race allies, Inno and Tyler, we needed to make the race hard early and split the field down to a small finishing group or a shattered field even.
The race started at 1 o’clock but it didn’t actually start till we hit the cross wind section for 5 or so minutes. The field saw some immediate loss in numbers the first lap of 6. That paired with how windy it was and how hard people were being guttered. I myself and my allies started some attack, counter-attack tactics to draw out some of the key players in the race to spend energy early.
After a failed attempt at split the race on the climb with Inno, Tyler and a small group due to a head wind limiting our advantage, we decide to employ a different tactic on lap two or three possibly into the race in the cross wind section. It was simple as Inno was heavily marked, so it was hard for both he and I to get up the road together so we employed the tactic of “pulling the trailer pin” in the cross wind section at 450 watts where I block and gutter people and he rolls with a small group. Once the group was established I was to come across later with a small group or solo to join the fight.
Getting across proved to be a bit of a pickle. The next time through the cross wind section we had Inno, Tyler, Brian McCulloch, Cory Williams and a few fast men from CBR last weekend well established and rotating efficiently in the lead group 30 seconds up the road. It was time for me to do my bit of racing. I took to the front of the pack and throttled it through the cross wind section with about 30 guys and came out with a smaller group of 8 or so. The pickle came from the situation where no one in my group really had enough ammo to get back into the race except Justin Williams. So, he and I went for it a few times but with him being one of the fastest men in the race people didn’t want it to roll. That and I figured pairing up with the fast guys in the race can backfire on you because if they make it into the group and have a sufficient draft, the game is over for everyone. It’s kind of like playing with fire, I wanted to help the boys up the road but I didn’t want to swamp there boat by bringing all the muscle in my group with me. So I knew I had to be smart and only apply effort where match for match people would have to use the same amount of ammo as me each effort. I knew the best area to smash it was in the cross wind section. I did this just about every lap and it was coming down to the wire. With the Inno, Cory Williams group established 1 min up the road and as a group of 13 rotating together It we were coming down to the last hour of racing. I knew my guys needed me to have a fighting chance of breaking down KHS’s foothold in the breakaway with the very strong hand of Brian McCullough and Cory Williams.
It came down to the climb as Justin Williams went for an attack and I followed. Once we had a gap, I held my best 5 min effort and bridged up solo to the group of 13 just as they crested the top of the hill. Any longer and I would have missed them because a group of 13 descends faster than 1 with a huge head wind. Cory Williams’s double takes over his right shoulder “Where did you come from Lockwood?” Me, “Oh… well… your brother and I where back there having a party for a few laps and I decided I would come and join you guys up here for a bit!” Some One else says “And you came across a 1 min gap alone? WTF?” I saw Inno just smirk… they had no idea what was about to happen.
Just a few minutes later, I come from the right and Inno from the left as we descend upon the front and implemented short 500 watt pulls through the crosswind section and left room for just 2 people. But being former teammates with Brian McCullough, I knew he was the guy making room for 3 riding in the dirt at 500 Watts to make the split, If you had seen some of the bike handling feats he has pulled off in his time you would know that this was just another day in the office for him because he has no apprehensions and just makes it happen. Just a few minutes latest the group went from 13 strong to 6 surviving total men being myself, Inno Tyler Locke, Brian McCullough and two other guys whose names slip my memory at the moment. That’s the thing with race recaps, sometimes when you are breathing so hard that you don’t register everything that is happening 100 percent, nor are you the politest at times.
At this point we needed to ride and everyone needed to pull through because if Cory Williams mustered some followers and came back to our group with 1 lap to go the show would be over for all of us. This is the point where I probably yelled at a few people who were sitting on and told them to pull or get dropped and it’s their choice. Sorry for being a jerk, I just knew we had to ride or we would have company and not the sort of company that was going to improve our chances of winning.
Inno and Tyler had the better sprints so it was my job to get off the front and draw people out or get away solo. So we setup a counter attack and I took a flyer on the back side of the course. For the next 10 min I went all in till I crested the hill and made it down the headwind decent. It was then that the moto ref rode up next to me, looked at me, smiled and said “Cory, I think you have got them, you can take it easy now, you have a 1 min lead.” With Tyler and Inno as a duo bringing up second and third on the road, I rode my way to the finish and rolled back to the car. The funny thing about coming in like that is the people who are watching look at you like, “Dude, get out of the race course, the leaders are coming,” and they don’t realize until after you have crossed the line that you were the leader. It’s not as flashy as a sprint or winning by a bike throw but the strong man roll in the race is my card and that’s the way we played it- with a little luck and some good timing, we were able to pull it off.
I came to America for education at college, but deep down in my heart, my dream was to always come here to pursue cycling at the top level – I wanted to know just how good I could be at this. I arrived alone and not knowing what to expect – it was a risk I had chosen to take, leaving behind friends and family to pursue my dreams and goals.
My first season was a disaster though. I found myself inexperienced and way out of my depth, getting dropped from almost all the races I started. I was riding for the LAPT Wilde Subaru Elite team, which later became the Project Echelon team that I still ride for. I can honestly say, that if it wasn't for my teammates, I would not be where I am today. The team was absolutely great to me, with more experienced riders taking me under their wing. They motivated me to keep trying, they trained with me and they gave me advice that ultimately led to my growth and development into the rider I am today. I still have work to do, but with the strength of the 2018 roster, I know I am going to be pushed and challenged to keep bettering my riding.
I spent my first year in America at a small school in Pennsylvania without collegiate racing – I had no idea what collegiate racing even was when I first arrived - before I made the transfer to Lindenwood University to compete in collegiate racing as well as riding for Project Echelon. Racing at a school level taught me the importance of teamwork and trust for each other, both on and off the bicycle, and the added racing to my 2017 calendar helped mould me into a stronger rider.
This winter was my first experience of indoor, winter training. I was used to being able to ride outside all year, and the sudden shock to my system was tough to deal with. I turned to teammates yet again, seeking advice and tips on how to go about staying motivated and build fitness indoors. I won't lie, I have been going slightly insane, but the weather has turned for the better in St. Louis, at least for now.
I often think about what lies in my future and where I want to be a few years from today. Will I be in the same place? Will I embark on another risky move for new experiences? I enjoy moving a lot, seeking out new challenges and experiences to help develop myself, both as a rider and a person. I enjoy the unknown, just packing up and starting somewhere new. For 2018 I am excited to be fortunate enough to have the opportunity to race my bike at the top level of American cycling and travel to some really awesome locations – one of my favourite things about cycling is the opportunity to travel and see the world that it gives us. I would love to eventually make the jump to Europe and try my hand at racing over there, once again taking a risk and leaving behind what I know and love.
The only thing certain for me is that without the risks I took 3 years ago, I would not be where I am today, I would not be the rider I am today and I would not have met the people in my life that have helped me along the way. Taking risks can be daunting and scary, but with inner motivation, the correct people surrounding you and a beacon or goal to work towards, the rewards are tenfold.
Afterward: Wesley's story is one that Project Echelon shares with many of the veterans we support. We ask them to step into a world of unknowns and take a risk and to invest in themselves and their well being through physical activity. We work with veterans to set goals, develop training plans, overcome adversity, and use physical activity as a tool for self reflection and self discovery as a means to achieve greater goals outside of athletics. In this way, we are all connected to one another and share similar experiences... which is why we all play an important role in the Echelon and serving one another and giving back to our community. Our combined experiences, knowledge, expertise and passion empowers us to overcome the insurmountable and make positive change the lives of those around us, especially our veterans.
- By Eric Hill -
Husband, father, middle school administrator, Project Echelon non-profit Vice President, and elite cyclist... these are just some of the roles I have the privilege of playing in my life. Often times, my friends, family and colleagues ask me how I manage it all. Most of the time, my simple answer is "great question!" However, if I really sit back and reflect, it comes down to the fact that I have found my "sweet spot" and great balance through which my different roles support and enhance one another.
For those of you that aren't into the nitty gritty of training jargon, "sweet spot" is the type of effort used in training that makes you uncomfortable, but is sustainable for longer periods of time. Sweet spot training is also some of the best type of training to build power. This is the type of balance that I have learned to appreciate and function in. I am passionate about what I do and I love that I am consistently pushed to find new limits physically and emotionally, innovate a process, serve in a new type of leadership role, grow alongside my family, and a host of other things. I have found that, as long as I stay grounded in my beliefs, have support from those closest to me, and believe in myself and the goals that lie ahead, there isn't much that can stop me.
Going into 2018, my major goals for Project Echelon are to empower athletes and community members to serve as better advocates for the veteran community, while also working to bring on at least 20 new veterans that we can support through physical activity and self in their journey towards regrouping, recovering and re-engaging. I believe I can do this by continuing to grow our communication with followers... which is why I am challenging our team to blog at least 2x per month and post on social media at least 1x per day as a means to share our knowledge and passion. Additionally, the team seeks to expand its network and reach through performance. As such, it is my goal to perform at a level that gets our team into the Pro National Road Race Championships in 2018 and earn a spot on the overall podium in a Pro Road Tour event for the Project Echelon Team.
This will undoubtedly take dedication, sacrifice, and balance... but I am a firm believer that the sky is not the limit, as long as you can imagine what lies beyond it.
As you enter the new year, reflect on 2017 and what you accomplished. What did that look like? What did that sound like? What did that feel like? Now, looking forward... what is it that you left unfinished? What new heights can you reach?
Maybe give this a try... set a goal using the SMART goal method: