Into the deep end: Project Echelon and their European experiment

We chatted with the team’s performance director to get insight into what it means for an American professional team to take a stab at big European objectives

Clock20:59, Friday 9th February 2024

Courtesy of Project Echelon

The Project Echelon roster at the Challenge Mallorca last month

Project Echelon is one of just two men's American UCI Continental Teams for 2024, and they are making the most of their racing licence.

With fewer and fewer UCI racing opportunities in the United States, the team has picked up their entire roster and set up camp in Europe for the first three weeks of the race season. Even with their big domestic objectives later in the season, the team has made a point to put a large portion of their funds and attention toward this opportunity to push themselves.

Read more: The teams of the 2024 American professional peloton

Over the block, the team has lined up at the five one-day races of the Challenge Mallorca, the first ProSeries European stage race of the year at the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana and the 2.1 Tour de la Provence. For a team of strong American pros with little European racing experience, it is a stout way to start the season. Yet, from the perspective of season-long performance objectives, it's all a part of the plan.

“We made it hard because we did Valenciana which is a 2.Pro race and will be the biggest race we will do all year,” Isaiah Newkirk, the team’s head sports director and performance director, told GCN before the team started their final race of the block at the Tour de la Provence.

“To do that at the end of January is a tough pill for anyone to swallow. It can be awkward from the performance side to remind the guys that it's a big race for them, but also the team goals and objectives outside of it.

“Mentally it is also really good to be humbled. It reminds you not to take things for granted and that there is more space to grow and achieve. That’s what these big races provide everyone in a small way.”

Project Echelon’s European race block is a preparation for the season ahead, an experience for the riders on the team who have only ever raced in North America, and a showcase for a couple of the more seasoned riders in front of European teams. To achieve these goals they have to go right into the deep end of the early European race calendar.

“We are going to use these big early-season races to get an overload of stimulus, an overload physically and mentally,” Newkirk said. “Then, when you come back to the US, that stress gets chopped in half and we can optimise that form and fitness. Later in the year, that transitions into controlling races and owning the races here in the US.

“The fun thing is that if it's done right, doing a large block early before taking a step back before another Europe trip and then a big block of racing makes it simple. From there it's just about making sure the athletes have enough time and space between those blocks to avoid getting sick.”

The trial by fire of an early-season European campaign

Project Echelon is in an interesting position in Europe. In the United States, they are without question the top team. With their roster of 14 riders, they have multiple options to win any of the professional races in the United States. They are the proverbial 'big fish in a small pond'.

In Europe, the situation couldn’t be more different. They are, like the other UCI Continental teams, the small fish in a very big pond.

“Physically our riders are not drastically different. We are not 10% off the top of our competitive space, whether that is a 2.1 or 2.Pro. Sure, there are outliers, you know like Pogačar or someone else on a different plane, but in general, the European peloton is pretty close to our riders physically,” Newkirk said of the performance challenges between racing in the United States and Europe.

“However, just because they are good at doing a certain power for a particular time doesn’t mean that application within a stressful and hectic race environment comes to fruition.”

That hectic nature of racing is just one element of stress that Project Echelon have to compete with. They also have a litany of infrastructural challenges that come from not having a European-based service course. All of the vans, team cars and resources that the team need for the racing is made up of rented and borrowed equipment.

Those different unfamiliar elements add up when racing the well-oiled machines of teams like UAE Team Emirates.

“My guys in Valencia had the problem of just getting to have the opportunity to simply speak with their legs. Can we get them in a position against some of the best teams in the world that demand more space to allow our guys to speak with their power?” Newkirk said.

“There were a few times when we were successful, but there is more room to grow and achieve that outcome and do it as a unit. The ability to achieve that is a huge barrier for Continental teams in general, but also for Americans trying to succeed over there. Just in positioning, style of effort and the ability to do it after repeated surges. You just don't get the same hectic style of racing in the United States.”

“The best way of doing it is just reps and time racing.”

One more chance in France

This trip will have one more chance for reps for Project Echelon in southern France as the team is currently racing at the five-day Tour de la Provence. While Valenciana was the biggest race on the team’s early season calendar, the Tour de la Provence offers a slight step back in the European firepower on the start line which could bode well for the team.

“Provence is a 2.1, but the talent that is going is still very strong. Also, the style that exists in Provence gives it a different level of opportunity. Provence has cross-winds and is flatter, especially compared to Valenciana and Mallorca, so as a result of that it allows us to approach the race differently,” Newkirk said.

“It's a good juxtaposition to Valenciana which was hard but was very well controlled because of how strong the team presence was. Even though on paper the courses were much harder, the guys were often coasting because it was that traditional racing flow. When it was hard it was freaking hard, but when it's easy it's sometimes easier than the demands of a 2.1, for example.”

While a European 2.1 race might be more challenging than it seems from the outset, the team’s objectives are to strive higher than just gaining experience. Their two best hopes for results in Europe are Tyler Stites, who had three top-10 stage finishes in Valenciana, and Scott McGill, who has won in Europe at 2.1 level before. With fast finishes, both riders are well suited for the flatter racing on tap this week in France and the team will be racing with the hopes of springing a surprise.

“Regardless, our objective now is to win,” Newkirk said. “Tyler Stites got three top tens at Valenciana, which is awesome and a good bar for him, but we knew he was at that bar. So now getting to a win is the next step. I think they can do that in Provence.”

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