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Project Echelon Newsletter June 2021

What is Project Echelon?

We educate, equip, and empower veterans and their families through physical activity and self discovery.

The Veteran Community

Veteran Feature Story

by: Kevin Rosenblum

"I wouldn’t say I found cycling so much as I found a cyclist. In 2009, I met the woman who would become my best friend and my wife. She was an avid endurance athlete and introduced me to the sport that would have a huge positive impact on my physical and mental wellbeing (and a huge negative impact on my bank account...but it’s been worth every penny). Flash forward to 2021 and I can’t imagine my life without bikes. For better or worse (definitely for the better), my life is tied to this two-wheeled machine. It was my therapist before I knew I needed therapy. It gave me structure when the rest of my life seemed completely untethered. I take better care of my bikes than I take care of my car, and at this point they’re probably worth more. But to get here we have to start back in 2005, when 2LT Rosenblum showed up to Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment just in time to deploy to combat in Iraq.

In 2005, I was leading an infantry rifle platoon in Baghdad, Iraq. On a September morning, I had two squads out on mounted patrol in the Amariyah district. We’d stopped for a break at the local Iraqi Police station when a call came in that another American unit needed help. My radio operator was eating Skittles at the time, which if you know anything about Army superstitions was a bad sign; but since we were closest, I said we’d respond. One of their vehicles had been badly damaged and needed to be towed in. We set up a perimeter around the other unit and pulled security while we waited for recovery. It took a lot longer than we anticipated for the recovery vehicles to get out. and that gave the insurgents time to set up an ambush. Out of nowhere, the concrete around us exploded. First on the north side of the road, then the south, then right on top of us. We were getting mortared. I can’t remember how many rounds hit us, but they came in quick and accurate, wounding nine of us including my radio operator (that’s what he gets for eating Skittles on patrol), two more of my soldiers, and me. Fortunately, everyone escaped major injuries - Thanks Stephanie Kwolek (look it up). For my part, I earned a trip to the combat hospital in the Green Zone, a tetanus booster shot in the ass and the dubious honor of being cut ‘combat naked’ in front of a lot of people. They bandaged me up, and four days later I was back out on patrol. The rest of the tour passed relatively uneventfully in that all the rest of the bullets and shrapnel hurled our way, for the most part, missed.

In 2007, I found myself back in Iraq, this time as the battalion’s logistics officer (S-4), which meant that rather than leading 40 soldiers, I was managing logistics support for 900. While this deployment lacked the physical danger of my first, it made up for it in mental and emotional stress. You see, the S-4 is also the battalion’s mortuary affairs officer. This meant that my duties included formally identifying our soldiers killed in action and processing their personal effects for shipment back to their families. On top of unfortunately having to do this multiple times during the deployment, one of my best friends, SSG John Linde, was killed in November. We weren’t in the same unit anymore, and his platoon made a stop at my forward operating base. We got to catch up a bit, and then he was off again. The next time I saw him was when I was putting the body bag containing his remains onto a helicopter. The vehicle he was riding in hit a huge IED, completely destroying it, killing John and the three other soldiers inside. He died six days before his 31st birthday.

Trauma changes a person. I’m not just talking about the trauma of combat, but any trauma really. A bad car crash. Losing a loved one. Surviving cancer. Go through something like that and you won’t be the same after. In 2009, I was not the same person I had been in 2005. I was angry all the time. I’d lost my sense of empathy and compassion (something I still struggle with today). I was withdrawn and rudderless. I had PTSD. Then I met a cyclist and my life began to change. With the bike (and running and swimming, you know, that whole multisport thing) I found goals and structure again. I found joy again. I found something that could keep both my body and my mind healthy. For years it was my therapy, and then it became the catalyst, along with some tough but truthful words from my wife, for me seeking professional help. For years I avoided seeking counseling because I’d convinced myself that stoicism was a virtue, and living with PTSD was the price of my service. This couldn’t have been further from the truth.

I hope that anyone reading this who may be struggling with a mental health issue (whether it’s PTSD, depression, anxiety or whatever), and has avoided seeking help because of some perceived stigma, understands that help is out there, and it’s the best thing you can do for yourself. And while I don’t need to go to therapy every day I do need to move my body every day. It’s become like brushing my teeth. I can go a day or two without it (don’t judge, you know you’ve done it too), but there comes a point where I just need to move. To feel my heart pumping and my legs burning. I know for a fact I would not be where I am in my recovery from PTSD without exercise.

As wonderful as riding bikes is, it's still generally a self-centered pursuit and I found myself wanting to do something more to promote the therapeutic power of sport. I heard about Project Echelon from fellow veteran, PE athlete and Grizzly Adams look-alike, Jared Sarten. Once he told me about the mission of Project Echelon I knew it was something I wanted to be a part of.

I was excited about representing the team in the veteran cycling community, but I’ve been surprised that the best thing about Project Echelon for me has been the relationship I’ve formed with my coach and elite team mentor, Zach Nehr. Yes, he tortures me through Training Peaks and tries to help me reach my athletic potential, but the thing I look forward to most is our coaching calls because they rarely center around cycling. Usually we talk about what’s been happening in each other’s lives. We catch up on things big and small, and Zach has quickly become someone I can count on to lend an empathetic ear and give me some honest feedback whether it’s cycling or life.

This isn’t the kind of thing I’ve had in other coach/athlete relationships and I think it's really a testament to the kind of people that make up Project Echelon. It’s one of the reasons I’m proud to pull on the PE jersey and pedal my little heart out to 15th place in the sport category at my local XC race. So thank you to everyone at Project Echelon and everyone who supports the team. Whether you know it or not, it makes a big difference in a lot of people’s lives. I know for certain that my life would not be the same without cycling. I’m sure a lot of you reading this feel the same way, so I’m really grateful that there’s an organization out there dedicated to helping veterans like me continue their cycling journeys and take advantage of the therapeutic power of the sport."

Kevin Rosenblum served as an Infantry Officer in the United States Army’s 10th Mountain Division. He served five years on active duty including two tours in Iraq. He left the service in 2009 and now lives in Richmond, VA with his wife, Genia and their son, Elliott. He is a decidedly mediocre cyclist, but in his mind, he’s great, and that’s all that matters.

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Project Echelon Raises over $1k during Native American Vets awareness month

On January 30th and 31st of 2021, Project Echelon athletes rode, walked, ran, and swam across America and on virtual platforms to raise awareness for the Native American Veterans Association (NAVA). In continuing our mission of educating, equipping, and empowering veterans and their communities, Project Echelon collaborated with NAVA which helps Native American Veterans in their transition from a warrior's journey to civilian life through readjustment assistance, strengthening family ties, links to mental health and wellness services, and career and educational training.

Across social media, Project Echelon shared the stories of the 29 Native American Medal of Honor recipients and several other facts about Native Americans' military service to the United States throughout the month of January. You can find more information about our campaign below.

service women's action network (SWAN)

Project Echelon also collaborated with the Service Women's Action Network (SWAN) in March during Women's History Month. Throughout the month of March, we celebrated and raised awareness towards the contribution of the women who have and continue to serve our country. We offered a number of virtual racing and fitness challenges to further raise awareness and funds for this great cause, challenges with creative names such as the Civil War Challenge, World War II Challenge, and Operation Enduring Free/Operation Iraqi Freedom Challenge. Of course, you can complete the challenges at any time of year! You can find all the details here.

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Aaron Hunnel and the Ride to Stop Suicide (R2S2) campaign

Perhaps the biggest undertaking of the year comes from Aaron Hunnel, who is planning to ride across the US starting on September 11th, 2021. Here, Aaron tells his story:

'“The Cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.” Wise words from Joseph Campbell, a lifelong student of mythology who artistically articulated the gap between story and psychology. His words remind me of the work we are doing in Ride 2 Stop Suicide (R2S2). So often the thing which scares us is that which we need to face, that which we need to confront. By confronting our fears and facing what scares us we learn and grow from our experiences to overcome the challenges and adversity life throws our way. That’s what R2S2 has been over the past few months for me.

In February, we lead a challenge called Pedal 2 Empower. Through this effort we teamed up with a variety of partners all over the country, to include Lees McRae College, St Augustine University, pro cyclists, average cyclists, and everyone in between. Over 30 athletes rode 22 miles per day for 22 days. Together we raised over $14,000! Better yet, we made a big impact connecting veterans and riders of all abilities! So here we are transitioning into summer, and our project is picking up momentum. We have a bike/run challenge launching July 1st to bike or run 100, 200, or 300 miles. We have new sponsors and grants from organizations like VA Claims Insider, USA Triathlon, and VFW Fox Valley and continue to receive support from people all over the U.S. All-in-all, we’ve raised over $40,000 and have secured funding for 28 veterans to receive an Argon 18 road bike! Awesome, right?! But we’re not done. We have more connections to build, and more impact to make. Coach Zach Nehr has been keeping me on track and my workouts are getting progressively longer as the team gets me ready to bike across the country. To be honest, I’m a little scared about this adventure. There are so many things that could go wrong. But thanks to my team (Erica, Ken, Angel, Debbie, and Nick), who have been meeting twice per month since October, I’m feeling competent and confident to take on this challenge, not alone, but together. That’s what this project is all about. Helping our veterans pursue purpose and connect with others. It’s scary sometimes not knowing how life will turn out when we take risk or when life knocks us down and throws adversity our way. But hey, we’re veterans. Courage and connection is in our blood. Accomplishing our mission is something which must extend beyond our military service. It needs to evolve and change as life changes. Life is that mission. Protecting it necessary. Is it scary at times? Yes. But the thing about fear is that facing it helps us find the very treasure we’re seeking."

Project Echelon even made a special appearance on the Argon 18 podcast, where they discussed the R2S2 campaign.

Dennis Connors wins US Paralympic TT

"As I sat in line to the start ramp of the 2021 US Paracycling Open in Huntsville, AL my heart rate had climbed well into zone 2 and I hadn’t even started pedaling. The nerves were getting to me, and it occurred that I was here, waiting in this line because a whole host of people had come together and supported me getting to this point. I didn’t want to let anyone down, but I knew that all I could do for the next 30 minutes was pedal my Trike as hard as I could. The universe would tell the rest of the story.

In May 2020, I ended up in the Emergency room with what the doctors determined was a stroke. After surviving multiple Traumatic Brain Injuries during my time in the Marine Corps, the stroke was enough to push my neurological system over the edge. I couldn’t move my left side, my coordination and balance were gone, and I could barely walk – I thought my bike racing days were over. But I’m stubborn, and one lesson I learned in the military was to never quit, no matter what. So after a few months of daily neurological therapy, I began a new journey on a custom Argon 18, UCI-approved, upright trike. It was an amazing feeling to be back out riding and I knew that even if I never got back on a bike, the trike would be my saving grace.

For the next 9 months, my family, my coach, my doctors, multiple different Veterans service organizations, and my friends, figured out a way to help me recover and continue training. As pieces fell into place to get to Huntsville, I kept on training, and was overly excited to be back out racing. It was 11 months and one day from my ER visit to the start line in Huntsville.

Sitting there, I realized how appreciative I was to simply be on the line. I had no expectations in the race, simply to give it my all and see how my first ever trike race went. In fact, I was going to learn as I was racing a multiple-time UCI World Champion and another rider who has won multiple UCI world cups! The countdown started and my brain cleared. I pictured my kids and told them this race was for them. I rolled down the ramp and finished 24 minutes later, returned to the staging area, and rode a few circles to cool down. I was getting ready to head home when the USADA folks came to get me and told me I had won! I was shocked! Later that day I was standing on the podium being awarded my first race win ever!

The following day was the road race. Again, I simply decided to be a student and follow the world-class riders I was racing with. I felt good on the trike and ended up in one of the most fun races I have ever done. In the end, the race was a battle up the final hill. I dipped my head and gave it my all – and crossed the finish line first. I had won the Time Trial and now the Road Race! I was beside myself. Knowing the work I had put in, that it all had paid off, and it was an incredible feeling.

First and foremost I couldn’t have done it without the support of my family. They are my foundation and biggest motivators. My coach, Simon Bennett, from Apex Coaching stuck with me through the entire process, building me up to where I needed to be. And of course, Project Echelon, for supporting riders like me with access to equipment like my Argon 18 Nitrogen and my Reynolds wheels. Team Semper Fi for helping me get the trike axle, and my creative friends for helping me put it all together.

One year to the day of my stroke, I received an email saying I had been selected to the roster for the UCI Paracycling Road World Championship. I would be representing my country to the world at this race and I could not be more humbled for the opportunity. Following Worlds, it's on to Minneapolis for the Paralympic Team Trials and a shot at Tokyo. I am motivated more than ever, the weather is finally getting nicer, and races are back. I couldn’t be more excited or appreciative of where I am in this journey."

Semper Fidelis,

Dennis

Between 2 Bikes with Earl Cox

A new Vodcast by Project Echelon athlete, Earl Cox, "Between 2 Bikes started through a confluence of interests between me and my friend, Korey Hopkins, and our mutual friendship with Donald Rucker, one of the owners of Patapsco Bicycles. Korey moonlights as an amazing photographer, and from time to time over the past couple of years I've ended up behind his lens – sometimes, just because he likes taking pictures, and other times for various companies looking for bike models. He also knew that I was planning on producing some content for Project Echelon, and was sympathetic to the cause and wanted to support and collaborate; so he did so with his time, talent, and equipment.

One day when we were out riding and taking pictures, and I asked him if his cameras did video as well (He has really nice cameras). He acknowledged that they did, so my next inquiry was if he was as good with video as he was with stills… He paused inquisitively and responded ‘No’, but he could learn. The next time we talked about it, he had plans to do quick, 'how to' videos to use for social media. After we finished recording the first video, before he put the cameras up, he suggested that we just let the camera run and sit and talk about bikes and stuff. He took the 'how to' footage home to edit, and I took the footage of what was to become Between 2 Bikes. He jokingly suggested that I watch "Between Two Ferns" by Zach Galifinakis before I do any editing. We had a good laugh about his interview style and some of his antics. Then when I started editing, I noticed we were sitting between both of our bikes that were hanging on the stand, thus "Between 2 Bikes" was born.

After some headaches trying to figure out how to use the Adobe Premiere Pro editing software, I posted the first episode of us talking that I edited down. Then, to my surprise, a bunch of people in the local MTB crowd really enjoyed it. So we made another one, but this time with both our friend, mentor, and all around legend in the Maryland cycling scene, Donald Rucker. You would be hard-pressed to find an experienced cyclist in Maryland that doesn't know, or at least have ridden with or heard of Donald. He has the stories, mechanical expertise, and industry knowledge to prove it.

Part one of my interview with him is still my most watched video on YouTube, and I still have more of that interview to edit through and release later. The next couple episodes we recorded (including the few I still haven't finished editing due to really nice weather lol) were with some of our friends that are doing really cool stuff in the bike world.

Moving forward, finding people to sit down with is the really easy part, as there are an abundance of people in our network of riders locally, from trail advocates and builders, to shop owners and frame builders, or just local legends. Of course, by the grace of the scheduling gods, the race that Project Echelon is going to be in town, is the same weekend as one of our most anticipated races...in Pennsylvania. Thus highlighting the bigger problem of scheduling during the race season. But since cameras are portable, we are planning on doing some interviews at races, bike parks, campsites, or wherever we end up as the summer goes and kinda letting things happen and continue to have fun with it.

Photo credit: @khopshoots on Instagram

At some point, I plan on having an episode where someone interviews me so I can tell a bit more of my story in a cool way – My story with cycling, and how that helps to inspire other veterans in their own personal journeys with PTSD. Amongst our group of friends, we have had many discussions about How? While we're out in the world, we see a multitude of different black cyclists in every genre, from the granny with a basket going to the store, Lycra bound men with shaved legs, to DH bros that "only ride park". But when we look at advertising in the industry and how bikes are marketed and presented, we sarcastically wonder why there aren't many black pro riders. So, instead of complaining about it and just going about life without doing anything, we decided we would use what we have and do what we can on our own. On top of that, we are starting to lay the groundwork to be able to start a NICA team in the future, targeting black kids in the suburbs of DC that would otherwise have to travel to surrounding counties if they wanted to join a composite team. While we obviously see and are affected by the racial disparities in the nation, we also believe that the fastest and most effective way to make something happen is to do it yourself, and as we have the cards to play, we’re gonna play them to the best of our ability without regard to obstacles that have been long laid or new ones on the basis of our race or otherwise."

Project Echelon is always looking to connect with new veterans, as well as veteran friends and family. Contact us on social media or through our website at www.projectechelon.org.

The Project Echelon community continues to grow!

In 2019, Project Echelon served 104 veterans, up from the 67 served in 2018. In 2020 we have set out to serve 150 veterans through relationship, coaching, mentorship, and access to resources.

None of this would be possible without the support and advocacy of our followers and readers like you. Please continue to share our mission and vision and direct any veteran family or friends you think might benefit from our work to www.projectechelon.org.

Project Echelon Racing Team News

2020 was the most challenging year that many of us had faced. With no racing, no traveling, and no visiting friends, it was a tough period for all of us. But as things started to improve at the beginning of 2021, Project Echelon Racing prepared for Team Camp, this year in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Extra precautions were put in place for every step of the journey, and in the end, it was one of the most memorable team camps to date.

(All team camp photos courtesy of SnowyMountain Photography)

(Photo: SnowyMountain Photography)

We chose Fayetteville because of its growing cycling infrastructure and community, and unique connections to veterans in Arkansas. Team camp was an opportunity for Project Echelon to support the Fayetteville community and collaborate with Experience Fayetteville as a means to promote the city's cycling friendly culture, amazing roads, and awesome gravel roads and dirt trails.

(Photo: SnowyMountain Photography)

Off the bike, Project Echelon took time to meet with new sponsors, Biotech Pharma, and also to write letters to veterans at the NW Arkansas VA Hospital in Fayetteville, AR. Project Echelon is more than just a bike racing team, and even during the COVID-19 pandemic, we are incredibly lucky and thankful to work with so many great people, companies, and organizations.

Following Team Camp, a number of Project Echelon riders visited the A2 Wind Tunnel in North Carolina. This gave us the unique opportunity to be a part of the development and testing processes of the new Jakroo skinsuit - coming to a TT near you.

Without revealing too much 'top secret data', the results were clear: the Argon 18 bike and Kask helmets are fast.

Project Echelon Racing Team is back - in real life!

At the tail-end of team camp, Project Echelon's crit squad rolled up to the Tour of St Louis, a 2-day, three stage race including a TT and two criteriums.

Ricky Arnopol took top honors in the TT (putting that recent wind tunnel time to use), and John Heinlein III took the win in the Crandolet Crit.

With the new Jakroo sunrise kits fully on display, the team executed their leadout to perfection on Day 1; but on Day 2, a much different situation would play out in the Forest Park Crit.

Peter Olejniczak made it into the winning breakaway in the final stage of the race, and soloed away to victory on the final lap. (I think it actually came down to a sprint - but you couldn't tell by how far ahead Peter was in the finish line photo)

In other racing news, Stephen Vogel took a signature solo win at the Hincapie Training Series, while Zach Gregg won at The Swamp TT down in Florida. Both time trial specialists are gearing up for the US Pro National Time Trial in just a few weeks' time. Speaking of...

Upcoming Race Schedule

Real-life racing returns this summer, beginning with the Armed Forces Classic, June 5-6 in Virginia. After that, the Project Echelon crit squad will race under the lights at Tulsa Tough, one of the biggest crit weekends in the country.

At the end of June, Project Echelon will head to Tennessee for the US Pro National Championships. With two Top 10 finishes in 2019, Project Echelon is hungry for more - the full squad will be divided up between the TT, crit, and RR, at one of the biggest races on the year.

In June and July, the crit squad will have plenty of opportunities to win, with 20 days of racing in just over a month, first at the Tour of America's Dairyland, and then at the Intelligentsia Cup. These races are close to home for many Project Echelon athletes and rides, making them one of the most anticipated events of the year, with huge cash prizes on offer for both the men's and women's, pro and amateur fields.

This summer, Project Echelon (with fingers crossed) will be embarking on its greatest expedition yet: Europe! The history of cycling goes back generations across the pond, and Project Echelon is ready to take the leap. In July and August, Project Echelon will make their European debut at a host of one-day and multi-stage races:

  • GP Perenchies - 1 day classic
  • Kreiz Breizh Elites - 5 stage race
  • Tour of Alsace - 5 day stage race
  • GP Cerami - 1 day classic

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New 2021 Sponsors: Bio-Tech Pharmacal, Bryton, Brioso Coffee Pirelli Tires, Koo, & Vafels

Bio-Tech Pharmacal is an industry leading, veteran owned, family operated nutraceutical company based out of Fayetteville, Arkansas. Fayetteville is a booming cycling community and Bio-Tech has seen the benefit that cycling tourism and the industry as a whole has brought to their region. We couldn't be happier to be partnering with them to educate others on the importance of proper nutrition and equip them with top of the line, science-based training tools like tri-salts and vitamin D3.

Bryton is a Taiwanese-based company that is making waves in the cycling computer industry. Their top of the line computer graphics, maps, data tools, and affordable price point, make them the device of choice for the team.

Who doesn't like coffee and bikes? This small town Columbus, Ohio based company has big dreams of changing the coffee industry in the United States. Inspired by some of the best cafes from around the world, you won't be disappointed by the unique roasts produced at Brioso. Sign up for their subscription service today!

We ride with confidence with Pirelli. Whether you are ripping the final corner of a crit, descending down slopes of a mountain, or throwing some dust on the mountain bike, Pirelli is our tire of choice and gives us the confidence to perform at the highest level.

A clear vision is the key to success. Koo eyewear is one of the best in the industry in both performance and style.

Don't let your rides get boring with the same old ride food. Switch it up and get excited about reaching into your back pocket with Vafels.

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Instagram: Project Echelon (@projectechelon) and Project Echelon Racing (@projectechelonracing)

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Photos by Snowy Mountain Photography