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 I was withdrawn and rudderless.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."
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.
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)
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.
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.
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)
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.
Photos by Snowy Mountain Photography