Project Echelon Newsletter September 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: Dennis Connors

I joined the US Marine Corps in 2003 and served until 2012. I worked primarily in the intelligence field doing tactical Signals Intelligence, Human Intelligence and Counterintelligence. I did three combat deployments to Iraq with a joint Army-Marine unit, a Marine Infantry Unit, and a Special Operations Task Force, plus a myriad of other operations. I also did a stint in South America but we won’t discuss that one as if I told you I’d have to kill you. Just Kidding. But seriously.

I have been involved with sports since I was a kid. I did the typical tee-ball, soccer, basketball, hockey organized sports thing until I was 12 when I found rock climbing. Rock Climbing became my life. As a junior, I was on the USA Climbing Team, traveled the country climbing and competing, and even competed in the Youth World Championships in Europe. In 2003, I won the US National Speed Climbing Championship. But then I joined the Marines, where I loved the physical aspect of the job. In 2012, I got out of the Marines and moved to Utah specifically to climb and ski. I started climbing at a high level again, getting sponsorships and doing competitions.

As far as endurance sports, my wife convinced me to get a road bike to ride with her, but it sat for about 3 years until I started riding with the Project Hero chapter in Salt Lake City in 2016. I did a week-long “challenge-ride” down the coast of California and I was hooked. Each day of that ride was my “longest ride” and all I wanted to do was ride. When we moved to Oregon the rock climbing and skiing access became more difficult but I started to ride, a lot.

In 2019, my friend Shawn Morelli – who also introduced me to Project Echelon – told me I should try Paracycling and I went to Nationals in Knoxville. I was classified due to multiple TBIs, raced, and met my soon-to-be coach. In May 2020, I suffered a stroke that completely killed my proprioception and balance and decreased feeling on my left side. (Yeah I type with one hand). After months of Physical Therapy my doctors and coach recommended I try riding a Trike just to be able to ride. It felt great to be able to ride again. In April of 2021, I did my first races on the trike at the US Paralympic Cycling open and ended up winning the TT and the Road Race! I was then invited to go to the UCI World Championship in Portugal with the US National Team where I got 3rd in the TT and 4th in the road race. I then traveled directly from Portugal to Minneapolis for the US Paralympic Team Trials and won the trike TT. However, due to the way selection was set up, I didn’t make the Paralympic Team – I was selected to the US Team but not the Paralympic team. I then won the US National Championship in the TT and the road race in Boise. I am loving it!

Project Echelon has made it possible for me to afford the equipment needed to compete at the elite level as well as motivation to race from the pro team. Without the help of Project Echelon, I would not be able to get access to the equipment I needed from Kits to the Argon 18 that I am currently using with my trike converter. I am excited to work with Project Echelon as I continue to compete in UCI Paracycling events on the US Team. It would be amazing to say I want to get to Paris 2024 but right now I am taking it one year at a time and enjoying the journey of becoming a better athlete.

Dennis Connors is originally from California, but currently resides in Beaverton, Oregon with his wife Krista, daughter Kenadie (7) and son Soren (5). He has been a stay-at-home dad for the past 6 years since moving to Oregon from Utah in 2015. “Prior to living in Oregon, my wife and I lived in Salt Lake City where I attended graduate school at the University of Utah. Being the stay-at-home parent is like being the COO of a small company – It’s way more difficult than anything else I’ve done, including the military! You can usually find me in the garage training when it’s rainy (which is like all the time in Portland), at our house in Bend, Oregon, playing in the outdoors, or attempting to go rock climbing, which has proven quite difficult after my stroke in 2020. I also fancy myself an amateur chef and love cooking for friends and family!"


Shawn Morelli wins Gold and Silver in Tokyo

Project Echelon rider Shawn Morelli added to her prestigious palmarès by earning gold and silver medals the Tokyo Paralympic Games in August. Morelli demonstrated her multi-discipline diversity by winning gold on the road in the Time Trial C4, and taking silver on the track in the Individual Pursuit WC4. In her words:

"Hello everyone. My Paralympic adventure has come to a close.

I raced in three events at the Paralympics, beginning with the 3km Individual Pursuit on 25 August at the velodrome. It was a hard day in many aspects – We had some problems with the front end of my bike which caused a delay in my qualifying. This was a very stressful time, and I could have been disqualified because my bike was not ready to go. I am grateful that Team Australia was understanding and that the officials gave our team some extra time.

This delay really affected me, as you expend a lot of energy when you get stressed, and your adrenaline starts to rise which releases cortisol into the body. Not great for performance.

I tried to stay calm and breathe through what was going on, while praying that I be allowed to race. When my bike finally passed inspection, I got into the start gate – I now have to harness all that emotion and ride a personal best in order to make it into the medal rounds. Somehow, I was able to pull it off, as I rode the fastest pursuit I have ever ridden and it got me into the gold / silver round.

Unfortunately, the second round did not go the way I hoped, but I was up against a very strong competitor. I gave it everything I had left in the tank, but it was not enough for gold. But I did bring home the silver, and a personal best in the event.

Photo credit: Casey Gibson

After my pursuit, I headed out to the road venue to start preparing from my Time Trial, which took place on 31 August. This was my key event, and what I had been training for. We knew it would be a very difficult race for me due to how my body works or doesn’t work in the heat and humidity. I rode the race according to my coach’s plan, and my follow car kept me focused and helped me navigate through lapped traffic that I was approaching. It was a complete team effort from my coaches and staff with Team USA and my coaches at home. I rode the first two laps really well, and then half way through my last lap, my body started to shut down due to the heat. My heart rate went through the roof and would not stabilize, but I just had to keep the legs going over the last hill and hope my lead was enough. IT WAS! I won the TT and added a gold medal to my silver from the track.

My final race was the road race on 2 September. Funny how quickly the weather changed – It was torrential rain, flooded roads, hail, and wind, not to mention the fog which created horrible conditions with limited visibility. I knew it would be an extremely hard day on the bike especially because when I overheat like I did in the TT, it takes much longer than 24 hours to recover. I gave it my all, and I tried to make the break with the big hitters, but racing against C5 women as a C4 is a challenge. In the end, I was just happy to finish without incident.

Photo credit: Casey Gibson

Thank you, Project Echelon, for your support – your mentorship, community, and sponsors have been a game changer. It has been great working with you as an athlete. And as a veteran it has been instrumental in many ways. I love spreading your mission around the para field and telling other veterans what you guys stand for. Thank you for your support these last couple years.

Photo credit: Casey Gibson

12 Hours of Road America

An account from Zach Nehr - On September 14th, I joined a group of Project Echelon riders - Aaron Hunnel, Angel Powell, and Rusty Shakleford - for the 12 Hours of Road America. Around the Road America car racing track in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, we rode around the 4-mile course from 7pm to 7am. That's right: through the night.

(from left to right) Rusty, Aaron, Zach, and Angel

Not only was the event be a personal challenge for both individuals and teams, but more importantly, it was a fundraiser for the myTEAM TRIUMPH WI organization, an organization dedicated to eliminating the social isolation felt by individuals with disabilities through endurance athletics. Aaron Hunnel used the event as last-minute training for the Ride2Stop Suicide which he begins September 11th, 2021. In 21 days, he’ll be riding from Oceanside, California to Annapolis, Maryland to raise awareness for veteran suicide.

Aaron Hunnel

While the event wasn't technically a "race," there were jerseys given to riders who were fastest through the sprint segment (green jersey), up the KOM/QOM climb (polka dot jersey) and who completed the most miles (yellow jersey). At the end of the 12-hour ride, hungry and exhausted, I crossed the line for the final time at 6:59am, having completed 240 miles of riding, and winning the yellow jersey.

Here's an excerpt from the blog that I wrote about the experience:

"19 laps to go…18 laps to go…17 to go…

Whenever I ride more than seven hours, I run out of thoughts. There’s no thinking about the next day or previous day, about work or relationships, about something awkward I said or what I’m going to eat that night. There’s just…nothing.

I was hardly thinking about pedaling, and after so many laps, I knew unconsciously which gear I needed to be in for every single meter of the course. There was no thinking needed anymore, which was perfect.

I counted down the laps and kept eating every 40 minutes. Lots of Cosmic Brownies, and lots of Swedish Fish." - Zach Nehr

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

Perhaps the biggest undertaking of the year comes from Aaron Hunnel, who is riding across the US starting on September 11th, 2021. Here's what Aaron had to say in the day before his month-long journey:

Aaron Hunnel

"After one year in the making, my team and I are ready to tackle the Ride 2 Stop Suicide on 9/11/21. Physically, I’m feeling great. I just completed my biggest week of training, with 28 hours of riding in total, including two back-to-back 12 hour rides. I’ll be honest though, I’ve been enjoying the taper. Mentally, I’m in a good position to start each day. Of course, I still have some fears about the ride, like getting hit by a car, but the support I’ve gotten from so many people around the country has been incredibly helpful.

The whole reason for this project is to help connect people and remind each other the importance of having purpose in life. Many have told me how this project is coming at a good time because of all the things going on in the world. And with September being Suicide Prevention Month, we’re energized to make a positive impact in our veteran community across the country.

There’s two ways you can help. First, if you want to be part of the movement to connect other veterans and organizations with what we’re doing, we’d love for you to be part of the story and bike at least 22 minutes per day for 22 days starting on 9/11.

Second, we are still fundraising to reach our goal of donating 100 bikes to veteran. If you or someone you know is interested in donating, please share the donation link here. We’re hoping to raise another $22,000 during the Ride 2 Stop Suicide.

I’ll have a GPS with our team so you can follow the journey if you’re interested. Thank you to everyone in the Project Echelon community for their support. Because of our work together, we are going to help prevent suicide in our veteran community."

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

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

Stephen Vogel claimed one of the biggest wins of his career by soloing to the Clarendon Cup title - and not only that, but Vogel also claimed the Armed Forces Classic Omnium title after finishing 4th the day before.

The win was the culmination of a long journey for "The Doctor" who had some inspiring words after the race.

"Thanks most to my soulmate Zanna Vogel who couldn't count the number of times she's told me what I could do in this sport, and has sacrificed so much on this journey of medicine and racing. This has been so far from easy. My perspective shift on finding success in life's balance was changing, and this just blows those doors wide open. Because why not use this feeling to strive to be an even better human?"

Cyclingnews: Vogel wins Armed Forces Classic Omnium

(Many photos courtesy of SnowyMountain Photography)

(Photo: Bruce Buckley)

Project Echelon came into the US Pro Road Championships in Knoxville, Tennessee in a way they never had before. A few riders hadn't even raced in 2021 due to a delayed race schedule, while others - such as Vogel - came in with flying form.

In the US Pro Time Trial, Vogel finished 8th and Zach Gregg took 10th in a stacked field of pros hot off months of European racing.

John Heinlein III nagivated a chaotic finale to take 4th in the US Pro Crit, and earning one of his biggest results to date.

Matt Zimmer featured in what many marked as the 'break of the day' in Sunday's road race, alongside WorldTour pros and Tour de France jersey winners. The move wasn't to be, but George "The Humble Hammer" Simpson made it into a counterattack that would stay out front for a huge portion of the race. In the end, Simpson was the team's top finisher in 23rd.

Photo: SnowyMountain Photography

Back in the Midwest, Project Echelon had an incredible run of results at the Tour of America's Dairyland, winning the final four stages in a row. Hot off the US Pro National Championships, Peter Olejniczak won the infamous Downer Classic, sprinting out of the winning breakaway that formed with 10 laps to go.

(Photo: SnowyMountain Photography)

Brandon "Monk" Feehery won the next day in Shorewood, before John Heinlein III took a huge win on the new Highlands course. To finish it off, Peter won again on the final day in downtown Tosa Village, where Monk and Hayden Strong also finished in the Top 10.

Not long after in a summer packed full of racing, Zach Gregg stood atop the National Championships podium when he won the Elite National Time Trial Championship in Florida. Zach won the title by just two seconds, and earned the first National Championship of his career. It's almost time to go back to the wind tunnel to get his custom Jakroo National Champion skinsuit.

The results kept pouring in over the summer, as Project Echelon earned state titles from all around the country. Tim Savre became a double state champion by winning the Minnesota State Crit and Road Race, while Ricky Arnopol did the same in Colorado. George Simpson blitzed the Colorado State Time Trial, winning the title, and simultaneously setting a new National 40km TT record in a time of 46:08.

It probably goes without saying, but the Jakroo skinsuit and wind tunnel testing work like a charm.

Project Echelon Racing Team heads to Europe

For the first time in Project Echelon's history, the team headed overseas to take on the European racing scene. Europe is where you go to make it, or get your teeth kicked in. It's the stuff of cycling lore: Belgian cobbles, Oude something-Mont, wind and rain and plenty of bike paths. European racing is the opposite of easy, and Project Echelon was ready to take on the challenge.

The team's first foray came at the GP Perenchies UCI 1.2, a 160km classic through the French countryside, and of course, plenty of cobbles. Fighting jetlag and plenty of cobblestones, Project Echelon still put three riders in the front group, with Peter Olejniczak the top finished in 26th.

Next up was the Kreiz Breizh Elites, a 4-day stage race in France beginning with a Team Time Trial. Up against the development teams of WorldTour projects Jumbo-Visma, Team DSM, Team Qhubeka, and Groupama-FDJ, Project Echelon went through the trial by fire. They fought through wind, rain, crashes, mechanicals, and plenty of adversity. And at the end of it all, they learned more about themselves and this team than they could ever imagine.

In the words of Eric Hill, "We learned more than we could have imagined. Most importantly, we learned that we belonged. We found ourselves in some uncomfortable and unfamiliar situations and we persevered.

Looking forward to using this experience to make ourselves that much better and elevate what we ask of ourselves as we look ahead to the Joe Martin Stage Race and the rest of the USA Cycling PRT calendar."

At the Kreiz Breizh Elites, Matt Zimmer finished 33rd on GC in a race that blew to bits on every single stage, while Ricky finished 75th on GC in field where barely half the riders even finished. 

What better way to summarize Project Echelon's European trip than this photo of Evan Hartig (left) and Stephen Vogel (right). All the emotions mixed into one: happiness and despair, elation and exhaustion, simultaneous suffering and relief. Soaked in a mixture of sweat, rain, and manure, they're already thinking about coming back.

While the half of the Project Echelon squad was over in Europe, the rest of the riders were tearing in up at the Intelligentsia Cup, where Monk was seeking to defend his overall title from 2019. Fresh off the Alabama Cycling Classic and Boise Twilight Criterium, Monk finished in the Top 6 in every single stage of Intelligentsia, including five podiums and an incredible win on the final day at Goose Island.

When all was said and done, Monk took 2nd overall at the Intelligentsia Cup; and knowing him, he's already thinking about next year.

Photo: SnowyMountain Photography

Ahead of the Detroit Cycling Championship in August, Eric Hill took a few minutes to share some thoughts on what makes this race event special. Check them out on Pez Cycling News

Project Echelon sent a packed crit squad to Rock City, and put Monk on the podium in second place behind Wolfgang Brandl.

Joe Martin Stage Race

A brutally hot edition of Joe Martin concluded at the end of August, with Project Echelon animating the race and putting multiple riders on the podium.

After a two-hour fight for the breakaway, George Simpson got away in the Stage 1 finale, and would finish fourth on the stage with Evan Hartig rounding out the Top 10. Ricky Arnopol earned arguably the best result of his career when he finished third on Stage 2 in a steep uphill sprint.

Photo: SnowyMountain Photography

Heading into the final day criterium in downtown Fayetteville, Project Echelon had two riders in the Top 10 on GC - but we weren't satisfied with just that.

The team rode so cohesively throughout the race, putting riders in moves, firing off counter attacks, and ultimately setting up George Simpson in the winning breakaway. Well, perhaps that's too kind to the team. George went solo with 13 laps to go, and nearly stuck it on his own. One other rider was able to join 'The Humble Hammer,' but George absolutely dusted him in the final sprint, claiming victory on the final stage of the Joe Martin Stage Race, and marking the team's first UCI win of the season.

George moved himself into 6th on GC, while Ricky finished 9th, and Matt finished 11th Overall at the Joe Martin Stage Race.

Photos: SnowyMountain Photography

Photo: SnowyMountain Photography
Photo: SnowyMountain Photography

Ahead of Sunday's criterium, Eric Hill and Project Echelon facilitated a moment of silence in memory of the service men and women and Afghan civilians that lost their lives in the August 25th Kabul Airport attack.

Photo: SnowyMountain Photography

Photo: SnowyMountain Photography

Upcoming events

Take that Hill

Project Echelon riders will be some of many cyclists participating in Take That Hill, a unique event coming on October 23rd at Barrett Mountain Road in Taylorsville, North Carolina. Each rider will climb 10,000 ft. in elevation over the 64-mile route, and "on each trip up the mountain, Take That Hill cyclists will carry American flags and Purple Heart Homes flags in honor/memory of Veterans or Spouses/Caregivers of Veterans."

All proceeds from the ride will support Purple Heart Homes and their mission of “improving the lives of Veterans one home at a time.” There will be a live broadcast on various social media platforms through Echelon Racing Promotions.

This year there will also be an opportunity for cyclists around the world to compete in Take That Hill on indoor trainers and the RGT Cycling platform.

Echelon Racing League

The Echelon Racing League is back, and it's bigger and better than ever. Last fall and winter, Project Echelon coordinated one of the biggest online racing leagues in the world with the multi-month Echelon Racing League on RGT Cycling. Professionals and amateur men and women competed on RGT's virtual and magical roads, including some of the exact stage profiles featured in the Redlands Cycling Classic and Joe Martin Stage Race.

Photo credit: Velonews

In mid-October, the series returns with a unique community combine event in which solo athletes not registered with a team can compete for a chance to get noticed and drafted by participating team managers. The official Echelon Racing League series is then set to start in late November and continue through late February.


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.


Follow Project Echelon on Social MEdia

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

Facebook: Project Echelon and Project Echelon Racing

Thank You to All Our Sponsors

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Created By
Zach Nehr


Photos by Snowy Mountain Photography