An oral history of Tro-Bro Léon 2011, ten years on

Memories of the team's first major European one-day from the people who were there

4 months ago by Tom Owen
In 2011, a scrappy American bike team headed over to Europe for a block of racing on the continent. Kelly Benefit Strategies – OptumHealth had raced in Europe before, but not much, and for many of the squad and support staff, Tro-Bro Léon was to be their first taste of ‘Euro’ competition. Here, the team recalls what it like, ten years later. 

 

It tasted, they discovered, like grit. 

Ten years later the team is known as Rally Cycling, and plenty has changed. It’s a much bigger machine with a decade of European racing in its legs. Some of the faces have stayed the same, while others have moved on. This is the story of Tro Bro 2011, from those who were there. 

Sam Wiebe – now, Rally Cyling’s chief creative officer, in 2011, the team’s all-action, Swiss army, photo-social-website-designer: This was one of my first ever races, might have been my first ever race in Europe. Really exciting time in my life, I had my camera, I was going with this team – a ragtag bunch of people – to Europe and taking photos.

Bob Gregorio – now, retired, in 2011, KBS’s chief of spanners: I had worked at Paris–Roubaix, so I had an idea of what a mixed surface bike race would look like. Having been a mountain biker in my own racing experience, dirt is rather special to me. I like it, however, the dirt was different in Brittany. And once the riders’ wheels touched it, it became instantly airborne. This was not like my Roubaix experience.

Jonas Carney – now, Rally Cycling’s performance director, in 2011, KBS’s only director:
I remember Tro Bro Leon as the most insane race I have ever directed. Driving in the caravan was nuts. I started the day by getting rear-ended in the neutral zone before the race even started. 

Tom Soladay – now, communications director, in 2011, fresh meat in the peloton:
I had a nightmare season in 2010, but I was on the ground in my first-ever European race. I dove into the first gravel corner and my front wheel slid out. Before I knew it I was on the ground. I couldn’t believe my luck. By the time the car got to me, I was wrestling my bottles from spectators who had seen an ‘opportunity’, only to discover that my bike was toast and the peloton long gone. I didn’t even get 30 minutes into the race!

Tro-Bro Léon is famous, most of all, for having a pig as a prize, but second to that fact in notoriety is the dust. 

BG: I trusted Jonas’ driving skills completely, but we’d already been in a pre-race crash and now we were in a cloud of dust that limited visibility to zero at times. I was in the back seat and the cloud was so thick at times that I couldn’t see beyond the backs of Sam’s and Jonas’ heads. Riders would appear out of the cloud occasionally as we rolled through the Brittany farmlands. 

Jonas Carney and Alex Candelario were teammates and great friends. Candelario was the team’s veteran and a true WorldTour caliber talent.

Alex Candelario – now, CEO and founder of Big Island Bike Tours, in 2011, Kelly Benefit Strategies – OptumHealth’s captain fantastic: Tro Bro Léon was one of the first big one-day races we ever did in Europe. It was a big deal for the team. The race could have gone a lot better for us that day 10 years ago but it was truly an epic experience.

Mike Friedman – now, Founder of Pedaling Minds, in 2011, Euro Classics veteran loveable referred to as “meatball”: I was a new hire to the team that year and I suffered big time in that race. I’d raced in Europe a lot at that point in my career. Paris Roubaix, Milan San Remo, the Olympics. And I suffered mightily. I didn’t know I had an iliac artery kink at the time so I remember feeling embarrassed. Feels like so long ago and at the same time, like it was just yesterday.

 

Daniel Holloway raced the whole day without sunglasses. It might have been a sponsor thing or a prescription thing – but whatever it was, the poor guy raced all day with half of Brittany in his retinas. He wasn’t the only Kelly rider to suffer, though.

SW: I distinctly remember the first gravel section, and it was so chaotic. I think we got in a fender bender right away and then as accordions in the car crunched down, and Mike Sherer, one of our riders, faceplants in the back of our rental car, hard. He literally left a face print in the dust on our rear windshield and dented the car – and he’s just crushed, he’s out of the race.

Mike Sherer – now, fly fisherman and owner of Wenatchee Fly Company, in 2011, a face in the rearview: After one of the gravel sections, I flatted. Jonas and Bob quickly got my flat fixed but I had lost contact with the group. I was working my way through the caravan and our team car had stop quickly. I was pacing back and so exhausted I was not paying attention and slammed into the back window. That was the end of the race for me, unfortunately. However, we all got a good laugh after the race upon seeing my sweaty face imprint on the dusty rear window.

Two down, four men left standing. Only one KBS rider finished the race, Alex Candelario. 

AC: I love riding any dirt and was really excited about Tro Bro, just knowing how rough and hard it would be. It’s one of those races where positioning before the dirt and gravel sectors was really important. You couldn’t relax and drift back or your race could be over.

TS: Gravel roads through forests, tunnels, and farm fields. The race literally goes through people’s yards. It’s an incredibly tense and competitive race but anyone can have their day. It’s one of the few races and events that you should have on your bucket list.

MS: Tro-Bro Léon was my first European adventure as a professional. A few of my veteran teammates were injured so I got the call up for this European trip. I was in over my head but I was ready for the challenge. 

SW: I’d basically only been to Redlands at that point, which is like 100ft wide roads in L.A. So I was like ‘Holy sh*t this is a real bike race, this is crazy.’ What we used to do back in the day is, Jonas and I would look at a map, we’d look at points where I could be dropped off and then picked back up. So if it was in a windy course, he would drop me off, I’d shoot the guys, I’d jump back in the car. It was really crazy but you can find a lot of spots like this and that’s kind of what we did. Crazy race, beautiful course, super hardman type race so a lot of fun. 

JC: It has that scrappiness, not like a controlled WorldTour race. You have younger, less experienced athletes trying to make a name for themselves so it’s super fun. 

While they may not have tasted success, Brittany and Tro Bro left an impression on all the team and staff – one that outlasted the face mark Sherer left on the rental car rearview. 

JC: Tro-Bro Léon is easily the coolest race I have ever directed. It’s an epic battle on some of the most challenging roads you’ll find anywhere. I’m really excited that our team is doing it again this year, just wish I could be there.

MS: I will remember this trip for the rest of my life. It was hard, exhausting, and more importantly eye-opening. I came home stronger than I had ever been; both physically and mentally.

AC: I think that trip was significant in paving the way for the team’s European racing focus for years to come. That whole region is steeped in cycling culture and it was special to be a part of. I think a lot of people don’t even realize that they have been racing gravel in France for a long, long time. It’s only in the last few years that we’ve picked it up stateside.

BG: The history, the architecture, the food and culture. My memories of Brittany’s landscapes and old cities are fond indeed. The old bar in Morlaix with the fireplace that had been burning for a thousand years! The city center in Rennes where the buildings look like they were conceived by a cartoon artist. Brittany has one of the largest tidal swings on the planet and it’s puzzling to see the difference between high and low as entire bays go empty and leave all vessels high and dry. The cathedrals, the forts, the winding roads through coastal landscapes all add to the Tro-Bro Léon experience. 

MF: What I remember the most about being over there was this 15th-century cathedral I found while exploring the area. That solo adventure was amazing. I rode down these dirt backroads and right up to this huge fountain. The water had worn into the granite and it was beautiful. Beyond the fountain were these enormous wood doors with magnificent metal strapping. Zero people around. It was just me and my bike in northwest France. I leaned my bike and walked into this incredible space full of pews, arched ceilings, and the most insane stained glass I’d ever seen. I sat down in the middle of the pews and just took it in. I can’t remember what it looks like, I just remember the feeling of being completely amazed. I sat there for a while. It was sensational. Then I went back to the house with the guys to get ready for another bike race.

Friedman made it to the final circuits.

SW: We literally biked down to the ocean to pick mussels off rocks and boil them in beer, ate that for dinner. It was idyllic.

TS: We were doing more than racing bikes. We were experiencing life in an all-new way. I was wet behind the ears, but I still knew it was a special period of life.

SW: Jonas and I had to take the rental car back and we concocted this whole story about how it got so beat up – we knew we couldn’t tell them it had been in a bike race. We were super nervous about what they would say – but when we arrived it was just this classic old French dude, cigarette in one hand. He takes one look at the ruined bumper between drags and just shrugs like, ‘ahh, whatever’.

2011 Tro-Bro Léon roster: Sherer, Anthony, Friedman, Holloway, Soladay, Candelario