When you think of escaping the Scenic City for a long weekend getaway, what locales do you consider? Atlanta? Nashville? Cashiers, N.C., perhaps?
Albi, France, ever crossed your mind?
Didn't think so.
Yet that's just where amateur cycling junkie Jordan Picchiottino spent this past weekend. Catching a flight out of Atlanta last Thursday night, the 28-year-old Erlanger East surgical tech flew to Dublin, Ireland, where he endured a six-hour layover, then caught a flight to Paris for a four-hour layover, then took another flight to Toulouse, France, where he then rented a car for the 75-minute drive to Albi, arriving there less than 24 hours prior to the sole reason for his trip.
And what was that reason?
"I qualified for Team USA in the UCI Gran Fondo World Championships," Picchiottino said a couple of days before he left Chattanooga. "It's the biggest amateur cycling race in the world."
So how did the husband and father of two young boys do in his race, which began and ended on Sunday?
"I had the second fastest time among American riders in my event," he said of his race time of 5:15.22 over 155 kilometers in the 19-34 age group. "I got swamped overall (by the Europeans). There were some amazing cyclists, the temperature was 102 degrees and you were uphill or downhill the whole time. But it was a huge honor."
Picchiottino's obsession with cycling began innocently enough in 2009. Having suffered a couple of broken bones in his face while sparring for a big Golden Gloves match, he was watching Lance Armstrong race one day on television and thought, "That would be a great way to stay in shape."
He bought his first bike later that year, then started racing competitively in 2010. For the past three years he's ridden for Volkswagen. Before becoming a surgical tech, he worked for Trek cycling. Almost from his first day atop a bike he's dreamed of one day becoming a professional cyclist good enough to race in the Tour de France.
To help that along, he's already ridden more than 8,000 miles this year, much of it with practice partner Trent Whicker. He plans to have ridden 12,000 miles by the end of December.
But before he realistically can consider becoming a professional, Picchiottino also knows he needs to prove he can hold his own with Europe's finest amateur cyclists on that continent's most grueling and exhausting courses.
The Gran Fondo championships certainly met those qualifications if he could qualify for that race.
"I'd tried a few years ago and didn't make it," Picchiottino explained. "This time I saw where there was a qualifying event in May in Jacksonville, Alabama."
He had to finish in the top 10 of his age group to earn an invitation. He finished 12th.
"But then I got an email a few weeks ago," Picchiottino said. "A couple of guys couldn't make it. Basically, I got in on a wild card."
Nevertheless, he suddenly realized he faced the same obstacles that may have opened the door for him in the first place.
"The first was money," he said. "Could I financially do this?"
Another reason was his work. Would his boss at Erlanger East, Tina Snell, allow him to take the necessary days off to make the trip?
Wrote Snell in an email to a co-worker about Picchiottino's request for time off: "I have an extraordinary story. One of our current surgical techs, Jordan Picchiottino, was awarded the opportunity to race for Team USA in Albi, France. I do believe in recognition of a job well done."
That doesn't mean he got extra days off without paying Snell and his co-workers back for their help. After earning a well-deserved rest today, he'll work three straight 12-hour shifts, as well as being on call both Saturday and Sunday. Then he'll work another 12-hour shift on Labor Day.
As for the money, his wife's frequent flier miles made the trip affordable.
"Without her, there's no way I could have done any of this," he said. "She's the biggest reason I got to go."
Finally, there was no safe, affordable way to ensure his Trek Emonda bike could get there when he did, so he ended up having to rent one on Saturday, then ride it for the first time in the biggest race of his life the next day.
Nevertheless, Picchiottino, Mandy and their young sons Roman (4) and Archer (11 months) couldn't be happier he made it to Albi.
"Oh, my gosh," Mandy said last week. "This is his dream come true. Last year, between school and work he didn't take a single day off. He's worked so hard for this moment. Jordan always said he wanted to reach this level by 2020. We even had T-shirts printed up that read: 'Pedal, Daddy, Pedal.' There was a picture of him on the bike with the year 2020. To have this happen now, in 2017, is unbelievable."
Though he didn't know it as he climbed into the family car to ride home from the Atlanta airport Monday evening, Roman had made a sign over the front door with the words, "Way to go, Daddy."
Said Jordan after downing a Chick-fil-A meal shortly after exiting the airport — "I lost six pounds on this trip," noted the 6-1, 153-pounder (before Albi) — "It's one of the greatest things I've ever done. Just representing my country. Seeing all the (U.S.) flags, hearing all the different languages. I can't wait to try and go again next year."
Contact Mark Wiedmer at email@example.com.