Smoke and mirrors: The not-so-glamorous side of cycling journalism

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When it comes to being a globe-trotting sports reporter, lost luggage, delayed flights and emergency landings are just part of the job. But Eurosport international sports journalist Aaron S. Lee wouldn’t have it any other way …

It seemed like the start of any other flight, complete with out-of-order ticketing kiosks, lengthy security queues and a delayed departure, but what happened next was completely out of the norm — even for someone who spends most of their life hopping from one side of the planet to the other.

An explosion devastated the starboard side engine of JetBlue Flight 178, forcing the Airbus to an abrupt halt just as it began its ascent from Las Vegas towards Boston. Another 15 seconds off the ground and myself and 145 other passengers would have been toast.

It was 11:30am when the incident occurred — more than an hour past the originally scheduled departure time. I was already exhausted prior to boarding. I had never even checked into my MGM Grand Hotel room on the Vegas Strip the night before — I had arrived late to cover UFC 229 for Eurosport due to a delayed flight in New Orleans (where I was covering a football game for local ABC affiliate WGNO the night before.)

I didn’t leave the UFC 229 media centre until nearly 2am, thanks in large part to the extra workload created when the main event between Khabib Nurmagomedov and Conor McGregor ended in chaos … both inside and outside the octagon.

After catching up with colleagues for a very late dinner — and a cocktail or two — it was nearly time to check in for the first of three flights to Konya to cover the 54th Presidential Tour of Turkey. Little did I know just how much I would miss that sleep over the next 48 hours.

My row-mate on that JetBlue Flight 178, Patrick Higgins, had a picture-perfect view of the black smoke engulfing the massive jetliner engine. Sitting in his row 19 window seat, just metres from the burning engine, he did what any modern disaster survivor would: whip out their mobile phone and hit record.

With smoke continuing to pour from the engine, I did what any level-headed sports journalist would do — I politely requested the 11-second video via Apple AirDrop and posted it to my Twitter account, allowing the whole world to bear witness to our possible demise.

Meanwhile, the majority of the crew and passengers aboard remained relatively calm … until the smoke began to seep into the cabin. Luckily, UFC production tech Mark DellaGrotte was on hand two rows up and was able to contain an escalating situation that could have caused widespread panic. DellaGrotte looks like he’s straight out of a Hollywood blockbuster and has some serious MMA skills of his own — perfect for maintaining order in a chaotic situation. He might be my new best friend, too.

A horde of airport security and fire trucks surrounded the grounded plane and secured the situation. About 30 minutes later the plane was towed back to the gate. With the only other available plane sitting in Los Angeles and more than four hours away, there was little chance for me to catch my connection in Boston to Europe. So with a belly full of free pizza and a $275 flight voucher coming my way — still waiting on that one, JetBlue — I headed back to ‘The Strip’ and that long overdue hotel stay.

Upon returning to the airport at 5.30am the following morning, for a new itinerary that would send me to Turkey via New York, it appeared the new flight had not yet been booked. Fast forward three hours and I was holding a new ticket thanks to fast-thinking JetBlue agent Orshe Ratchford. And then my new departure time was delayed yet again thanks to a jet fuel spill near the gated plane. An hour later and I was finally underway.

It was a smooth five-hour ride for the most part … until we landed at JFK International where we sat on the tarmac for more than 40 minutes thanks to “debris in the engine” upon landing. WTF? Really?

I finally landed in Konya at midnight — I’d missed the opening stage of the Tour of Turkey (won by Quick-Step’s Max Richeze on a day Fernando Gaviria broke his collarbone). The airport was closed immediately after landing which meant no ATM access, no SIM cards available and no WiFi. Luckily, after an hour waiting for my promised car to arrive to drive me to the Mediterranean coastal city of Alanya, I found a Turkish soldier who spoke good English. He was able to to call the race media officer to get the scoop — thanks heaps, ‘Ramo’!

A 30-minute taxi ride and six-hour bus ride later I made it to the start of stage 2, just in the nick of time. I even managed a quick swim and shower — no nap — upon arriving at the race hotel.

This was an extreme travel nightmare scenario. I have had others, just not as dramatic. Three weeks earlier my luggage was lost for five days — thanks Kenya Airways! — en route from the Tour du Rwanda to the Arctic Race of Norway. I was on the Norwegian-Russian border above the Arctic Circle with nothing more than a T-shirt and shorts — needless to say I caught a nasty cold.

Oh, and there was that one time a gentleman suffered a heart attack and died two rows in front of me on my way back home to Sydney after an assignment in the US. The 15-hour flight became more than 22 in the middle seat of the middle row thanks to a two-hour back-track to Hawaii, two hours on the tarmac to unload the deceased, and a two-hour crew change in Brisbane before heading to my destination. The plane was ultimately headed to Melbourne and some of the people sitting beside me had to then board a flight to Perth, so I still count myself lucky on that one.

And the burning engine incident wasn’t the only bad luck I’ve had in Vegas. Last year, following a week of Mayweather-McGregor UFC coverage, I spent two days in the airport waiting for flight availability due to a hurricane wrecking the Gulf Coast. I missed the first few days of the US Open, but was happy to get out of town. The very site the media centre sat in would eventually serve as a shooting gallery for a lone gunman positioned over a concert venue one week later.

Three weeks after Vegas, I once again found myself stranded — this time three days in the Atlanta airport following the Ironman 70.3 World Championships in Chattanooga, Tennessee thanks to yet another Gulf Coast-bound hurricane.

But overall, I would not trade any of the experiences above for anything in the world. I am a journalist of modest skills and I count myself as the luckiest man in the world. For every delayed or cancelled flight where I end up sleeping six, eight or 10 hours on an airport floor, there are 10 more that make it on time. For every trip that ends with lost luggage, there are 30 trips where everything arrives just as planned.

And I’m certainly not the only sports journalist who’s run into issues while travelling. Just ask Australian journalist and author Rupert Guinness, who has his fair share of nightmarish travel stories after covering the Tour de France for the past 30 years. More than three weeks of daily bump-ins and bump-outs from hotels in the wee hours after 100km or more of transfers, all while washing your clothes in the sink and hoping they dry overnight while hanging from the shower rod … if you even have a shower rod.

Or ask American journalists Andrew Hood and Gregor Brown, who often cover all three Grand Tours, along with all the Spring Classics in a single season. Ask either of them how great the local cuisine is at 10pm when the only thing available is McDonalds or Subway. Glamorous stuff, eh?

But all that said, none of us would have it any other way. We would have to be pulled kicking and screaming from our spot in the press corps.

Whether it is scaling the Tibetan Plateau for the queen stage summit finish at the Tour of Qinghai Lake, or standing at the foot of three sleeping volcanoes in Musanze at the Tour du Rwanda, or catching snow crabs in the Pasvik River prior to the start of the Arctic Race of Norway, the destination is always sweeter thanks to the journey. Even if the journey isn’t always so sweet.

About the author

Aaron S. Lee is the former editor of Cyclist Magazine and 220 Triathlon, and is currently an international sports reporter for Eurosport Australia. He is an occasional contributor to CyclingTips. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram.

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