Two years ago, on April 8 2007, during a stage of the Tryptique Monts et Chateaux, Brent Bookwalter crashed into lightpole and fractured his femur. Surgery, complications and more surgery followed keeping the rider away from racing for eleven months. Fast forward to the present where Bookwalter is in France getting ready to race Paris-Roubaix with his BMC Pro Racing Team.
I talked to the 25-year old Bookwalter last week as he was getting ready for his trip to Europe. We chatted about his team win at Redlands, his journey to the pro ranks, his injury and recovery and his goals for the future.
Prior to our conversation, Bookwalter had been exchanging text messages with teammate Chris Barton who was racing Tryptique Monts et Chateaux with the National Team. “I told him jokingly to ‘look out for the lightpoles, they are especially vicious’.”
Redlands. Bookwalter was instrumental in his teammate Jeff Louder‘s overall win at the Redlands Bicycle Classic two weeks ago. He was relishing the victory and excited for the team and by the opportunity to successfully defend the jersey.
“It’s kind of the situation you dream of, what I envision when I’m out training. If it can’t be me in the lead, fighting off attacks, going for the win, then having the opportunity to go full gas, to totally empty yourself and hold nothing back for your teammate and seeing all happening in front of you and being part of it in the finale of the race, it’s awesome.” said Bookwalter.
It was the first time that he had been involved so deeply in defending a teammate’s lead in a stage race.
“It’s amazing how hard you can go when you’re riding for someone that you really respect and a team that you really are proud of, so yeah it was good, it was great.”
With his high spot on GC, Bookwalter was also protected by the team who used every rider to control the front of the field in the final difficult stage, the Sunset Road Race.
“The team rode awesome. We kind of timed it perfectly, we couldn’t have done with one less guy, every guy was totally used to their max. I think that’s really neat when that happens, it almost makes it more special.”
The non-stop attacking on the final day made the win even sweeter.
“That’s what makes it special, that it was a fight. A victory is only as good as your competitors and how hard they raced against you, we had awesome top-notch competitors and they definitely racing down to the last inch of the race and that makes it even better as a whole.”
The journey to the pro ranks. Growing up in Michigan, Bookwalter started mountain biking in his early teens and “fell in love with the sport, not only the sport but the people that were involved in it too.”
Brought to his first race by a neighbor, he progressed through the ranks, year after year, from beginner to sport rider to expert rider. He then moved up to expert level and started racing nationally and finally switched to the road in 2005. Bookwalter admits that initially his move to the road was a hard sell.
“I did it because there was more support and more team opportunities with road but I was definitely sort of dragging my feet and had my head down doing it and I was doing it. You know most mountain bikers have this stereotype for road guys, I was a believer in that but as soon as I got a chance to race in a quality team and started to understand the inner workings of road racing, got to do some high quality races, I really started liking it.”
He was part of the original team at Lees-McRae College and helped the program become the collegiate cycling powerhouse that it is today. During that period, he also raced both mountain and road and won seven mountain bike collegiate titles. Oh he officially graduated with a biology degree, but a laughing Bookwalter added “sort of a degree in bike racing too”.
For Bookwalter, collegiate racing was also instrumental in his development on the road.
“I’m a huge fan of collegiate racing, I think it’s an awesome development tool, you have a handful of guys who are really, really good riders with a lot of experience but then it’s not super deep.”
The different in skills and level of experience between the top and bottom of a collegiate race allowed him to learn without getting in too deep at the races.
After some short stints with the National Team in 2005 and 2006, Bookwalter went all in for a full racing season in 2007 in Europe.
“I think that a lot of people were kind of surprised to see me go all in with the National Team program but it’s a choice I don’t regret, I think it was the right one looking back at it.”
Screeching halt in 2007. After a promising start to the year, where Bookwalter raced and survived the Tour of California even though he “was a bit over his head”, and after few top 3 results in races in Spain and Belgium, it all came to a screeching halt in April where he “smacked a lightpole and blew his leg open”.
Even though it was a bad injury, the initial prognosis was that he would be back racing by the end of the season. But the leg didn’t heal properly, more surgery was needed, and the leg atrophied.
“Snowball month after month, every week, in your leg the muscles just disappear, by the time I got back on my bike it was nothing but a bunch of flappy skin and bones – really, it was pretty gross.”
He had to start over from scratch but in retrospect, “a lot of good came out of it.” Bookwalter did a lot of soul searching that summer to check with himself to see if he really wanted to continue with bike racing.
“I think that any time you have anything taken away from you that quickly, you realize how much you take it for granted. “
He realized that racing was a big part of his life and that he did want to pursue it.
“So I really just appreciated it and I wanted another shot at it so bad and when I could see that it looked like my body was actually recovering, things were falling into place, I wanted to really make good on that second chance, do everything right, no leave any questions or regrets.”
He did ask himself tough questions during his “little pit of depression that summer” but with the help of family & friends, he kept on working on his recovery.
“I think the whole time I did believe in myself that I could come back and I had a lot of really good people around me that supported me. They really believed in me too, they almost wouldn’t me saying ‘no, I’m just going to give up now’, they saw how much I enjoyed it, how much of a part of my life it was, all the people that were close to me in my life were instrumental.”
Stay tuned for part two where Bookwalter talks about Paris-Roubaix and his hopes for the future.