In the first part of our conversation, BMC’s Brent Bookwalter talked about his teammate’s win at the Redlands Bicycle Classic, his involvment in defending the jersey and his journey to the pro ranks. Then two years ago, he broke his femur …
Eleven months, that’s the time gap between his crash and his first race back with his BMC team in March 2008.. He raced throughout the 2008 year and finally in August, at the Tour of Utah the old feelings were back.
“I felt that that day after Snowbird and the next day after the time trial, those were the first time that I was like ‘I’m a bike racer again, I’m doing it, I’m feeling good about it’.”
While he did contribute to the team and race the prior months, Utah was “the first time that I had that fire and that instinct that my body was able to actually follow through with it and turn into something instead of kind of hitting the wall.”
But even now, the thought of crashing still crosses his mind time to time, and he jokes around that he has “hard object anxiety.”
“There are sudden moments in races where my mind will see a lightpole or some European road furniture and you get a flashback to those feelings that you felt when you crashed, sort of that feeling in your stomach, and you just have to grab a hold of your mind and snap out of it because there’s no room for that when you’re racing.”
After talking to others, Bookwalter has found that riders that have had serious crashes go through the same but he’s still working through it.
“I feel like in the domestic scene, I’ve conquered it more than on the European scene because everything over there is magnified so much, the speeds are higher, the roads are more narrow and there are more obstacles and all the riders are more intense, more aggressive and less likely to give you an inch here or there.”
Which brings us to the Hell of the North, Paris-Roubaix. After returning from racing in Qatar and some early races in Belgium, Bookwalter woke up one morning to read a text message that said that he was going to the race, and that was the end of the jet lag as he was “racking his brain from then on.”
“It’s been of a bit emotional roller coaster since I found out, trying to prepare, trying to take it seriously but be realistic but stay focused and make the most out of the opportunity.”
If someone had told him at the beginning of the year that he would be racing in the Queen of the Classics, Bookwalter would not have believed it. “It’s a big honor for the team just to get invited and for me to get selected on the team, I’m really proud to get to go over there and represent. It’s exciting but I’m trying to keep my wits about me right now, trying to not get too nervous. ”
Like Louder, the news lit a fire under him to get some long hard rides in his legs before the San Dimas and Redlands block of racing which might be some of the best training he’s ever done.
“ When you have that new motivation, that new incentive to do a race like that I think you can really put yourself together to focus and dig deep and really hard, and that’s what I’ve been doing.”
Bookwalter has raced on cobbles before but he has never raced on a course with so many paves sections or with such a historical significance. Retired riders Mike Sayers and Henk Vogels provided advice and insight. Louder and Brentwalker received “a Henk pep talk which is pretty intense”.
So what did Vogels say? Simple really, “it basically involved putting myself and my life above everyone else and doing whatever it takes to make sure I was taken care of.”
What Vogels had to say brought on sobering thoughts on the intensity and the reality of the race.
“He was punching Louder in the shoulder, saying ‘no, listen to me, you don’t understand, you’re not listening’ and he was like ‘yeah I’m listening’, ‘no you don’t understand’ . ‘I don’t care how many guys you have to bump off the road, you make sure that you’re at the front of the field’.”
One-day or stage races. The European racing trip is not over after Roubaix, Bookwalter along with teammates stay for another month to race GP Escault and finish off with the Tour de Romandie, home race for their sponsor BMC.
“I’m excited to go back, I’m a hundred percent certain that I’m more fit this time of the year than I was last year. Romandie is a hard serious race, last year I came out of it stronger than I was coming in so hopefully I can contribute more to the team’s effort this year.”
Bookwalter is still learning about himself every year and for now still enjoys going from very hard one-day races to long stage races.
After switching to road, Bookwalter’s niche was time trialing because “traditionally mountain bikers are good time trialers” and promptly won the U23 National Time Trial in 2006. But he has found that everything is different when racing at a higher level, and that assumptions of being a good time trialist, climber or sprinter have to be re-examined when racing at the top level of the sport.
“So right now, I’m trying to be sort of an all rounder and I think the team’s vision of me is to put me in a lot of different type of races to round me out and find out where I excel and hopefully being capable of doing everything pretty good, being productive.”
It’s all about building skills from races like Qatar in February with flat, windy roads to Paris-Roubaix with its cobbles and intensity to Tour of Romandie with its alpine stages.
“I think the most talented and the most capable riders are able to hold their end up in both and that’s the kind of rider I aspire to be.”
Focus on 2009. While it might be cliché, Bookwalter is really excited about his team and the future. “The opportunities that we have are really amazing, the group of guys that we have are second to none.”
His goals are to grow with the team as it expands and not to focus on any specific races.
“I really do just want to keep being as productive as I can to the team, keep contributing to the maximum and take my opportunities when they come and grow as a rider myself. I think, a little performance like last weekend, I think I grew as an individual and the team grew as well, it goes hand in hand.”
As for the future, in a few years Bookwalter would like to race at ProTour events but right now he is enjoying his double program with both American and European racing. No “ProTour or bust” deadline in his plan.
“I’m really enjoying racing right now, I’m really fortunate to be on a team that has this vision , the same goals and trajectory that I do. Ideally, I can just keep on growing with this team and this team can keep on growing with me. Hopefully we’ll both end up in good spots in a year or two.”
Last year, at the Merco Cycling Classic which was Bookwalter’s first race back, BMC General Manager Gavin Chilcott stated that “it’s going to be a nice story to watch him come back because he’s a big talent, it’s going to be exciting to watch him”. Is that too much pressure to handle?
“Believe or not, I would never have even thought that Gavin would have said that. Last year, the team was awesome as far as being supportive and not putting too much pressure on me. I really never felt like I was under a microscope, no one has made any huge proclamations on what I’m going to do five years down the road which is great, I don’t need that I’m not especially motivated by that, just one step at a time.”
And lastly, during my research on Bookwalter, I found a bio that said that he had beat Chuck Norris in a bike race so obviously I was anxious to get to the bottom of the story. But alas, it’s not true. “I wish…. with one leg” laughed Bookwalter.
Follow Brent on his blog: brentbookwalter.blogspot.com