Go down the top 15 of the US Pro Road Race results and every name has done the race multiple times, every one but one. 22-year old Max Jenkins of the UCI Continental Glud & Marstrand Horsens out of Denmark, finished fourteenth overall.
On his first year on a professional team, the young Californian took on the National Championships with a bit of apprehension. No knowing the flow of the race and with so many big groups trying their hands at creating a break, Jenkins spent some nervous times at the beginning.
“I was pretty nervous there and I think I lost some energy there trying to follow those groups but it pretty much settled down.” said Jenkins who figured out that the pack was not going to let anything go until the last two times up the decisive Paris Mountain.
Jenkins stuck with the leaders until the final climb up when eventual winner George Hincapie (Columbia-HTC) hit it hard and split up the dwindling field leaving Jenkins in the 15-man chase group.
“Those last 25 miles from the top of the climb to the finish line, my legs were locking up almost non-stop, I had to stop pedaling a few times just to stretch because my legs were locked solid.” Both BISSELL’s Burke Swindlehurst and Saxo-Bank’s Jason McCartney were asking him to work more in the chase but he just could not.
“I was doing all that I could but honestly whenever I pedaled hard, my legs would just lock up. There’s a different pain to cramping than to the kind of pain where you don’t have anything left in the tank. I had more to give, I could have ridden a lot much harder, whenever I tried to go hard, my legs would lock up, it was really frustrating and I don’t usually have problems with cramping so I don’t know why it happened.”
I caught up with Jenkins at the Atlanta airport on Monday, the day after the race while he was on his way to Denmark and I was in Phoenix on my journey home. He was relatively satisfied with his first foray at the USA Cycling Professional Championships except for one thing.
“I didn’t quite have the confidence to be where I should have been on the climb the last lap, I think I was strong enough to make the front group if I had started further forwards or moved up but when Hincapie attacked about halfway up and the group split in half, I just got stuck behind four or five Garmin riders going backwards and then the gap was too big for me to close on my own. But I have a feeling if I had been on the other side of that split when it happened, I don’t think I would have been dropped.”
Back to the beginning. Jenkins started off as swimmer in his early years but admits that “I was pretty bad honestly, I wasn’t excited about it, I was never very fast.”
Riding his bike to his middle and high schools led to mountain biking in the surrounding open space areas. Once done with swimming, he started looking for something else to do and became one of the first member of Team Tieni Duro, a junior team just starting in the Bay Area,
“They gave me a free kit and let me borrow a bike and that was pretty much all it took.” said Jenkins “My first race was I think about a month and a half after I rode my road bike for the first time. That was an early bird crit. It just clicked and it was something I wanted to do, pretty much instantly after I started.”
He continued with the sport while balancing school, collegiate racing and racing with the California Giant Team for three and a half years.
“It was always a little bit hectic too, Collegiate Nationals and Mt Hood were always on back to back weekends and then finals were always right after. “ said Jenkins who won the USA U23 Road Race National Championship in 2007. “But I always got taking care of and I managed to take care of school. I did pretty well, I managed to balance that pretty well.”
After graduation, his then manager Anthony Gallino made a few calls, including to a directeur at Saxo Bank now at Team Sky, and Jenkins was on his way to one of the seven Danish Continental teams.
Skinny climber in Northern Europe. The 2009 season was all about learning – how to race in the wind, how to race in the flatter terrain – and Jenkins feels that he is has gotten much better than last year in strength and in his peloton skills.
“Part of that was training more because I wasn’t in school anymore but a lot of that was getting the experience. I’ve been a lot better as far as my positioning pack skills go. Surfing the peloton like I had to do yesterday [Sunday] to get to the front of the group would have been much much harder for me before this year, by being able to fight for wheels on my own.”
Most of his 2009 season was spent racing in Northern Europe where he suffered bad luck in the early part of the year.
“This spring has been up and down for me, I had a lot of bad luck, bad timed punctures, bad timed crashes, stuff like that. There’s definitely several times that I would be in the front group, like right after the front group splits and then I get a flat tire and I’m suddenly in the second group, things like that where I make the selection but then I don’t end up being in the front group because of some kind of bad luck.”
At his first stage race in Croatia, while well positioned at the front, he was taken out in a crash by the race leader with 7 kilometers to go. At the 1.1 Hel van het Mergelland, he crashed and broke his bike in the first 30 kilometers of the race. “Little things, it wasn’t coming together this spring, but that kind of stuff always goes in cycles, I guess. I’ve had pretty good luck over the last three years, I guess maybe it came back to me this spring.”
He also held the KOM after the first day at the Tour de Liege but he focused on the GC.“Then I managed out to lose out pretty badly on one stage, I got shuffled back right before the start of the Mur de Huy and then missed the front split and lost 5 minutes that day.” Jenkins then added with a chuckle “that didn’t work out either.”
But it wasn’t all bad luck, as Jenkins finished eighth at the 1.2 Rogaland GP, a stage race in Norway where he made his way into the decisive break. All in all, it was a good year. “This year has been more of a learning experience, I think the results haven’t been all that stellar just because I haven’t really done races that suited me honestly. I’m a natural climber and Denmark is a flat country. The highest point in Denmark is 570 feet above sea level. “
No major either surprises as he made his way through European races as Jenkins had spent time with the National Team in the past. But he was still taken slightly aback by “how hard you have to work to get into a breakaway, how many breakaways will go before one finally gets away, just how aggressive they really race especially in Holland and Belgium, they’ll attack until you can’t follow the break anymore which is a little different than I think it is here.”
What’s next? Jenkins is finishing off the season with a race in Japan followed by three more weeks of racing in Denmark. As for 2010, well it’s still up in the air.
“Next year, yeah… I’m hoping we’ll see what Utah and this race yesterday did for my standing. I kind of want to get out of Denmark because the races don’t suit me but my team has been great.” said Jenkins who suffering from the altitude, finished fifteenth overall at the Tour of Utah while racing on the KFAN Composite team.
Jenkins is looking at both European and American teams with a slight emphasis on the USA as he found it “a bit hard to be away from home for 6 months.”
He didn’t suffer from culture shock per say but more missing his loved ones. “I have a girlfriend in California, it’s hard being away from her for 6 months and things like that.” He then added with a laugh “I like having warm summers.”
But he also is not against staying with his current team as they did do some races that were well suited for him. Next step is to sit down with his current director. “He wants everyone to succeed. I don’t think he’d be too upset, I think he understands where I’m coming from. I’ve done everything they wanted from me and I hope he can help me out a little bit.”
As for his future, Jenkins is aiming for Europe. “I think the races there are generally better for me. I don’t tend to get as tired as a lot of other people, fast and hard races, I tend to do better at those.”
Jenkins is not only learning about tactics and pack skills but also discovering about his own body and strength as this is the first year that he’s been able to train full time.
“I think that they gains I’ve had this year have been more that the gains I’ve had in the past couple of years. My form has been so much better this last month and a half than it was most of the year and I don’t think that I’m peaking, I just got stronger and made it over the hump or something.”
Still learning and still aiming high. “At this point for me, it’s more about getting the confidence and the race experience to know where I belong in the group.”
I’ll keep up with Max and see what happens. You can follow also him on twitter @max_jenkins