Even though his year started in February at the Tour of California, the season is not over for Brent Bookwalter of the BMC Racing Team. He will be part of the 9-rider American squad that will take on the world in the road race at the UCI World Championships this Sunday.
In April 2007, during a race in France, Bookwalter crashed into lightpole and fractured his femur, while he returned to racing after an 11-month recovery period, he stated that the ‘old feelings’ finally returned at the Tour of Utah in 2008. The 2009 year brought challenges and opportunities as he raced with his team in both NRC races in the US and prestigious races such as Paris-Roubaix, le Critérium du Dauphine Libéré and le Tour de Romandie in Europe.
Finally, at the Tour of Utah, Bookwalter won the prologue making it not only his first NRC win but his first victory since his return from his injury. Full circle as he called it at that point.
I caught up with Bookwalter last week as he was driving to Western North Carolina to add some spice to his training before his last races of the season, starting with Worlds.
What a year and it’s not over yet.
Still a good chunk ahead which I’m trying to take one day and one race at a time, not get too far ahead of myself because if I start thinking of racing in the middle of October right now, it would be the end of me.
Have you been to Worlds before?
I did one of the U23. I went as a junior, I went to cyclocross and mountain and then as U23, I went to road worlds in 06 in Salzburg, and then last year I did the Elite road race as well.
What does it mean for you to go to this race? And how do you prepare for it while finding out about it so late?
Yeah, unfortunately they sort of withhold the announcement to late for a number of reasons I think, but it’s definitely a huge honor to go and be selected. Other than the Olympics, it’s the only time where you race for your country on the world stage with a bunch of the best riders in the world, and that’s a just a unique opportunity and a unique race dynamics. And it has very, very high stakes, again aside the Olympics Road race, the World Championship Road Race is one of the biggest titles that you can win all year long, so yeah it’s an honor to do. It’s a little bit of a double-edged sword because it is so late in the year and it is such a big race, I don’t think anyone has an interest in going if they are not going to be prepared at least some extent and have relatively good form. I think that’s the case at least for all the guys that were selected on the team, none of the guys would be going if they were just going for the free ride and going to hang out. Everyone is going there because they want to get the job done, and honor the country and the national team, honor the US ranking.
What are you thoughts about people like National Champion George Hincapie and Levi Leipheimer not going?
I really wish they would. I was talking to Jim Miller and Noel in Greenville a little bit about Worlds and they were saying … USA Cycling sort of acknowledges that they’d like to change the way the US goes to the World Championships, for the Elite men at least, to field a full team of capable, excited, motivated guys and get some uniformity in the team from year to year and then really start working towards big results at Worlds and not just have it as a last minute group of guys doing their own race which I think the past years have been to some extent. From where I am in the sport and in my career, I wouldn’t say I’m extremely confident in my ability to go to the World Championship and race 260 km with the best guys in the world and be there for a big result in the end; but guys like George and Levi, they’ve proven in the world stage that they are capable of that, and with that distance and in that type of race, so it would be really exciting and motivating to have a motivated sort of superstar like that to show up and to rally behind, to work for and to learn from. So to some extent, it’s a little bit disappointing but on the other hand it’s also nice because it opens up the opportunities for a lot of younger guys or older guys or guys that wouldn’t otherwise get the opportunity and there’s still lots of possibilities and options with all the guys that were selected, there’s no reason we can’t make something good happen. But yeah, it would be nice to have George or Levi or any of the kind of heavy hitters show up.
Last time we talked was Utah. And then there was Tour of Missouri.
I was laying under the radar in Missouri, almost biding my time to get out of there. It was a long week.
Put those two races in perspective for me, Utah and Missouri. How did Missouri go for you and the negative racing.
It was, I guess you could call it negative racing, but on the other hand, it’s a 2.HC that has a handful of ProTour teams in it with sprinter-esque profile so that’s what you’re going to get. We see it in Europe time and time again, you could say maybe in the past year or two, the racing even in Europe is becoming more exciting or less negative or more aggressive but the bottom line is that these ProTour teams have huge amount of money, time and resources into winning races and their sprinters are one way that they do it. Sprinters like Cavendish, Haedo or Thor, those guys are proven in sprints time and time again, so there is no reason that those guys are not going to race that way. You have to respect them for doing what they do and racing the way they know they can win because that’s all any team can do and yeah it kind of stinks for the smaller US teams or Continental teams or teams like us where we don’t have a leadout train or major proven sprinter at that level but we would do the same thing.
When we go to an NRC race, we race to our strengths, that’s the same thing that they did when they came to Missouri. I guess you can get bummed out with the outcome, but I wasn’t bummed out with the reason for the outcome or the logic behind it, that’s how it goes. It just shows that the field makes a big race as much or more than the course, it’s a really tall order to have one team shape the race, if one team decides that they want to go up the road today that’s not enough, it’s got to be this collective thinking and collective effort from numerous teams to break the race open and the teams that had that interest were just not strong enough to do it. Frustrating but it’s also a lesson as well, you read about those races where it does happen sometimes around the world, where one team can blow a race apart and after doing a race like Missouri and seeing how hard it is to do that, it’s like ‘wow’, it really increases my awe and respect for teams that can do that and gives you something to strive for and work towards and hopefully we’ll be able to do that some day.
You guys did try to break it apart by using the wind. I guess the wind wasn’t strong enough.
It was kind of funny looking back now (chuckles). There were a couple of days there, that we looked at the wind, looked at the map and we thought, ‘you know if we take this turn on this part of the course, if it is a little open and the wind is how we think it’s going to be, that’s a perfect opportunity to split up’. So we spent a great portion of Missouri sort of on high alert, as John and Jeff put it ‘stay on high alert, stay at the front, get ready to pounce and hopefully we’ll see an opportunity to do it’. And unfortunately it never came which makes it even more mentally cracking, you just wait, wait and wait, you get psyched up, tense, you get nervous and you get up for a let down. You almost expended so much mental and physical energy just hoping and preparing for this move that never happens, then you get to the end and it’s almost like ‘enough, good riddance’. Enough of these games, we tried, we look for opportunities but they just didn’t come.
You seemed to be getting stronger and stronger as the year went on, would you agree with that? And was that both physically and mentally?
Yeah, I think confidence builds more confidence. Once you get a good thing rolling and as long as you get a little bit of luck and stay focused I think that there’s a lot to be said in having that momentum to continue. I feel that yeah that was the case for me, I’ve been getting stronger, I’ve been getting more confident and more comfortable with my role within the team and the team’s expectations of me. I think they’ve also been growing along with my form and confidence. It’s good and it’s a by product of a lot of things. Still a year of racing and out of racing from two years ago, I’m still seeing an upswing from that and also, it’s also a product of having been thrown in a lot of bigger races that I’ve done in Europe this year. I hadn’t raced at that level, that much ever before and it wasn’t even the plan at the beginning of the year but as opportunities arose, I feel I did fairly well rising to the occasion over there and doing what the team expected of me and wanted of me and that goes a long way as far as coming back here and working with the team and even trying to take my opportunities when they arise to lead the team a little bit, learn and grown at that role as well.
So what did you learn about yourself, cycling and teamwork this year? I know that’s a big one.
Yeah the ‘what’ is tough to pinpoint. (chuckles)
Okay did you surprise yourself at all by what you could do?
No, not … I guess not really surprised. I think it’s a lot of personalities and mentalities – it’s not like Babe Ruth pointing for the fences and swinging – it’s more of an internal thing, you couldn’t keep doing the sport and you couldn’t do it at the level that we’re doing without having a lot amount of internal confidence and expectations of yourself. So I don’t think there’s been too many days this year where I was like ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe I did that, that was amazing’. I don’t think I surprised myself that way many times this year but it’s nice to start to realize improvements and some of your goal and progression that deep down inside you really believe that you can do but of course you never fully acknowledge or maybe fully realize until they actually happen, whether those are just baby steps throughout your career or through season or whether that’s getting a big win and then winning, winning and winning like you see a guy like Cavendish do, I think it’s a simpler thing at a smaller level with smaller improvements, whether its pack handling, or time trialing or climbing or teamwork or …
Like you mentioned, you raced in big races in Europe like Paris-Roubaix and le Critérium du Dauphine Libéré and then you had your first NRC win. Put your year in perspective for me, what were your highs and lows?
I think the highs, they were pretty numerous. Being back with BMC was really exciting and getting the invites to do those races and being part of the team trying to step up to that next level, doing Paris-Roubaix, Normandie and le Dauphine, those were all highs for sure. Also seeing the progression in the time trial for myself, that prologue win in Utah was a long time coming. I’ve just been right underneath the radar. I’ve had a few second places and third places in the Tts, leading up to that, putting it all together, that’s a high too. As far as the lows, I don’t know, there are not a whole lot of days that stand out as being big downers, I’ve been fortunate enough to have been blessed with good health and safety and that plays a big part in it too because you can have all the form in the world and all the momentum, but if you get some bad luck or the wrong thing happens at the wrong time, it all screeches to a halt. I’ve definitely been fortunate in that aspect.
And you know what that’s like.
Yeah, exactly, I don’t take it likely.
How big of weight off your shoulders to get the win this year after being close so many times?
Yeah, it was really nice. Unfortunately there haven’t been more of them and hopefully there will be more in the future. It’s good for everyone, anytime the team wins whether it’s an individual time trial or a team win like Louder had at Redlands, it’s always big and it’s always exciting, it goes a long way to unify the team, to motivate us, to bring us closer together even if it is like an individual one like that.
BMC is going bigger next year, much bigger. Mike Sayers named both you and Jeff Louder as co-captain for the US squad during a pre-stage interview at Missouri. Did you know?
Ah. okay. (laughs)
So what does that mean for you? And are you ready to take on a leadership role?
Yeah, I want to step into that. I feel Louder is largely playing that role this year and I feel I’ve been learning a lot from him and learning to step into that. It’s actually funny, I was getting some crap from Rory Sutherland at Missouri, he was calling me shadow and whenever he saw Jeff Louder he would say ‘Shadow, where’s your shadow shadow?’ (chuckles) Giving me hard time because yeah I do follow Louder around a lot. As far as the captain role, I’m trying to learn from him as far as the communication with the team, the tactics and all those little things, piecing them together. Learn from him and hopefully step into that in the future. I feel that I have it within me, I’ve done it in some of the smaller teams a little bit and I kind of played that role collegiately which is a much smaller level. It’s definitely something that interests me and something that I aspire to. I don’t know if that’s how I’m going to fit into the team next year or not but it’s definitely a challenge that I would welcome and grow into for the future.
Alright, so what makes a good leader? You said that you were shadowing Louder, so what is it that makes him a good leader that you are trying to emulate?
I don’t know, everyone is different and every team is different. Every team needs and demands different leadership qualities but it’s got to be someone that you respect throughout the realm of cycling and also to some extent you need to have some respect for him off the bike. It’s got to be someone that communicates well, someone that can be motivating and inspiring, someone who can play the in-between role between the management and the riders as well and then obviously the experience to be proven and yeah to he respected.
Those are big.
Yeah, those are all things to aspire too. No small order to grasp to ahold of all those qualities either.
Where do you see yourself in 3 to 5 years especially with BMC saying that they want to do to the Tour de France? Is that where you want to be?
Yeah definitely, I say over and over again, I’m just really happy to be part of this team. I feel really lucky to have found a team – and the team found me – that has a similar level of progression and has similar goals. I’m still growing, I feel that I’m still improving, and I feel that the team is growing as well and we’re somewhat following the same linear track to progression. So yeah if I’m able to keep my improvements with the plan and projected BMC improvements that could be a great thing. It’s really exciting to be on a team that isn’t just satisfied to be where they’re at. I think most of us have that in common as cyclists, most of us aren’t satisfied, we want to improve and go bigger and go better, so it’s a really nice honor and privilege to be part of a team looking to follow that same characteristic and trait that we sort of inherently have. Hopefully, Grand Tours and more ProTour races and all of the above.
I still have a desire and love and passion in my heart for a lot of the NRC races and racing in the US and racing in my home country. Hopefully, I’ll still get a change to do that as well. By the sounds of it, I’m probably going to be sacrificing some of that for the bigger picture and the bigger plan but it’s nice being on a team with American roots that still has the ties to American races. I’m by no means ready to pack up my life in the US and just move to Europe, I have a great girlfriend here, places and people I love here and I like being in the US too. Hopefully, next year can be that next stepping stone, that progression to bigger races in Europe and having more of a life over there.
You mentioned that you are racing until Mid October.
Yeah I go to Worlds next Wednesday [today]. Then have a quick turn around before the race on Sunday. The following Thursday through Sunday, I do Franco-Belge and then the Sunday after that, I do Paris-Tours and then I’m back home on October 12, I believe.
How do you stay sharp mentally? You started at Tour of California too.
It’s hard. (laughs) I don’t know, hopefully I stay sharp, it hasn’t happened yet. It’s definitely easy to feel dull and stale especially in between races. When you’re at races, to some extent, you sort of get lost in the moment, and you’re motivated by your surroundings and all your teammates. But it’s definitely hard to come home and gear up for big training rides. I’m actually driving now up to the town I went to school, in mid Western North Carolina. Going to do some training in the mountains this weekend, trying to mix the scenery up, sort of invoke some of the old feelings. It’s hard to do big training rides.
What is your plan for the off season? How do you recharge?
Hang the bike up and live the average American life a little bit.
yeah do all of the above. My girlfriend is sitting next to me and she laughs because even for me, wild and cray is not….. I don’t have any exotic vacation plans but yeah I’m working on it. Hopefully some weekend trips with her, do some mountain biking, some camping, try to ink a little vacation into the plans. It’s just nice to be at home.
So when do you start training again?
I don’t know, I have to talk to my coach about it. Yeah this season has been longer, I started in February and I’m going to be finishing in October and it sounds like next year, even though California is moved back, with our new focus, I’m probably going to be starting races in February again, so yeah no change there. It’s definitely a small window. I’ll probably start at the end of November, December, cracking down again, it’s really important for me to get that clear defined break with a clear defined starting and end points because when the season start blending together – I’ve done that before with cross – I think that’s just a recipe for burn out later in the year.