For most of the year, Brent Bookwalter rides for the big names at the BMC Racing Team, but last week at the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah, he had the chance to play for his own results. Bookwalter took home two straight third place finishes. Now, he heads to the Vuelta a España, where he will try again to score a result of his own. The BMC Racing Team does not have a preset leader for the general classification at the Vuelta. When the cats are gone, the mice will play.
“It’s really good, almost liberating,” Bookwalter told Cycling Illustrated during last week’s Tour of Utah. “What we’re doing here, that type of racing, that’s what drew most of us to the sport. It’s motivating and inspiring to have a little bit of freedom.”
Bookwalter’s ride at the recent Tour of Utah provided a portrait in miniature of his career. In the opening two stages, he sprinted for placings and finished third two days in a row. Then as the race headed to the mountains, Bookwalter’s teammate Johann Tschopp went on the attack and took over the race lead. On the final day of racing, Bookwalter rode the front in defense of Tschopp’s race lead over the massive Empire Pass. It was just a normal day at the office for Bookwalter who has ridden three grand tours for Cadel Evans.
The heat and high altitude climbing drew Bookwalter to Utah as preparation for the Vuelta a España. “It’ll be a tough turnaround to do the travel and the jetlag and then set off for another three-week race,” he predicted last week. On the Monday after the Tour of Utah concluded, Bookwalter hopped on a plane for two days of travel back to Europe and an eight-hour time difference.
Bookwalter willingly took on the torturous travel schedule. He wanted the trip back to the United States to race at home, and he believed Utah’s terrain would set him up well for Spain’s mountainous grand tour. “It was actually in the back of my mind before this race, I was hoping it would be hot,” he said of the Tour of Utah. The temperatures hit 100F/38 C for several days during the six-day stage race. “Now, of course, I’m like cursing myself for having those thoughts when I’m out there,” he laughed.
Bookwalter started out as a mountain bike racer. Mountain bikes serve as cycling’s gateway drug. Riders start out doing the occasional weekend fat tire race. Then they start winning, and before long, they have embraced the skinny tire life. In 2006 Bookwalter won the U23 national time trial championship, and the time trial remains his strongest discipline.
Much of the time, Bookwalter races for the big names on the BMC Racing Team roster, and it is rare to see Bookwalter on the top step of the podium. In recent seasons, he has come close to scoring a big win on several occasions. In 2010, he finished second behind Bradley Wiggins in the prologue of the Giro d’Italia.
Riding in support of cycling’s biggest talents has its own rewards. Last year, BMC Racing Team’s Cadel Evans won the Tour de France, and Bookwalter had a front-row seat as he did the hard work of keeping Evans safe on the flat stages and positioning the Australian for the Tour’s mountains. “It was a culmination of everything I’ve worked for on the bike and everything I’ve strived for,” Bookwalter said of the 2011 Tour. “To be on the world’s biggest stage, and to be, as a team, victorious in that… was definitely a career achievement. I’m proud of it.”
Much to his disappointment, Bookwalter did not ride the Tour this year. “One of my goals this year was to be selected to race the Tour again for Cadel,” he said. “And it didn’t work out. That was definitely a blow.” The BMC team has changed significantly since Bookwalter first signed in 2008, and the current roster is stacked with talent. Classics king Philippe Gilbert and up-and-coming U.S. stage race talent Tejay van Garderen were among the riders to join the team this year.
The wealth of talent meant some hard choices for the BMC team management, as Bookwalter is quick to acknowledge. “I have to respect the management decision, and I know it’s a hard call for them, because there’s a lot of very qualified guys and very motivated guys,” he said.
With so many talented riders on the team, it can also be difficult to find opportunities to chase results. “The team has changed a lot over the past year,” said Bookwalter. “Just adapting and adjusting to that as best that I can and trying to find my place can be challenging in itself.” One opportunity came for Bookwalter earlier this season when he placed third at the U.S. national time trial championship behind Dave Zabriskie and Tejay van Garderen. It was one place better than his performance last year.
Those incremental advances keep Bookwalter training hard and pushing himself on the bike. “No matter how good you are, it’s a constant quest for improvement and putting all the pieces together,” he said. “I’ve been working hard to do it, but it’s like, the higher your level, the harder it gets to actually see improvement and have it turn into something.”
In 2011, Bookwalter finished almost two minutes behind Zabriskie at the national championship. This year, he was less than a minute back from the seven-time national champion. “The results don’t look that much different, sometimes the time gaps and subtle things mean more than the placing.”
Bookwalter has a grounded perspective on the sport. He is glad to support his team’s leaders such as Evans, Gilbert, and van Garderen. “I enjoy the team role,” he said. “I relish the chance to work for these guys who are going to go down in cycling history as some of the best of all time, probably.” But he also looks to improve on the bike and chase his own results when he can.
For Bookwalter, there is no master plan. “I’m not one of these guys, who five years ago said I’m going to be a pro cyclist, and I’m going to do this for the next fifteen years, and I’m committed to this path, and I’m going to make it work no matter what,” he said. He takes each season as it comes, and at each turning point, he decides which road he thinks his life and career should follow. “I do a year, and I go, well, that went alright, and I’m still enjoying it, let’s do it again.”
That is not to say Bookwalter does not have goals in the sport. Like any competitive athlete, Bookwalter wants to stretch the boundaries of his talent as far as he can. “I’m learning more about my limits and my capabilities,” he said. “But at the same time, you want to leave the door open, and put yourself in position for those breakthrough performances that can really change a lot in your career and your life.” He has come close on several occasions to standing on the podium’s top step. He has not given up on the possibility of bringing home the podium flowers.
Like many people who ride bikes, Bookwalter occasionally looks back on the things he does on the road and wonders how he was willing to suffer the way he did. It’s a crazy thing to be a bike racer, turning himself inside-out day after day on the bike. He remembers the Tour that way. “It’s definitely one of the most trying experiences of my life,” he said. “But it was also in a lot of ways, the most rewarding as well.”
Why would I ever want to go back there and do that again, he wonders. “It was miserable, but that’s why we do this. It’s crazy, it’s a conundrum.” That mix of suffering and reward is a potent mix. It keeps Brookwalter coming back, though he is still not always entirely sure why. Next year, he will return to BMC for another season and he will continue to seek a balance between riding for the team’s big stars and satisfying his own ambitions.
The upcoming Vuelta offers Bookwalter a rare opportunity. “I’ve never done a grand tour without Cadel,” he said. “When he’s in the race, he’s going for it. There’s always been that pressure and responsibility, so it’ll be different showing up without a guy like that there.” Bookwalter is hoping to find a result for himself somewhere in the hard, hot roads of Spain.
“It’s challenging, it’s frustrating, it’s all these different things at times. But at the end of the day, you sit back and look at what you’re part of, look at what you’re doing, and realize we’re still riding bikes, and that’s what we signed up for to begin with,” said Bookwalter of his life on the bike. “And it’s a pretty cool gig.”