The third time was not a charm. Young American Brent Bookwalter has done the last two Tour de Frances, riding for BMC Racing and tour champion Cadel Evans. He won’t make that three in a row.
Today the team announced the final roster and Bookwater, along with Swiss climber Steve Morabito, are listed as alternates. Close but no baguette and pate.
The non-selection had to be a surprise for Bookwalter given his good relationship with Evans and his results in the Tour de Suisee. Bookwalter notched a top ten in the stage seven time trial and made the break in the final mountain stage.
However, Bookwalter wasn’t as lucky as fellow American Chris Horner, who this week managed to get himself back on the RadioShack Nissan Trek Tour roster when all hope seemed lost. In Bookwalter’s case, BMC was stacked with new arrivals Steve Cummings and Tejay Van Garderen and Philippe Gilbert. Not an easy job to crack that line-up.
We wrote a profile of Bookwalter for Cycle Sport Magazine shortly after the 2011 Tour de France. Since he won’t be at the Grand Boucle this year, we thought it might be a good time to share his experiences.
HEADLINE: BMC’s Brent Bookwalter reflects on the Tour de France, riding for Cadel, throwing elbows and playing the Australian body double.
The first two weeks of the 2011Tour de France were mayhem, a demolition derby, an oversize crash site. Brent Bookwalter had a front row Fizik seat on the action and we’ve got an hour of skype to hear the stories. He remembers working overtime to keep his captain Cadel Evans out of trouble, off the tarmac and in contention.
“We had a lot of run-ins with the HTC-guys, yelling at us, saying “back off.” We’re trying to stay out of their way, off the the left or right in our own little world. Lars Bak took my arm and basically hip slung me back. So being the immature kid that I am, I went up and did the same thing, like “hey man, what are you doing?”
It’s a funny image that doesn’t seem to fit the guy I’m looking at: a chillaxed, 27 year old from Georgia who no longer listens to “screamo-angry” music like Metallica to get revved up for races. He’s into the tranquillo stuff now but on the bike the work isn’t for the shy, not in the Tour with that yellow maillot up for grabs.
“At times we are in their way. Cadel wants to be right up next to them almost like we’re racing them. The last thing they want to see are these punks, who haven’t been working all day, creeping up,” says Bookwalter, who comes to a conclusion in route. “I gotta work on shutting my mouth. I’ve had some confrontations this year. I am an expressive guy.”
Bookwalter doesn’t like naming names, detailing the transgressions or quoting the obscenities. Part of that is just the wisdom of a stage racer — a trained amnesia, not waisting energy on the negative. There’s nothing to be gained by making enemies on the road or in print. Still, the peloton wasn’t handing Evans a free ride up front and Bookwalter has learned the hard way what it takes to make space when everyone still has fresh legs and big ambitions.
“It’s very challenging to hold that wheel. They see George, they see Cadel, they see the US champ bands, the world champ bands, they’ll give them a little opening. They see anyone else and they stick the elbow into you. I’m definitely not making friends along the way.”
Look at Bookwalter’s career trajectory and you might conclude that his way certainly looks pretty good. Five years ago he was riding for the Bobcats of Lees McRae college in Banner Elk, North Carolina. Now he has three grand tours in his legs, a second place in a Giro time trial and two Tour rides, bringing home Cadel Evans in yellow along the Champs Elysees.
It’s a case of right place, right time, damn good fortune and tenacity. When we ask Bookwalter what makes him a good stage racer, tenacity is his first pick. Riding the tour is a act of self-abuse but Bookwalter is already a student of the Tour and the requirements for survival.
“It’s knowing that for a month, you have to eat, sleep, breathe this race. There can’t be any doubt in your mind. You have to be totally present, you can’t be thinking about last week or next week,”says Bookwalter.
“The first tour, that was hard. It was easier to get blown out and discouraged. Kinda getting lost in the whole circus of it all. For me, the difficult part is moving on, forgetting that previous day, trying your best to delete it from your memory. Because if you hang on the frustration and intensity, there’s no way you’re gonna be able to continue.”
Bookwalter’s first kiddie bike was a Schwinn Predator and now he rides a BMC impec. The training wheels came off a long time ago but no matter how impressive the wattage, the Tour eventually breaks everyone. It’s a subject Bookwalter already knows first hand, up-close and painful.
“The tour is absurd. The abnormal is the normal. It’s so easy to get overwhelmed and discouraged. The field is so deep you’re with the best in the world and you can have a great day but relative to everyone else, it’s not a good performance.”
I ask Bookwalter if he has any psychological tricks that help him cope with stresses of the Tour. It turns out he simply imagines something as logistically daunting and emotionally charged as a bike race around France: his up-coming wedding in November. “We spent some time during the tour talking about the wedding as a healthy distraction. Planning our honey moon. That’s what I hung on to.” Scuba diving in Belize does take your mind off tackling the Alps and Pyrenees.
The talk of misery and suffering always brings up the fundamental career questions. Where’s the happiness, what keeps you going, why does bike racing have such a deep hold? Bookwalter didn’t come from a big sports family, was never groomed for athletic success or tapped as a next Armstrong. So, what’s the hook?
Bookwalter admits it’s a good question and big life queries don’t often have finger-snap answers. He circles around some ideas and then finds one from somebody else. “I think we’re all addicted to that sense of accomplishment. Scott Nydam, a former BMC teammate of mine, told me the one thing he misses most is that feeling you get after a stage with a mountaintop finish.”
“You turn around at the top and ride back down through these hordes of fans. You have this immense reflection on what you just accomplished, what you suffered through, whether you were the first guy or the last. Those are the moments that resonate with me and make me keep coming back.”
When the subject turns to Cadel Evans, that is when the long pauses begin. I have the sense that two weeks after the Tour de France, Bookwalter is still protecting his captain, this time keeping Evan’s personal details safe and out of the magazine. Statements become general and bland — Evan’s is “normal” and “human” and “grateful” and “modest” and “passionate about cycling.”
Repeated attempts to tease out a character insight or observation fail and I’m guessing it’s for several reasons. Not only does Bookwalter respect Evans, there’s a certain closeness, a Cadel junior quality. They sport the same haircut, bushy eyebrows and square jaw. Both are former mountain bike racers and Evan’s interest in books and classical music matches well with Bookwalter’s honors degree in biology. Neither man qualifies as a one dimensional dumb jock.
“I think we are a little bit similar. Cadel jokes around that I’m his body double. When I did that training camp, I did play successful decoy with some journalists that were trying to get to him,” says Bookwalter with a laugh. “When they got to me they were let down.”
I ask for anything about Cadel — a joke, anecdote, story, quote, a scrap of personality — but all I manage to pry out is admiration. “One thing that Cadel has done, that’s opened my eyes, is his preparation. Not just physical but mental. He’s got notes on his phone, notes on a notebook, pictures and videos. You think you’re training hard, you think you’re doing everything you can, then a guy like Cadel comes along and shows you there’s so much more you could do.”
Nothing impressed Bookwalter more than Evans’ ride on the second day in the Alps, clawing back time as head Leopard Andy Schleck made a bold attack over the mountain. When he tells the story you can still hear the awe in his voice. “The biggest moment of possible panic was the stage up Galibier. It started to look a little grim there for a minute. And fortunately, Cadel delivered this super human effort,” said Bookwalter.
“I did that climb and I was just miserable, really suffering, but when I rode past that huge tv monitor, there was this image of Cadel on the front with guys behind him just coming apart. I said, ‘wow, Brent, just shut up, look what this guy’s doing. Just get to the top, you’re fine.’ That moment Cadel showed his class and that’s why he’s so easy to work for.”
I keep pressing for a dark or amusing secret to divulge and the one Cadel revelation I get is a quiet, personal moment. “It was the first rest day, the day after I had that bad crash. We rolled out on our easy ride — yeah, easy — steep, gnarly kickers. I’m having a helluva time because I have a new saddle and my ass is getting rubbed raw. I’m sore all over from crashing. I actually drop myself back I’m so miserable.”
“Cadel saw me, came back, and I spent the next few minutes with him commiserating and complaining. He just commended me on doing a good job so far. To hear that from someone who from the outside on TV almost looks immortal , in a class of his own, that’s nice to hear.”
Big George Hincapie, the guardian angel and road boss of the BMC team, proves an easier subject. It’s not hard to guess that the well-respected Hincapie provides the lead vocals for the group. While often called one of the friendliest guys in bike racing, after so many tours with the alpa dog Armstrong, he can channel the Texan when required.
“He’s good at speaking up at the race meetings. There will be these things that are implied and he’ll say “wait.” He’ll look at us and say “that’s gonna mean this, this and this has to happen guys,” Bookwalter tells me. “Whereas Cadel is quieter, he might say, “yeah, it would be nice if I could have one or two guys here.” George is like, “no, not an option, we’re all doing it, we’re all killing ourselves.”
It’s there’s a tour victory moment that Bookwalter looks back on most, it’s not Cadel Evans but George Hincapie that sticks in his memory. “My coolest George moment was seeing his reaction, being in the bus with him, watching the time trial when we realized, oh my gosh, we’re gonna win this tour. It looked like the first one he ever won. He was just as excited and shocked and relived as I was. That was cool.”
In the end, there was Paris, sunshine, the BMC red, black and one beautiful yellow leading the parade onto the circuits of the Champs Elysees. I assume that Bookwalter might have taken a moment to soak that in but he tells me no –”It’s a live race, we’re going fast on those cobbles. It’s not a given, it’s not wrapped up.”
The interesting part for Bookwalter is the not so much that immediate reality but the televised past. “It was a little surreal. It was this out of body thing, that’s a moment and a visual that I have stamped in my head from watching Lance and George ride into Paris with the yellow jersey,” says Bookwalter. “To be in the race and be part of that moment, it was kinda strange.”
You can forget champagne — that’s a Tour given, buckets of it — for BMC the big treat after three weeks of high stress and human sacrifice is a hamburger and fries. Then it was off to a private party with a comedian and DJ spinning electronic, hip hop and flashback Eighties tracks.
I shake my head — how can a man possibly dance after 21 stages of the Tour de France in the legs? I get a laugh and an explanation: “Karsten Kroon was my roommate at the Tour last year. He saw first hand how decimated I was. I could barely tie my shoes and go to the bathroom, But at the after-party I got a little reinvigorated. I do like to cut a rug on the dance floor. It was stage 22.”
It’s in passing conversation about the BMC dance party that I finally get a funny Evans anecdote. As Bookwalter tells he how he worked up a sweat on the dance floor and surprised his more restrained euro teammates, I ask if Evans and his wife hit the floor. “No, I’ve never seen Cadel unleash it on the dance floor.” Bingo, stop press, man is a time trial monster but no funkadelic moves at the disco.
Time to shut down the skype. Brent Bookwalter has a plane to catch for the Tour of Utah and then he’ll join Cadel Evans at the US Pro Cycling Challenge in Colorado. The Tour de France winner needs him in the Rocky mountains. Who else is going to play his body double?