Former Tour de Georgia stage winner finds new life at Bahati Foundation
An unlikely victor stood atop the podium after the final stage criterium at the San Dimas Stage Race in 2007. Cesar Grajales, the rail-thin, Colombian-born climber won the stage with a five-lap solo move. That 2007 win, his last in the U.S. as a professional, seems a lifetime ago from the strikingly similar effort he registered Saturday in the San Dimas Hospital Road Race.
VeloNews sat down with Grajales recently under the neon green pop-up tents adorning the Bahati Foundation Professional Cycling Team training camp headquarters in Agoura Hills, California. Having just finished a VIP ride along the Tour of California stage 8 circuit, Grajales said it’s a course he hopes to revisit with a number pinned on in May.
Grajales, who teammate Nathan O’Neill calls Gecko, is making a comeback of sorts from the no man’s land to which he had been banished since early 2008.
“Difficult to describe,” he quickly answered when asked about his previous two seasons with Rock Racing, during which he bounced between the team’s professional and amateur rosters and was even fired and rehired once within the same week.
“I feel that I lost two years of cycling.”
Where things went wrong
Grajales joined Michael Ball’s experiment in mixing edgy hipster culture with professional road racing ahead of the 2008 season. At the time, Grajales was well known for being a leader in the mountains, having registered podium finishes at the Cascade Cycling Classic and Redlands Bicycle Classic. He was coming off of a season with Jittery Joe’s, following the demise of the Navigators franchise, for which he rode in 2005 and 2006.
“Many, many things went wrong for me at Rock from the beginning,” Grajales said.
Rock Racing management did not respond to requests to comment for this article.
When he arrived at his first training camp with the team in Malibu in January 2008, his bike had been lost in transit. Riding an ill-fitting replacement, Grajales was sidelined when he developed tendinitis.
Soon after, Grajales said, team owner Michael Ball told him Euro’ sprint king Mario Cipollini would be taking his place on the professional roster.
“From being one of the top pro riders in the U.S. to being downgraded to an amateur rider, it’s hard to keep your head up,” said Grajales. “I was the team leader at Jittery Joe’s. Then I was one of the strong riders on Navigators for two years, depending on the racing situation, obviously.”
Speaking of himself in these terms clearly did not come naturally to the humble Georgia-based veteran. He would much rather let his legs do the talking, as they did on stage 6 of the 2004 Tour de Georgia, when he left an elite group containing Lance Armstrong and Chris Horner to win the queen stage on Brasstown Bald.
The ups and downs of revolving contracts
According to Grajales, his 18 months at Rock were a roller coaster of on-again, off-again professional status with the team. He was stuck in the Catch 22 of trying to get back to the pro roster, while struggling to get starts, and thus results, because he was not on the pro roster. Ball re-signed Grajales to the pro team in June 2008, but he began the 2009 season again as an amateur.
Grajales said rock bottom for him at Rock Racing came in 2009 when he was in his native Colombia, getting his athlete visa to return to the U.S. “I got a call from the team, telling me they were cutting my salary in half,” he said.
Hesitant to risk his visa status, Grajales accepted the salary reduction and returned to the amateur team. In April he received the news that, along with Chris Baldwin and Michael Creed, he had been fired.
“I got a call from Michael Ball a week later saying that everything was OK with me, that I was part of the team and not to worry about that,” said Grajales.
Grajales reluctantly accepted Ball’s offer and rejoined the team. A few months later, he said, he signed a new contract as a professional, but was not reappointed to the professional team. Starts continued to be few and far between — with less than a week’s notice — for the remainder of 2009. Grajales claims the final blow came when he was not paid for the last three months of the year.
“I knew it was going to finish that way because it was poorly organized,” he said. “It was a nightmare.”
Making up time
Fortunately for Grajales, Rick Crawford and Steve Owens, the managers of the Bahati Foundation team, believed in his ability to return from Purgatory to the top flight of the U.S. peloton.
“They know cycling and they believe in me,” said Grajales. “I have to thank them for that.”
Grajales turned out a solid show of appreciation Saturday, as he joined the winning five-rider breakaway in San Dimas on the final climb of the Cannon Avenue wall. With one kilometer remaining and the peloton out of sight, Grajales struck out on his own, hoping to repeat the solo flyer that delivered his 2007 stage win.
It was not to be this time, though, as UnitedHealthcare-Maxxis’ Rory Sutherland came around him 50 meters before the line. While Grajales came up just short, the confidence he earned in his first road stage of the year may mean even more.
“It brings back the confidence to trust myself again,” he said. “After two years of not really being able to race, I have to be able to believe in myself again. I’m feeling good now, strong, and today makes me feel more confident.”
At training camp he said, “I’m hoping to give my best to the team and that things are going to work out okay.” After delivering the team’s first national-level podium Saturday, it looks likely that they will.