AURILLAC, France (VN) – Brent Bookwalter never expected to be on the front row for a yellow jersey push for Cadel Evans in the Tour de France.
In 2001, Bookwalter asked Evans for an autograph at a mountain bike race when he was 15 years old and Evans was just about to transition onto the road scene. Flash forward a decade, and Bookwalter has quietly become one of Evans’ most trusted lieutenants. Bookwalter rode last year’s Giro and Tour with Evans and was selected to join BMC’s campaign to push Evans toward overall victory in this year’s Tour.
Things couldn’t have gone better for Evans, who has escaped injury and crashes through the first 10 days of racing. As Evans sat down with a few dozen journalists during Monday’s rest day, VeloNews sat down with Bookwalter for an interview. Here are excerpts on Sunday’s big crash, on helping Evans and where he thinks American cycling is headed:
VN: Brent, you were involved in the big crash Sunday, describe what happened.
BB: Life flashed before my eyes. I was in good position, right on Thor’s (Hushovd) wheel. I was 10th wheel. We topped out over the climb and it was kind of wet and we wanted to be up front and position. I don’t know if it was Lotto or Garmin at the front, but they were railing it. It seemed excessive. I am on the wheel of the yellow jersey, the last thing you want to do is run into him, so I was giving him two-three bike lengths coming through the corners. You’re exposed and you could see the corners, you could see if they were of decreasing radius or if they were real fast. We came into the woods and then just came around that corner. The corner kept closing, closing, closing and all of a sudden, you see guys putting feet down, guys washing out their tires.
VN: So what happened then?
BB: Well, I couldn’t lean the bike over, because I’d crash. I couldn’t go right, because I’d go into the trees. I just tried braking and I hit a guy in front of me. My forks broke. And I smashed right down.
VN: Who fast do you estimate you were going then?
BB: I had the SRM “live tracker” on my bike yesterday and someone e-mailed that they were watching me, that I was at 80kph and then at zero. We were going very fast.
VN: Describe that scene …
BB: It was carnage. It was like we were in a war movie. Willems, I am glad he is not hurt worse. Guys were moaning, screaming. Guys were down in a ditch. I saw Zabriskie’s hand sticking up from the bushes down below us. It was really, really nasty. That’s a scary moment. You see guys crash, you see guys lose skin, but when you’re hearing bones cracking and grown men yelling and screaming, it was traumatic. That, combined with me hitting my head, left me blasted for the rest of the stage.
VN: Your third grand tour, is there more tension?
BB: Every grand tour I’ve done, there’s been crashes in the first week, everyone’s nervous, but this one seems, relative to what I’ve experienced, even worse. Everyone has their reasons or their justification for them. I am not afraid to say that I think it is a little bit excessive. The guarantees of the first week of a grand tour are, you’re going to have a nervous peloton, no matter what roads you’re on, no matter what country you’re in. You’re going to have huge pressure on guys. You’re talking about careers, millions of dollars in sponsorship. That’s all on the line. When you put them on such small roads, and the GC is still so closely packed together. OK, maybe the riders need to use a little more discretion, but on the other hand, the race organizers want a more exciting race. Unfortunately, that excitement comes in the form of guys getting seriously hurt. And and the GC battle getting whittled down off of crashes, which is really sad.
VN: With the crash with Flecha and Hoogerland, is there a sense of outrage or frustration among the riders that things have gone too far?
BB: It’s maddening, because everyone says cycling is dangerous, that it has to be brutal to be beautiful. It seems like insanity. What’s crazy, is that everyone is going to wake up tomorrow, and we are going to do the exact same thing.
VN: Nothing ever changes …
BB: LIke at the Giro, a guy was killed (Wouter Weylandt), people are breaking femurs. Nothing changes. It’s frustrating. I know we cannot be racing down an airport runway, either, that’s not cycling. It seems like these bad things happen and they just get swept under the rug. It’s hard, when you’re on the good end of the stick, you’re counting your blessings. When you’re on the rough end of it, then you come off as the guy who is complaining or whining uselessly.
VN: So it looks you’re OK, you have no serious injury?
BB: Yes, I am OK. I am blessed and fortunate that I can walk away from that. It was terrifying.
VN: So your task during this Tour is to be right with Cadel throughout each stage?
BB: Yes, I have to stay with him. So far, the first week, it’s been with him through the early part of the stage and then let the classics guys take over in the end of the stage.
VN: So when you went down, it was close to taking out Cadel as well?
BB: Yes, it was really close. I remember seeing him take his foot out and skating through. He called back on radio and told the team I was down. I think it left him shaken up, like it did a lot of guys. We’ve been really fortunate the whole first week, but ti doesn’t mean I am happy with how things have gone, race-wise.
VN: Has Cadel even crashed at all?
BB: Knock on wood, no. The team’s riding better than it did last year. It is a lot of luck. You have to be lucky to avoid those crashes, but you have to be working really hard to keep him up front and keep him out of trouble. We’re spending energy doing that, energy that we believe is worthwhile. It’s a big responsibility to have a GC guy on the team. It’s a big amount of pressure to keep him out of trouble. We don’t have a sprinter. We have every guy working for Cadel.
VN: There’s some suggestion that BMC has worked too hard, do you feel like you’ve done too much?
BB: Well, there’s also criticism that we are getting in the way of the sprinters. The whole thing perpetuates itself. OK, we’re going to be on small roads all day. If you’re not at the front, there’s a higher risk. So we go to the front, then the other teams see Cadel at the front, and they want to be there. That’s not going to change, and it’s not good for the sport for that to change, so it would be nice if something around us would change.
VN: Things should open up once the peloton rolls into the Pyrénées, it’s hard to imagine that things might actually be easier on hors-categorie climbs?
BB: Yes, everything should calm down once we’re in the mountains. A lot of people’s hopes of GC grandeur will be squashed down pretty fast. Everyone will slot into their places. That doesn’t mean that people won’t keep still fighting. I can handle all the pain and suffering in my legs and lungs, but riding through those war zones, that’s tough.
VN: What’s the mood of the team? You couldn’t have asked for a better first week …
BB: I don’t we could have asked for much more. I think most people on the team would say mission accomplished in these first nine days. We’ve asserted ourselves when we needed to. Cadel’s stage win was really big. It was big for morale. It was the first Tour stage win for BMC, so everyone’s pumped for that.
VN: A successful Tour de France, to ride into Paris in yellow?
BB: That would be a dream. You never want to sell yourself short or cut yourself out of opportunities that might come up in the race, but my mind is set on helping Cadel. I am going to take care of myself and do my job to help him 100 percent.
VN: Logic says follow Contador and you can maintain a margin, and the Tour is won?
BB: That’s the word we don’t use in cycling is logic. My logic is often deniable and incorrect. We’re in a good position. We’d be happy if he’s on the same time as those guys, so to have Cadel on a better time is great. Anything can happen, as we saw in this first week. You cannot take anything for granted. If you had five minutes, it’s not enough to let your guard down. That’s what makes the sport exciting.
Confidence in Cadel
VN: What does that do for other riders on the team when you see Cadel digging so hard?
BB: When we see Cadel full-on. You see the pictures coming across the line, looking like he’s ready to eat someone, we’re like, whoa! That’s our guy. He’s ready to ball. So we’re ready to go to war for him. It charges us up and inspires us. Eyes on the prize.
VN: One second from the yellow jersey for a whole week, was that an obsession?
BB: You never don’t want it, because you never know when you’re going to get the chance to get it again. When you look at what’s lying ahead, what’s in store in the final half of the Tour, we were not obsessing about it.
VN: Last year’s Tour start was a surprise? So to come back this year, what does it mean for you?
BB: It’s huge. It’s a different experience having prepared for it with a more complete, deep, well-rounded team. It’s almost more challenging, because the weight’s on you. To have a chance to do that in the biggest race of the world is pretty cool.
VN: What did you take out of last year’s Giro and Tour that’s helping you this year?
BB: It comes to maturity, taking it day by day. By looking at what happened in the previous stages, and deleting if from your memory. Forget about it, not obsess over it. And not looking so far ahead and not getting intimidated about what lies ahead.
VN: Has Cadel adopted you? Or is it the other way around? You and Cadel have grown very close, right?
BB: This is my fourth year on the team. I’ve gotten to know these guys pretty well. We all respect each other. It’s a real support group. Even yesterday when I crashed. I got dropped on one of the climbs and I was fighting to come back through the cars. Cadel said, take it easy, find a group and ride it, we need you later in the race.’
VN: What will you role be in the second half of the Tour?
BB: Depends on how the legs are. We will switch roles around, depending on how the stage is. It’s all about fighting to be there with him as long as you can. Grab a group and then do it again the next day. Sometimes I feel like a child among super-stars. These guys are all super professionals. They were born cyclists. They’re these guys who stepped onto the scenes and they were already junior champions, espoirs champions, or ProTour at 19. And here I am, a little American guy. I raced my bike a little when I was young and fortunately I had a few opportunities and all of sudden I am here at the Tour.
VN: It must be a surprise for you to be at the Tour?
BB: When I signed with this team years ago, they wanted to do a ‘grand tour’ three or four years down the road. My initial reaction was, wow, I can be on a team that does a grand tour, not even thinking about being on the roster. The team’s ambitions and goals kept increasing and here we are here in France in July.
Looking to future
VN: One thing that Cadel said of all the American guys on this team is that you are the role model and the example for all the other guys, what does that mean to you when you hear that?
BB: I hadn’t heard that. I am really humbled and a huge honor. That means a lot. I feel like I have worked really hard. I am here through hard work and other people’s support of me. I am not some guy who won 15 junior national titles or a world title. I didn’t win my first pro race. I am kind of a scrapper. I have been clawing away at it, chipping away at it. It’s nice to hear that I have arrived at a point where it is appreciated and recognized.
VN: When you look at crystal ball, how far do you see your career progressing?
BB: When I look at guys like Cadel, I think you have to have something special to do something like that. I do have some GC ambitions and personal ambitions somewhere down the road. Whether that’s in a race like Tour of California or smaller, week-long race. That’s realistic. Right now, it’s hard to think about that. I just want to get to the end of the Tour.
VN: How do you see the future of American cycling? You’re part of a new generation coming up through the ranks …
BB: It’s so stacked. Now I am feeling the heat coming up underneath me. I used to think I was that heat pushing up on the older guys. Now I am in the middle. There’s a great generation ahead of us who have paved the way and hopefully I can keep it going for this generation that is coming up behind me.
VN: What do you say to people who doubt the credibility of cycling? A lot of people think that cycling is doped to the gills? What do you say to those people?
BB: In a lot of ways, I feel bad for them. We want your support and we appreciate it but if that’s the way you’re going to it, we don’t want you. We’re all here trying to do it clean. We’re setting the record straight and going down the correct path. There are always going to be people who want to hang on to the old reputation that the sport has. We’re here to go the other way.
VN: Is the sport cleaner?
BB: Yes, but you could even go as far as saying as some of the crashes are due to that. I think, it’s so much more evenly matched. The gaps are so much smaller. The places that you can find and create a difference, there are so fewer. Everyone is pushing and fighting for every little moment. Whether it’s a descent like yesterday or some little town you come through at kilometer 50. There are lots of good signs that it’s cleaning up.
VN: Do you think you have a responsibility to promote that message?
BB: I definitely do. Sometimes I almost feel like I am just Brent Bookwalter, I am just a domestique at the Tour and no one really cares. I have to remind myself that if we all have that attitude, nothing will change. As these older riders start to retire, that responsibility will shift to us even more. We have to encourage other pieces of the sport, whether that’s the media or race organizers, to do the same and fight. Not just stick a band-aid on the problem. And really delve deeper into it and find some solutions. It’s frustrating. It’s frustrating to be racing with guys who are unrepentive guys who think they’ve served their time and now they’re back. At the end of the day, you gotta just keep going. You have to worry about yourself, worry about you’re doing.