The news of HTC-Highroad’s collapse was yet another blow to absorb for Craig Lewis, who can only describe the past three months as “a rough summer.”
In May the 26-year-old American was enjoying the finest grand tour performance of his career at the Giro d’Italia when he and teammate Marco Pinotti went down in a horrifying pileup into a traffic sign on stage 19.
Just two days from the race’s finish in Milan, Lewis left in an ambulance with a broken femur and fractured ribs, while Pinotti left with a fractured hip. Pinotti spent five weeks in the hospital; Lewis spent three weeks rehabilitating after a muscle rupture, known as compartment syndrome, nearly cost him his leg after swelling reached critical mass, requiring emergency surgery.
Lewis spent June and July recuperating and rehabilitating, working toward the possibility of returning at the USA Pro Cycling Challenge. And while that goal is still within reach, on Thursday he was forced to accept that he now must to add looking for a job to his list of concerns — with no results to show since he contributed to HTC’s team time-trial winning performance that opened the Giro, spending the rest of the race riding in support of Mark Cavendish and Kanstantsin Sivtsov.
“During the Giro I think everyone on the team was impressed with how I was riding. I felt that I had a great race,” Lewis said.
“Unfortunately, I broke my leg, but I shouldn’t be treated like I did something wrong. I’m the same rider I was at the Giro, and I hope to prove that over the next few months.”
Asked to expand on being treated like he’d “done something wrong,” Lewis said he felt he was paying the price twice — once with the injury, and again on the job market.
“Everyone you try to talk to, it’s just an easy excuse to move on and see who else is on the market. And there are a lot of guys on the market, because everyone was holding off, waiting to sign riders until they heard whether or not HTC folded. And now they’re naturally more interested in other guys who are healthy and racing.”
Though he isn’t definite for Colorado, Lewis said he expects to be pinning on a number for the pair of WorldTour races in Québec City and Montreal in September. He’s also planning on racing at the Tour of Beijing and the season-ending Italian one-day events, the Tour of Piemonte and the Tour of Lombardy; he hasn’t spoken with USA Cycling about riding the world road championship. He can put out power, he said, but he’s still lacking endurance.
In the mean time, Lewis is in the uncomfortable position of competing for roster positions with the same men he’s gone into battle alongside at High Road Sports for the past four seasons.
“That is the part of the sport I hate the most,” Lewis said. “Pro cycling is so much about ‘what have you done lately?’ It’s an endurance sport, it takes so many years to reach the top level, and people should have more faith in what you’ve done in the past. There are a lot of great riders that get looked over because of injury. I just have to focus on healing up, getting strength back, and not just finishing races but also getting results. I have to do the best I can with the races I have left, but I’m sure teams are filling up with so many extra riders on the market.”
Asked for a reaction on the team’s disbanding, Lewis said more than anything, he feels “sadness.”
“I don’t know if people realize how bad it is for the sport,” he said. “There are very few companies out there that see the marketing value of cycling. It’s largely people that love to ride and want to sponsor a team, which is great, but it would better to see big companies that don’t know cycling coming into the sport just to promote their brand. With Bob (Stapleton) not able to come through, with a team that won 500 races, that says a lot. The cost to sponsor the team for a major company, from their overall marketing budget, they wouldn’t even notice the money missing, but they would see a huge media benefit, especially during the Tour de France alone.”
Lewis said he’s grateful to Stapleton, and not only for the opportunity given to him with High Road Sports.
“Bob was so helpful, he arranged the transportation from Italy to Hamburg, Germany, to one of the better hospitals,” he said. “He made sure my leg was cared for by top European surgeons. After I had compartment syndrome they told me if I hadn’t been in the hospital, and rushed into emergency surgery within a half-hour, I would have had my leg amputated.”
“It’s been a rough summer. And losing the team was big blow. They’ve been so supportive. They were very happy with how my spring was. And even if I never race again, I hate to see a program like Highroad just go away. Just as fan of the sport, it’s not want you want to see.”