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Brent Bookwalter before the start of the Olympic...

In Rio, Bookwalter races in rarified air

In a rare turn as team leader in one of the world's biggest races, Brent Bookwalter lands a respectable 16-place finish

On the road to Vista Chinesa, American Brent Bookwalter flew in the rarified air of Tour de France contenders and world champions, soaring far above his usual domestique duties and into 16th place in the hardest Olympic road race in recent history.

“I was proud of how I rode,” he said at the finish line with the day’s sweat still crusted on his shoulders and shorts. “My plan, my goal and expectation, was to be the best version of myself I could be and leave it all out on the road. I think I did that.”

Things didn’t always looks so bright. Bookwalter described feeling blocked and slow in the first half of the race, his body mired in a morass of post-Tour de France recovery rides. The first time up to Vista Chinesa, on the difficult final laps, he was suffering so much he “thought it was just over,” he said. But then something clicked.

“I fought through some tough moments, and some moments I disappointed myself and some moments I was really proud of myself and surprised myself,” he said. “At the end of the day I’m content with the performance.

“On the second time up I really just found my rhythm and was even going with some accelerations a little bit. I was watching guys getting dropped. I was reminded, ‘I’m still in this.’ Keep fighting.”

The unpredictability of Olympic road racing panned out, well, as predicted. Bookwalter stuck on the back of a group of favorites that contained Britain’s Chris Froome, Julian Alaphilippe of France, and a handful of other stars, ticking away the kilometers and the climbs, threading his way through the chaos, until fewer than 25 men remained in contention.

“Even in those last two laps there were groups going, groups coming back, guys crashing, guys flatting, guys cramping. It was just… man. Crazy,” he said.

Should we be surprised? Was Bookwalter’s ride — which saw him finish between Bauke Mollema (Netherlands) and Adam Yates (Great Britain), just behind Froome, ahead of Esteban Chaves (Colombia) and Romain Bardet (France) — a once-in-a-lifetime thing, some sort of miracle day in which a man who has devoted the lion’s share of his career to the service others proved so adept at grabbing the horns and riding the bull himself?

“Honestly, I did expect it,” said the man in the director’s seat behind Bookwalter on Saturday, USA Cycling’s Mike Sayers. “You hope for the best, and you prepare for the best. I don’t think it’s out of nowhere. I think it’s been hidden under the surface.

“I think he stepped up and rode as a leader today. He was with all the hitters there, at the end of the day it was a great result and it means a lot for us as a country.”