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MADRID — Brent Bookwalter (BMC Racing) knows the next three weeks are going to be pure hell, but he couldn’t be happier.
The American was tapped to return to the Tour de France this week by BMC, a relief for the all-rounder who missed out on racing the Tour in 2012 after starting the previous two editions.
A strong start to the 2013 season, including his first European-level win with a stage and podium at the Tour of Qatar, helped him regain his spot on BMC’s Tour Nine.
VeloNews caught up with Bookwalter at his European base in Girona on Tuesday by telephone to talk BMC’s strategy, the tricky Corsican roads, and what makes the Tour so bloody hard. Here are excerpts from the interview:
VeloNews.com: First off, congratulations on being selected for BMC’s Tour Nine. When did you find out?
Brent Bookwalter: Not too long before you did. I got the call a few hours before the press release went out. I was very excited. It’s always an honor to go to the Tour. And looking back at last season, and where I’ve come from this season, I made up some serious spots. In January, I was maybe 14 or 15 on the Tour long list. I had to work hard to prove to the team that I deserved it and that I am capable of being there. It all just worked out in the nick of time. I was up an altitude camp with Cadel and [Steve] Morabito. We went there [in Switzerland] straight after the Dauphiné. I didn’t know if I was going to the Tour, but Cadel gave me an opportunity to go. Regardless of if I was going to the Tour or not, it’s always good to have a training camp to stay focused on the game. I am really happy I went. It paid some dividends.
VN: There are some big names not going to the Tour, including Thor Hushovd, that must make you feel pretty good …
BB: There is so much that goes into the selection process for the Tour. I have respect for the management’s decisions, and for the guys who are on the list, and for the ones who didn’t make it. After missing the Tour last year, I know how that is.
VN: You said it was difficult to miss the Tour last year, how did that affect you?
BB: I have a new appreciation and respect for the Tour, for getting selected, for having the opportunity to go, to represent our team and our sport. It’s also important for “my team,” by which I mean my family, my wife, my coach, my friends, all those people who are always behind me and supporting me, no matter what. This is the most tangible race for them. Not being there last year left me with an empty feeling. I’ve realized what an honor it was and is to be in the Tour.
VN: You rode two Tours, including helping Evans win the 2011 Tour, how big of a surprise or disappointment was it last year when you were not selected?
BB: The first Tour, I really didn’t have a grasp of what it meant to be in the Tour. I got on the Tour team in the last minute. And then it just seemed like it would be a logical progression to be on the Tour team every year after that. After seeing the race from the outside last year, I realize what an honor it is to go back and to represent all those ‘shareholders’ that I talked about.
VN: What are the marching orders for you from the team? Purely a support role for Cadel and Tejay?
BB: Without a doubt, I am there to support Cadel and also Tejay. We’re going there for a good overall for Cadel. For me, it’s a question of doing whatever I am asked of from the team on the day. I don’t fit into the pure climber’s role or the flat-lander specialist guy. I am more of a broad skillset-type rider, and that can be a good thing and a bad thing at the Tour. Personally for me, I take it day by day, and not get too far ahead of myself. Each day is a challenge enough. You try to get through each day as best you can, then hit the reset button.
VN: After having ridden two Tours, do you have new respect for the riders who can actually manage to challenge for the yellow jersey?
BB: The stars have to align in so many ways to win the Tour. And some of those stars need to line up weeks and months before the Tour even starts. There are a number of guys who have a realistic chance of winning the Tour, and Cadel is one of them. We have a good team. We have six guys who were there in 2011. To be back with the same group of guys, to know how it unfolded, and that we won, we can take strength from that.
VN: You’ve spent plenty of time around Evans over the past few years, what’s his mood and confidence coming into this Tour?
BB: It’s hard for me to even provide commentary on that, because over the past few years, my field of vision has changed and broadened in a big way. I see Cadel in a completely different light. He’s a Tour winner. Not many people can say that. To think back in 2011, at that point, we knew he was capable of winning the Tour, but he hadn’t done it yet. I wasn’t really aware of the meticulous preparation, of the things that have to go right, avoiding the things that can go wrong. As far as I can see, he’s in a good place. He’s motivated, excited, content and happy. He’s on good form and healthy. The roads will tell the story.
VN: Do you think some fans, media or the peloton might be overlooking Evans?
BB: We just try to focus on what we’re doing, to keep chipping away. We have our plan and strategy. Whether the journalists or public hype a certain guy, we don’t get too worried about that. [Chris] Froome is the favorite on paper. Sky is bringing a strong team and they are going to have more responsibility than other teams. We are going to ride our race and adapt as best we can. It’s 21 grueling days. Just about anything can happen at any moment.
VN: That sounds cliché, but what is it that makes the Tour so demanding compared to other races?
BB: It does sound like a cliché, but the Tour is so much harder and bigger than any race during the whole year. I wish there was some way to show what goes on in every kilometer during each stage. There is never a dull moment. From your legs, to your heart, to your mind, the Tour tests everyone in the race to the maximum. You cannot put it into words.
VN: What is it about the Tour that makes it that way?
BB: That’s a good question, because at the end of the day, we’re still lining up and racing our bikes, we’re on open roads, just like every other race of the year. The stakes are higher. All the eyes of the world are on the Tour. For the team and for the sponsor, it’s the most important race of the year. Historically, it’s the most important. Everyone shows up with their A-game. There’s a lot to gain, and a lot to lose. No one backs down, not even for an instant. Everyone is on edge. Everyone’s fighting for every millimeter. To do that for three weeks straight, there’s no other race like it in the world.
VN: What do you do after the Tour to unwind?
BB: I just relax. I try not to fight anyone for anything for a while! It’s just taking off a huge load. First, I gotta get to Paris. After that, we’ll see. I’d like to go back to do some of the North American races, then coming back to Europe to finish off the season.
VN: And where does Tejay fit in? From the outside, it seems like BMC is riding fully for Cadel, but is the team also thinking of promoting Tejay as well?
BB: What you’re hearing is the same thing we’re hearing. For Tejay, his ride last year was a result of him being there to help Cadel, and rising to the occasion. It’s a similar situation this year. It’s a privilege to have two guys. Sky has Froome and [Richie] Porte. The Tour is 21 days and anything can happen, so having two guys for GC is a big advantage. I haven’t seen Tejay since California, but there, we were rooming together, and he’s super-motivated for the Tour. What you see is what you get with Tejay. He’s excited to get another [Tour] under his belt, and take the opportunities when they come. With Cadel, we have a proven winner of the race.
VN: So it’s the same scenario as last year for Van Garderen? To help Evans, but make a move if it’s opportune?
BB: It’s the same situation as last year. He didn’t go into the Tour to race to drop Cadel and finish higher than him. There are so many variables in the Tour. One day you’re up, the next day you can be down. We are going to protect Tejay for the critical moments, and that’s when he can help Cadel.
VN: What’s your big picture view on the GC?
BB: It’s a different Tour than last year. With the heavy distances of time trials, with [Bradley] Wiggins being so good, it was set up to be more controlled and scripted. This year, there are more mountain days. A super-hard first week. The team time trial. A brutal final week. Anything can happen. I am just looking forward to getting to Corsica, to getting the show on the road. I want to get through the first few days and settle into the rhythm of racing the Tour.
VN: You’ve raced before on Corsica at Critérium International, we hear the roads are quite narrow, how are they?
BB: A lot of the roads are very narrow. At Critérium, the peloton is pretty small compared to the Tour, and the roads are small for that race. A lot of the roads are rough, there was a lot of dirt and rocks on the roads. There are quite a few exposed cliffs. There is not a lot of infrastructure. It’s not the roads we typically see at the Tour, but you’re seeing more and more lately, they’re putting us on some pretty rough roads in all the races.
VN: They say it’s the hardest opening weekend in more than 20 years, what are your expectations?
BB: It’s definitely going to be hard. From my perspective, I’ve only done two Tours, but it’s by far the hardest opening weekend of the Tours I’ve done. From a GC perspective, it’s a risky start. There are more places to miss out or lose time. The terrain will make it even more so. It’s the riders who always make the race. Even on flatter, more open roads, crazy carnage can happen at any time. It’s business as usual, trying to get through the first week in one piece, even more so because of the twisty, small Corsican roads.