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SAN DIEGO (VN) — Though only 10 years old at the time, when Tanner Putt saw his first bike race, a criterium in his hometown of Park City, Utah, he knew he had found his sport.
Theresa Eggerson-Cooke, a Park City neighbor who had coached Putt on a kid’s Nordic ski team since he was eight, took him to the race and recalls that from that day on, the boy’s attention turned to cycling: “He was totally enamored with the sport.”
A few years later Putt, who turns 21 in April, was winning Utah state championship time trial titles. Last year saw him place second at the under-23 road nationals, behind Chipotle-First Solar’s Robert Bush and ahead of his U.S. national teammates Gavin Mannion and Lawson Craddock. This year Putt is joining Mannion and Craddock on Axel Merckx’s powerhouse Bontrager development squad.
At a January USA Cycling training camp in the San Diego area, Putt recounted for VeloNews how his path to the road started on the snow. Eggerson-Cooke “was one of our cross-country ski coaches when I was younger and in the summer for dry-land training she took me and my older brother out mountain biking,” he said.
After trying his hand at a few mountain bike races, Putt said Eggerson-Cooke “had us try out road biking because nationals was coming to Park City and I thought it would be cool to race in that. I loved it and I’ve been doing it ever since.”
Eggerson-Cooke raced mountain bikes professionally for a decade. She immediately recognized Putt’s unique talent for cycling. She recalled Putt holding his own with adults in C-level weekly critieriums. His brothers were also racing, and their father soon started competing, too.
Putt reminded Eggerson-Cooke of another Utah rider who showed immense talent at a young age, recalling when Dave Zabriskie showed up to a local criterium when he was just 17. “He just lapped our field by himself,” she said. “You see him and you say, ‘there’s the real deal, right there.’ And Tanner was the same way.”
Of Putt, Eggerson-Cooke added, “He was so motivated. He would just rip around the course. I remember watching Tanner in the C race, and he was just sitting at the front of the pack, and he’s 10 years old — totally not fazed by the fact that he’s like four feet tall.”
Though Putt’s dedication and competitiveness turned heads in the local Utah scene, his inaugural trip to cycling’s motherlands delivered a Belgian slapdown. He first raced in Europe when he was 18 as part of USA Cycling’s junior development program. “I got my ass kicked over there,” Putt said. “We were there for a full month and it was the longest I’d been away from home.”
But Putt added that getting through the initial difficulties of racing across the pond tested his commitment. “I really loved racing and I was like, ‘if I can get through this and still like racing, then I can do this the rest of my life.’”
During his junior and senior high school years, Putt weighed the options of either pursuing cross-country ski racing while getting a college degree, or having a go at the pro cycling ranks. When he discussed college versus racing with his parents, they agreed that while he could always get a degree, he could never get back his 20s, his most potent athletic years. “I think really that European trip that I went on when I was 18 made up my mind that I wanted to be a bike racer,” he said.
After that first trip to Europe, Putt says both Europe and its racing grew on him. Upon learning what to expect from the rain-and-wind swept kermesses of Belgium, during a second European racing campaign, Putt said, “I prefer racing over there now, more than in the U.S. I just like the style of racing and I just like the culture over there. The races suit me; they are longer and harder over there.”
On the U.S. U23 team, Putt races under the guidance of director Mike Sayers, who raced as a pro with Mercury, Health Net-Maxxis and BMC Racing, then spent four years as a BMC director before turning his managerial skills to guiding American talents. Between Sayers and Merckx, Putt has encyclopedic experience at his disposal.
“Axel has three or four guys every year move up to the ProTour, so I’m really excited to be working with him,” Putt said. While Putt had not yet had a chance to work directly with Merckx when he spoke with VeloNews, he says that in his experience, European directors can sometimes have opaque communication styles — something the he has not found to be the case with the Sacramento-based Sayers. “I feel like I can really come and talk to him and he knows where we are coming from going over there and racing.”
Putt already has the calm demeanor of a pro; laying on his bed after a morning training ride, he speaks softly — with a decade of racing already under his belt, he seems to already understand the importance of conserving energy every moment he is off the bike.
He also feels an extra sense of obligation to fans that, both disillusioned with Lance Armstrong and his generation, and weary of stories about doping, are hungry for a new, honest crop of American riders.
“I think that’s kind of good, just to restart everything,” Putt said. “There is a great group of guys right now that are in that age range who could be the next generation of cycling. I think it’s better to look to the future than the past.”
For Putt, the WordTour successes of contemporaries Taylor Phinney and Tejay van Garderen, and the graduation of former Bontrager riders Ian Boswell and Joe Dombrowski to Team Sky in 2013, prove that anything is possible for young American racers.
“We have the support if you really want to do it,” he said. “You’ve got the resources and everything if you really want to get there, and I think that’s cool. You never know, in a year or two, that could be you.”