STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colorado (VN) — In the absence of any former USA Pro Challenge winners, or any riders from last year’s podium, American Brent Bookwalter is quietly confident in his role as de facto GC favorite at this year’s race.
Bookwalter slides into that role by virtue of his third-place overall finish at the Tour of Utah earlier this month, a race also chock-full of long climbs at high altitude. The top-two riders in Utah, Joe Dombrowski (Cannondale-Garmin) and Mike Woods (Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies), are not at the Pro Challenge, and by process of elimination, Bookwalter is the top rider in Colorado who has recently shown good form as well as high-altitude acclimation.
Also working in Bookwalter’s favor is his BMC Racing Team, indisputably the strongest in the race, and the fact that, unlike at Utah, there is a time trial in Colorado, which plays to the American’s strengths. BMC placed Rohan Dennis in a dangerous breakaway in stage 1 of the Pro Challenge, and then Taylor Phinney sprinted to victory, with Bookwalter taking third Monday.
On paper, riders like Damiano Caruso (BMC Racing) and Roman Kreuziger (Tinkoff-Saxo) have much better GC results, both top-10 finishers at grand tours. However, a weeklong race in August in Colorado is not a spreadsheet comparison, and based on current results — Bookwalter was also fourth overall at the Tour of Austria, in July — the BMC rider could well be the man to beat.
Before the start of the stage 1 in Steamboat Springs Monday, Bookwalter told VeloNews that he considers himself among the favorites, but far from the top favorite.
“I think it’s a pretty open race, like everyone has been saying,” Bookwalter said. “I think by the end of the week, we’ll have some new names on the tip of our tongues that we didn’t have earlier. I think I’m riding well right now. I’m confident. I had a good week at Utah. But I wouldn’t put my name above a those of a lot of other guys here.”
Bookwalter said that it’s hard for him to quantify his abilities as a GC rider at altitude, because, as a domestique, he’s rarely been in the position to race for GC at the end of stages in Utah or Colorado.
“Altitude has been a love/hate relationship with me,” he said. “Utah was interesting. I’ve done a fair amount of altitude races in recent years, in Utah and Colorado, but I’ve always been riding for someone else. It was a unique experience, in Utah, to be able to save my bullets for the end of the stages. Racing here in the past, it was always all-in for Tejay [van Garderen]. I’ve had some really good days, and some really bad days. But when I look back, I’ve emptied myself really early on some of the stages here. At the very least, I think I’ll be looking for more of an opportunist role than a full GC role, but I’ll be looking to save more of those matches for the finals of the stages.”
As far as the opportunity for an American to ride as the leader of an American team at a major American race, Bookwalter said that was something to soak up, regardless of the outcome. “I’m relishing that, in itself,” he said. “That’s something I think I should enjoy, and appreciate that experience for what it is. I want to enjoy that journey as a leader, and not just be looking to the final result.”
Asked if there is any one rider that he will be closely watching, Bookwalter said there were “maybe 10 or 15 guys” he’d put in the same category.
“I think there are a lot of guys I’d put in the same category as myself — most of the year they are working for others, and you never know what’s in a guy when they are not reserved to be the last man standing for their team,” he said. “I think, whether it’s the WorldTour teams, or the U.S teams, there are a lot of guys here, where the stage is set for them to step up. And you have to respect everyone.”