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“Filthy, unbelievably hot. Just baking hot!”
Those were the first words that came to mind after Brent Bookwalter finished Strade Bianche Saturday. Little matter that the 36-year-old had just had his best performance ever in a classic, with an inspired seventh-place ride. But then there was a lot of information to take in after another epic day at this epic bike race.
Understanding the significance of such a result would take time.
“It was madness on the gravel sectors,” Bookwalter told VeloNews. “They were so dusty, so dry, so loose and really bumpy. And then we saw some traditional early-season jitters if you will. Lots of over-braking. Lots of ramming into the back of each other. It made for a real chaotic start.”
The Mitchelton-Scott rider admitted that he was in survival mode for much of the race.
“I cannot describe all of the crazy moments early on,” he said. “Through all of that, I felt I was really pegged, like I couldn’t go any harder. It was just one sector at a time, metering my efforts and drinking as much as possible. And then all of a sudden you realize the selection has been made and you are in it. It’s a moment of beauty. But also very painful and challenging. But there was still much racing to happen before the finish.”
Luck, of course, is an integral part of bike racing, especially in a race like Strade Bianche. But you have to be prepared for it. You have to be in position. And for countless kilometers mid-way through the race, Bookwalter just did his best to hold a position, dependant at times on the circumstances of the race, and the constant reshuffling that the white roads of Tuscany can produce.
With 40 kilometers remaining, Bookwalter found himself just behind the six-man lead group including eventual winner Wout Van Aert. Chasing stubbornly with 2015 winner Zdenek Stybar, Bookwalter and the Czech actually closed the gap at one point.
“That’s when I realized that I could be in the top ten,” he said. “At one point I thought we might even catch the front group. I realized that they too were on the limit.”
As van Aert pushed the pace at the front, the group splintered, with Bookwalter’s longtime teammate and leader Greg Van Avermaet being one of the principal victims.
“When we caught Greg, that was really inspiring,” Bookwalter said. “I had worked for him for so long and he is a great rider. At one point he said to me, ‘I’m doing everything I can to hold your wheel. Just take us to the line and I won’t contest the sprint.’ Coming from somebody like that, somebody I respected so much, well, that was really inspiring.”
As the two crested the last climb into Siena, the former BMC teammates grimaced up the final meters before making the right-hand turn towards the finish on the Piazza del Campo. But this time it was Bookwalter who led the way.
And clearly the satisfaction resonated on several levels for the Albuquerque native.
“It’s my best ride in a classic, to say the least,” he said. “The first time I did this race was in 2010 and it really inspired me. I loved the dirt roads and the climbs. But also I realized that this race was also so young. It made it a bit of an equalizer. Sometimes Americans have trouble breaking into the historic races because they didn’t grow up eating, living and breathing these races. But the Strade was different because it was almost as young as I was as a professional.”
The result was also satisfying because Bookwalter became a father for the first time only six months ago. “I am still learning how to be a bike racer as a dad. It’s a good testament to all of the hard work I have been putting in and the balance I have been able to find.”
The performance here on Saturday provided a powerful statement that, while Bookwalter is 36, he still has plenty of fight in him.
“I’ve been staying alive and staying in the game,” he said. “Just getting a contract this year was a fight. Strade showed that I have plenty of fight left in me. My strengths are tenacity, experience and wisdom. And in an inspired state with good circumstances, I have plenty of good rides in me.”