Brent Bookwalter Q&A: Pro Cyclists ‘need a voice’

Brent Bookwalter talks to VeloNews about the direction of the new North American arm of the international professional rider's union

Brent Bookwalter (BMC Racing) was there when mud-caked glasses and silt-filled eyes dropped visibility to zero on Kebler Pass at the USA Pro Challenge last August. He was at the Giro d’Italia, too, where the rain seemed endless until it turned to snow, and controversy, atop the Stelvio.

It’s easy, sitting as we do behind computer screens and television sets, to forget just how unsympathetic and how utterly heartless cycling can be to the men and women who put on the show. It’s a sport that revels in stoicism, puts the hardman on a pedestal, and has always fought through wind, rain, sleet, and snow. We applaud a grimace, cheer for pain, and beg for suffering. It’s what makes the sport unique — and beautiful.

But the old-world, walk-it-off mentality does not always fit with modern, professional sport. Failure to protect riders properly puts the sanctity of the show in jeopardy, as it was on the Stelvio and Kebler pass last year.

That’s where the international rider’s union, the CPA, and its newest arm, the Association of North American Professional Road Cyclists (ANAPRC), fits in. Bookwalter is on the board of the brand new organization, the first to represent North American riders’ interests to the CPA and, thus, to the rest of the sport’s stakeholders.

VeloNews sat down with him during the Dubai Tour to discuss problem areas in pro cycling and how the ANAPRC plans to address them.

VeloNews: What motivated the ANAPRC?

Brent Bookwalter: A lot of us have been talking about it over the past few years, at least during my career. How we need a voice, we need to be having conversations with the stakeholders in the sport, voicing our concerns and trying to make this sport better, but we never did anything about it. This initial group of riders and also some businessmen were proactive enough to get the ball rolling. The goal for the end of last year was getting an official seat on the CPA because somehow, for all these years the North Americans and the Americans haven’t had a voice of representation.

VN: I had never realized that North American riders weren’t represented.

BB: Yeah, and that’s a big purpose too, to educate and inform. Even right now, there’s a website that’s live and it’s a good information resource for things like CPA bylaws, the collective bargaining agreement between the IGCP and the UCI and the teams, and things like the end-of-career allowance, stuff like that, that really all pros should be aware of and know about. But it’s hard. I’m guilty of that too. The past few years I haven’t wanted to spend a full week’s work digging out every piece of information that’s buried under archives and stacks.

Ideally, it would be nice to help or be a voice for some of these unrepresented countries as well. There’s big countries in this sport, I don’t think Germany has a seat in the CPA, Australia doesn’t, Great Britain doesn’t. A large percentage of the [WorldTour], the professional peloton really has no official voice to get themselves heard.

VN: So it’s really an old-world scenario? It’s Italy, Spain, and France?

BB: Exactly, yes. And as I understand it, a lot of the national associations that hold their seats in the CPA, these associations predate the CPA itself. The CPA has only existed for the past — not long before my career started — maybe 10 or 15 years. A lot of these Spanish, the Italian, the French, they’re national associations that have existed for 80-100 years and they’ve just sort of slipped in when the CPA formed. [The CPA includes Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, Belgium, Netherlands, and Switzerland – ed.]

VN: So what’s goal No. 1? What would you want to bring to the CPA?

BB: A few of the objectives that we’re targeting right from the beginning are: one, try to create a more effective CPA. Try to encourage them to be a little more transparent, to set an agenda which is realistic but can also be evaluated, communicate better between the riders. Then also open their doors more easily and willingly to the other nations. We would like to be just a better voice for the riders in general. So when these weather issues come up, or controversy comes up, I don’t think it’s fair to have to make the riders have to stand up and take the blame and take the heat. It would be really nice if there were a collective voice that, behind the scenes, the riders can be unified with. And then the spokesperson or the speaker, they can take the heat. That’s in everyone’s best interest, the teams, the riders, and the races too.

VN: Like in Colorado last year. [Stage 2 of the USA Pro Challenge was temporarily neutralized due to weather — ed.]

BB: So that right there leads me to one of the next key objectives we’ve set out for ourselves and that’s to establish an extreme weather protocol. We’ve made some really good headway. We have a handful of doctors on the panel, we have current racers, ex-racers, we have race directors, ex-race directors, so a good resource of people that are trying to establish tangible and concise parameters for what would trigger extreme weather and also how that decision is then communicated and what it means. I think at the end of the day it’s not fair to the race, or the riders, or the sport in itself to have a decision like that to come down on an official and what kind of day they’re having. Like ‘I feel good today, they should go out and race, or I’m tired maybe they won’t race today.’ So I think having some clear and concise rules would really help.

And then, further past that, we would like to do things like increase benefits and compensation for the riders. We would like to see some tweaks to that end-of-career allowance. I think in a perfect world it would really up the professionalism of professional cycling if we could establish a greater benefits package and a retirement fund. Not only a retirement fund, but some insurance, things like that. In a lot of other sports that comes with it and it’s mandatory and in cycling there really isn’t a whole lot of it.

VN: Because there’s a minimum salary, but no minimum benefits, there’s no guarantee of insurance or anything like that?

BB: Yeah, the UCI does have some limits on what teams have to provide riders though.

VN: But some countries are going to have it different. If you live in a place with a universal healthcare system …

BB: Right, exactly. And even the minimal salaries are pretty low. Then also kind of with that, the whole points debate that’s happening right now. We feel like the riders should be involved in that conversation because it affects us. The current [UCI WorldTour] points system as it is now, is so top-heavy that it really, at times, it almost becomes a burden to the big riders, the point-getters because they have to be in races. They have to go to Beijing, they have to be getting points. A guy like myself, it definitely inhibits me, and limits my opportunity because if I’m not going to be in the top five point-getters on my team then it’s not in the team’s best interest to let me get any.

VN: What could fix that?

BB: Personally, I would just like to see a deeper spread of points. As it stands right now, it’s so GC-heavy and the Pro Tour points, [those] are extremely hard to get. I’m not saying they should be easy to get, but getting top five at a grand tour stage, or top 10 at a GC pro tour stage race, maybe one guy on each team does that each race, so that doesn’t leave a whole lot of opportunities for a rider other than a team leader to really create much value for themselves outside of a breakout day or a breakout part of the year.

VN: Do you know why Christian [Vande Velde] was particularly interested in joining up [with ANAPRC, where he is acting president]?

BB: He had a pretty long career and it spanned some definitely changing times in the sport. I think being an American in this increasingly international sport, but when he started it was largely European, there were so many moments of frustration for him of, ‘Why is this happening, why is there no logic being worked here?’ It’s just old school. We do it because it’s always been this way. So I think in a large part that propels him to do it, and wanting to leave a legacy past his race career.

And that’s part of it for me too. In 20 or 30 years, if I have kids and I’m showing them pictures of my time as a professional cyclist, which is a huge part of my life, I want to be proud of the sport that exists then, I don’t want it to be some side-show, freak-show that’s hanging on by a string, struggling to get by and they’re racing through snow or racing through fire pits or who knows what’s going on. I want to look back and be proud of what the sport is then and I think the only way we can do that is by starting now and try to make it better for the future.