By Andrew Hood
It’s been a busy first half of the 2008 season for Craig Lewis. No big results, but lots of racing and lots of improvement for the future.
Fresh off wrapping up the Dauphiné Libéré, the 22-year-old Lewis will take a short break before his first major personal goal for the 2008 season — taking a strong run at the Tour of Austria, July 6-13.
“The team really wants me to perform well there. It suits me pretty well and all the big guys will be in the Tour, so I think I can do pretty good,” Lewis told VeloNews last week. “After that, I’ll take another little break and build up for national championships. It’s one more year in my hometown, so I’m really motivated for that.”
The Dauphiné — where he led High Road with 11th in the opening prologue — was the latest big-time European race for the South Carolina rider.
He made his season debut in February with the Tour du Haut Var and the Trofeo Laiguelia before racing almost the entire Paris-Nice except the final half of the final stage into Nice. Then he headed back to the States for the Tour de Georgia, finishing 51st.
Back to Europe again, he finished 89th at the Volta a Cataluyna and 63rd at the Dauphiné Libéré, two hard, week-long stage races littered with punishing European climbs.
Lewis said challenging climbs like the beyond-category Joux-Plane, featured in stage 5 of the Dauphiné, will pay dividends in the future.
“I was trying to hang in there as long as I could. It was a little long and steep for me, I’m not quite used to the long alpine climbs yet, but you gotta start somewhere,” Lewis said. “These are the hardest climbs I’ve faced and these guys are all getting ready for the Tour, so it’s a new level. I seem to adjust pretty well. It’s a big experience for me and good for my future.”
Lewis said this season is important step in his evolution as a potential stage-race candidate for the future.
Considered one of the top young U.S. prospects, Lewis nearly died when he plowed headfirst into an SUV that had turned onto the course during an 18-mile individual time trial at the 2004 Tour de Georgia.
The impact left Lewis with two punctured lungs and 47 broken bones, and threw his cycling career into jeopardy. Incredibly, Lewis was back on his bike eight weeks later and won the U23 national championship in 2006.
Lewis raced four seasons with TIAA-Cref/Slipstream, with much of the 2007 season spent racing in Europe. Last season, he was seventh at the Tour de l’Avenir, sixth at the Tour of Ireland and 30th at the Tour de Georgia.
A good word from George Hincapie, his friend, mentor and neighbor in Greenville, South Carolina, helped Lewis get tapped for Team High Road, soon to be called Team Columbia.
Lewis was hoping to race the Vuelta a España this fall, but his grand tour debut will have to wait until next year.
“Originally, the Vuelta was part of the plan and try to race three weeks,” Lewis said. “But the team decided not to take part, so I will have to wait until next year to make my grand tour debut.”