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By Andrew Hood
There’s something different about Craig Lewis going into the 2009 season.
Behind his youthful veneer, the 23-year-old is more determined and a whole lot more confident about what lies ahead.
The natural-born climber from the hills of South Carolina finished off his first year with Team Columbia with a solid ride at the Giro di Lombardia last October and he’s carrying that momentum into the upcoming racing season.
“I have a lot more confidence. Before it was just to see if you could make it in Europe,” Lewis told VeloNews during a team camp earlier this month. “My main goal this year to establish myself on the team and show what I am capable of.”
Lewis did more than survive. He posted about 75 race days during the 2008 campaign that started in February and ended with Lombardia, a number that reveals his tenacity and durability.
“Last season exceeded my expectations. They took it easy on me on the first half of the season. It was my first year in the European peloton,” he continued. “I had a strong result in Lombardia. I was happy to show what I could do in a big race.”
Lombardia was the turning point that Lewis was waiting for.
He rode confidently into the day’s winning move and quietly finished 12th with the 18-strong leader’s group that included world champion Alessandro Ballan, Chris Horner and Stefano Garzelli, just 33 seconds behind winner Damiano Cunego.
Among other highlights were riding strong in weeklong races such as Paris-Nice, Volta a Catalunya and the Dauphiné Libéré.
“I was 11th in the prologue at the Dauphiné and I started to climb a lot better this year,” he said. “I was already good at Paris-Nice and I steadily improved throughout the year.”
Finishing the season on a high note is perhaps the best indication that Lewis is on the right track.
Living up to expectationsLewis has reached that point where many young pros duly arrive: they’ve been hyped as “the next big thing,” a sometimes-crushing expectation that not everyone can handle. Now it’s time to perform and he knows it.
Sometimes it’s hard to believe that Lewis is still only 23. His name has been promoted as a breakout star ever since Outside magazine heralded him the “next Lance Armstrong” back in 2005.
Lewis’s career – and life – were almost short-circuited in the time trial stage of the 2004 Tour de Georgia when he an SUV drove directly in his path as he topping 40mph.
Lewis’s injuries would have made Evil Knievel proud, with two punctured lungs, fractures in his wrist, collarbone, skull and arm as well as a baker’s dozen of broken ribs.
Incredibly, Lewis didn’t give up. He was back at the Tour de Georgia the next year with the start-up TIAA-CREF team.
He stayed on with Slipstream and posted strong results through 2007 that included seventh at the Tour de l’Avenir and sixth in the Tour of Ireland.
That was enough to convince High Road general manager Bob Stapleton to offer him a one-year contract to join what’s now Team Columbia for 2008.
Lewis’s steady performances in his first year at the top European level prompted Stapleton to offer Lewis a two-year contract extension to keep him on the team through 2010.
“He developed well during the season, I have high hopes for him,” Stapleton told VeloNews. “He has talent and a high personal work ethic. This is a hard team to be accepted in. He’s done a great job and earned his stripes.”
Essential to Lewis’s progression is simply getting his body back in working order. Team Columbia staff worked extensively with Lewis to eliminate pain and other nagging discomfort dating back to the Georgia crash.
“The training here have helped me a lot. I’m one more year away from the accident. It took me a few years to bounce back from that,” Lewis said. “We’ve worked on a little of everything, core strength, hips, hamstrings, back, a lot of stretching.”
Grand tour berthThe big goal for 2009 is to race in a grand tour.
Plans to start the Vuelta a España last year were scuttled when Columbia passed on a chance to race the Spanish tour, leaving Lewis on the sidelines as the team sent more experienced riders to the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France.
With Columbia likely heading back to the Vuelta this year, Lewis is hoping to get the call to start the Giro or the Vuelta.
“Grand tours are where I belong. This year I finally get a shot at that. If it’s not the Giro then it’s the Vuelta,” he said. “If I go to the Giro, it will be to help (Michael) Rogers. Maybe at the Vuelta I could be a little more competitive.”
After cutting his teeth on the American circuit early in his career, Lewis isn’t scheduled to race at all in the United States in 2009.
He’s a reserve for the Tour of California, but he isn’t scheduled to start racing until the Tour of Murcia in March in Spain, quickly followed by Coppi-Bartali in Italy and then the Giro di Romandie.
Then it’s off to the Giro if everything goes as planned.
“Now I want to see how I perform in a three-week tour,” said Lewis, whose longest race was the 10-day Tour de l’Avenir. “I’ve gotten better in each race. In three to five years, I’d love to be racing the Tour (de France) and to have a good opportunity there.”
Lewis has arrived. Now he’s ready to show it.