Road

Robin Carpenter is the best in the U.S. So what’s next?

Carpenter spent the offseason working on his time trial skills, and the payoff was evident. In 2016 he has blossomed into one of the country's best stage racers.

Robin Carpenter has reached a crucial crossroads in his professional cycling career.

One road leads back toward the domestic North American scene, where Carpenter is currently one of the top dogs, due to his overall victories at the Cascade Cycling Classic and Tour of Alberta. Carpenter is all too familiar with this road. There will be podium celebrations, hard-fought victories (and losses), host housing and unglamorous hotels, races that come and go, and the friendly dynamics of U.S. racing.

The other road leads toward the WorldTour and a career in Europe, where there are no guarantees of success, victories, or even personal happiness. That road is the big unknown.

“I’ve seen guys make that jump and get pummeled, both physically and mentally,” Carpenter says. “I think it would be pretty cool to [race in the WorldTour], but want to take a more nuanced perspective on what it means to go that distance.”

The road back to North America is secure. Carpenter, 24, has signed a contract with his Holowesko-Citadel team for 2017. He says that his contract, however, contains an opt-out clause if a WorldTour team comes calling. So far, no WorldTour team has knocked on Carpenter’s door. But Carpenter says that his agent is currently navigating the waters of cycling’s upper echelon to see if any teams are interested in his particular talents.

Carpenter says the jump to the WorldTour is not an obsession. If it happens, great, if not, he’s not going to lose any sleep. He currently lives in San Diego, and recently got engaged to his girlfriend, Hannah. Their wedding is planned for next fall. Carpenter was never part of USA Cycling’s cadre of junior wunderkinds, and he’s come to enjoy racing on this side of the Atlantic.

“When I was 19 nobody was telling me I was the next Lance Armstrong,” Carpenter says. “I’ve found a way to make a living doing what I do on a team that I enjoy, that’s pretty awesome.”

Plus, Carpenter wants some time to enjoy his newfound position as a stage racing threat at domestic races. Since his step into the pro ranks in 2013, Carpenter has seen himself as a breakaway artist, or a racer capable of winning challenging one-day events. He trained for those types of efforts, logging long, hard miles, with plenty of high-end intervals to prepare for a sprint finish.

Carpenter’s first sizable result came at the 2014 USA Pro Challenge, where he attacked out of a breakaway on the second stage to win. The victory came after the stage was neutralized, and then re-started. In 2015 Carpenter again targeted the breakaways, and had near misses at the Amgen Tour of California and Tour of Utah.

“I was always trying to get into the break — I was going out there and just pushing on the pedals all day,” Carpenter says. “I would go out and nail 100 miles as fast as I can to simulate breakaway riding.”

After several years of targeting the breakaways, Carpenter says he was ready for a change. In the 2015 offseason he began to train specifically for time trials. Previously, the race against the clock was a major weakness — Carpenter joked with his teammates that time trials should be eliminated entirely. The challenge, Carpenter says, was learning how to gauge his efforts, instead of stamping on the pedals too soon.

“There was definitely some physical maturity that occurred,” Carpenter says. “I don’t have the body type that is more suited for one style of racing or another, but I can train for a discipline… and see a big performance boost.”

Carpenter saw immediate results in 2016. He finished fourth in the time trial at the Tour of the Gila, and 13th in the Amgen Tour of California’s time trial. His third place in the time trial at Oregon’s Cascade Cycling Classic put him in contention for the overall win, which he took after riding in an elite breakaway on the final day. His third place in the time trial at the Tour of Alberta — just 16 seconds behind Trek-Segafredo rider Bauke Mollema — also set him up for the overall victory.

And then there was Carpenter’s stage win at the Tour of Utah, which netted him the leader’s jersey for one stage. Carpenter and breakaway companion Ruben Companioni held off the peloton for 50 miles before Carpenter sprung away for the victory.

There are a few areas where Carpenter still has room to improve. He still struggles on long, grueling climbs, and lacks the power-to-weight talents of Lachlan Morton, Adrien Costa, or the domestic scene’s other top climbers.

Carpenter says he also needs to learn how to accept his success. Often, he adds caveats to his victories. For example, the stage win in 2012 occurred after the stage was neutralized, so does it really count?. Other wins came against tired breakaway companions, not the peloton’s strongest riders.

“My fiancee always yells at me for creating these caveats around my successes,” Carpenter says. “Nobody else was telling me that [the Colorado win] was accidental. Maybe I just think too much about what I do.”

One has to believe that if Carpenter learns accept his victories, his cycling career will be a success, no matter which path he chooses.