There is no fear in the eyes of Tanner Putt (UnitedHealthcare) as he stands on the precipice of Paris-Roubaix, peering at 51 kilometers of pavé and the biggest race of his career.
“Not scared. More … excited,” Putt said with a brief pause and a grin, standing outside his UHC team bus at the start of Scheldeprijs Wednesday morning. An hour later, he showed just how excited he is, battling his way into the day’s long breakaway.
“Ever since I was a little kid I’ve been watching these guys on TV, watching them in these big races. Roubaix, I’ve been watching that race since I was 10 years old, it’s the one race that I’ve always wanted to do, more than the Tour, more than anything, so lining up with those guys, it’s amazing,” he said.
Putt’s move fell perfectly in line with UHC’s tactics, both for Scheldeprijs and Paris-Roubaix. The team knows it’s an unlikely winner at Roubaix, so the breakaway is its target. Scheldeprijs was a pre-test of sorts, according to sport director Hendrik Redant, and Putt passed with flying colors.
“What’s important here is that they get dialed in in making the break. So I planned with them how to cover all the moves,” said Redant prior the start on Wednesday. “For us, it’s important to get that schedule dialed in. Who is covering the moves? How are we going to cover the moves? Who is covering for each other in the team? If you go, I go next, then him, then him, then you. For [perfecting] that system, this race is important.”
Despite Putt’s relative inexperience on the cobbles, UHC has faith in the young American. Scheldeprijs and Paris-Roubaix are two of the biggest races on UHC’s calendar; he was selected for both. His inclusion has already paid off.
“Tanner is a real talent. He has the mental side of it as well as the physiological side,” said teammate Chris Jones.
Putt been into the top-10 at two semi-classics already this season, finishing eighth at Le Samyn, which featured a difficult pavé sector just a few kilometers from the finish, and seventh at Ronde van Drenthe.
Putt is built for the classics. He’s stocky, a shock of dirty-blond hair adding a few inches to his five-foot-ten, 163-pound frame. His arms and shoulders fill out a blue and white UHC skinsuit more readily than those of his teammates. When the team comes to Europe, he forgoes the warm weather of Spain or Italy in favor of a rental in Izegem, Belgium, home of the old USA Cycling development house, so he can train on the Belgian roads, in the Belgian weather, “just like all the Belgians that are winning the classics,” he said.
The Park City, Utah native and Boulder, Colorado transplant came up through Axel Merckx’s Bontrager and Bissell development teams and gained European experience with USA Cycling’s development program. He raced the U-23 Paris-Roubaix with that program, but expects that event to pale in comparison to Sunday. But what cobbled racing he has done, he’s enjoyed.
“The Arenberg Forest, I’m really looking forward to my first time through there,” he said.
“I’m not really a quick sprinter, more just a powerful sprint, so a smaller group at the end of a hard day is what I prefer,” he said. “I never did a ton of cobble races as a U-23, but we’ve done quite a few this year, and I love racing on the cobbles.”
Simply laying a cleated foot down upon the Paris-Roubaix start line in Compiegne on Sunday has always been a goal in itself. Now he’s aiming higher. Along with the rest of his UHC squad, Putt will have a nose for the Sunday’s long breakaway. If he can put himself in the right move, as he did Wednesday, his race — and the team’s entire Roubaix effort — will be a success.
“Obviously we want to be in the break. They tell me, especially [John] Murphy says, ‘We can tell you to be at the front for all the sectors, it’s all positioning,’ but he also says it’s just one thing you can say a million times, but you have to do it to actually experience it. So I’m looking forward to that,” Putt said.
“Maybe a couple years down the road I can try for something other than the breakaway.”