Brent Bookwalter is an American professional cyclist who has raced for BMC Racing Team since 2008. Accolades include racing at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, serving as part of Cadel Evans' winning Tour de France team and earning podium finishes at a myriad of stage races. Follow along on his adventures.
On paper, the most notable thing about this year’s Giro is how back-ended the mega mountain stages are. There surely are still some GC influencing, time gap producing stages in the first half but starting 3-4 days before the second rest day all the way to the finish, there is a ton of climbing with some massive days stacked up back-to-back. From the three Giro’s that I’ve started and finished in my career, I know that this race isn’t about the challenges that are obvious on paper. There are always some hidden climbs, technical villages and sneaky small roads that seem to pop out of nowhere and throw some complications into the already demanding profiles and stage distances.
Time Trial Heavy
I have some great memories of my first ever Grand Tour stage at the 2010 Giro where I was second in the opening time trial to Bradley Wiggins. It’s hard to believe that was almost 10 years ago! I won't be lining up for that first TT in Bologna nearly as nervous as I was back in 2010, but it will still be a good outing to open up the system and get the race rolling.
I think in a race like the Giro that has so many heavy and often unpredictable climbing stages, it makes it exciting to have additional TT miles. Time trials have gotten so much more competitive in the past 10 years. These days, the best GC guys and climbers have minimal compromise and weakness when it comes to the TT's. Additionally, stage performances in the grand tour TT's have become more competitive with every rider dialing in their TT position, spending more time training on the bike, and way fewer riders using these TT days to "take it easy".
One of the most significant differences in my lead up and prep for this year’s Giro compared to that 2010 edition and others that I’ve done, is the limited and almost nonexistent prep and specific focus on the time trial. This is primarily due to my new home at Mitchelton-Scott where it is very clear our main priority for the Giro is to support Simon Yates in the GC hunt. This has been another component of the team transition.
It’s been a big gap since I last raced (Coppi e Bartali), which is somewhat new for me and influenced by the team's coaching and performance staff. I've always enjoyed solid blocks of training, but this one has been quite long and has required some focus to prepare away from the races.
On the plus side, it has been nice to control as many variables as possible, which helps with staying healthy and safe. The week after Coppi, I took a bit of a rest week for the mind and body and then began back at it with a couple of solid weeks of training in Girona. Recently, I headed up to Sierra Nevada for some altitude training with my teammate and past Giro stage winner Mikel Nieve. Chasing him around the mountains and big climbs were pretty uncomfortable but hopefully good prep for all the climbing to come!
Now a few quick days at home in Girona to repack the suitcase and get a little time with Jamie and then off to Bologna the Wednesday before the race starts to begin the near month on the road.
I feel my head is in a good place heading into the race. The best thing I can do is find some balance between being focused with also relaxing and taking some confidence from the preparation that I've done. Switching coaches this year and training has been invigorating but also challenging, as I don't get all the same "confidence checks/boosts" that I’ve become accustomed to over the past years.
The training camp time was a good chance to do some soft practice for the race days that are coming where we basically just eat, sleep, ride, repeat. I'll throw in some breathing, visualization and mindfulness work when needed. I'll also squeeze in a little work on the Bookwalter Binge, which is a healthy distraction and brings me a little out of the training and pro cycling mind space.
I'm feeling really motivated to get back to racing a Grand Tour all-in for a GC leader who is so capable. The Vuelta last year was good for some perspective, and as I went through the race, I tried to be honest with myself about the pros and cons of not having a GC guy to rally behind. Ultimately, at the place I'm at in my career, I think my skill set is best used applying my experience and ability towards the team’s objectives in the GC fight, so I'm excited to get back to that.
That doesn't mean there won't be days when I wish I could just relax and live to fight for another stage hunting day, but I've had some good Grand Tour GC-supporting memories and will definitely flashback to those, reminding me what is possible.
The past three weeks have been all about building for the race season. Most of my teammates have raced at this point, but not me.
LEADING INTO RACE SEASON
I had a pretty easy week back in Girona after our mega volume adventure camp. Jamie and I got some good time together, and I felt like I settled back into life in Girona complete with some enjoyable sunny, crisp, cool winter days.
Jamie and I celebrating our day-apart birthdays at camp!
Then I headed off to another team camp. At first, it was just a couple of my teammates near Sierra Nevada that equaled a week of good climbing. We followed that up with one full-team media day where every rider except for a couple were present. With so much of the team in Australia in December and January, it wasn't until now that we knocked out items like team pics and a few other logistical prep tasks.
HEADING INTO UAE
I guess I’ll have a better indication of exactly where my form is soon! I think it is ok, but honestly, I think I am a little behind in terms of race form compared to previous years. We’ve really focused on laying a solid foundation and not coming up too quickly.
Typically, I feel quite strong at the first races and then it becomes a bit of a "hang on" issue. This year we are approaching it with more of a slow steady build up. I definitely have not been able to spend as much time on the TT bike as I normally would at this point, so hoping I can enlist some muscle memory for that first stage (team time trial) at the UAE Tour, which will be super fast!
PUMPED TO RACE
Even after all these years, I still find myself getting excited to get back racing. What I look forward to most is working together with the team and finding those flow moments in the races where I’m pushing, testing and getting the most out of myself.
STARTING TO GEL
The transition is still happening in terms of new bikes, equipment, staff, teammates and learning the inner workings of the system. It feels quite comfortable, but there are still plenty of invigorating challenges.
I'm looking forward to racing as it will be a bit liberating from the thinking, planning, working and focusing on the transition to the new squad—basically where all the focus has been these past few months.
Super stacked field here! Whether it is sprinters, TT’ers or world-class climbers and GC riders, the field here is definitely the most comprehensive of any Middle East races I've done.
I think it was a good idea to combine Dubai Tour and Abu Dhabi Tour and make the race a full week because it is a long trip to get here. Now they can include the best portions of both races.
I don't have any particular motivations other than finding some rhythm with my body and with the new guys. I will look to contribute to the team’s success whenever and however I can.
Arriving at my first 2019 Mitchelton-SCOTT training camp felt a bit like the first day of school or maybe even more like waking up in someone else’s house and trying to make breakfast in their kitchen. I know everything I need is here—just in different places or a slight variation from what is my normal. I’m slowly feeling my way around and learning the setup of this new organization.
Just getting to camp was quite a whirlwind. I took a full day to get from Girona to southern Portugal. I arrived late in the evening, but that didn’t stop me from heading straight to the TT bike on a trainer in the parking lot in anticipation of some TT kilometers on the first day of camp.
Back in my room was a box of new gear that needed some organizing, so it was a full evening. With so much ground to cover each day, it’s essential to get an early start, so the next morning was a bit of fury with me zipping up the suitcase and trying to get fueled before my first big ride with the team.
The life of a cyclist partly revolves around caffeine and these guys smash some mid-ride coffees! I’ve kept with my morning routine and continued to pull out my pour-over setup from my suitcase for a morning brew and a few minutes of alone time. Once we are out on the road, it’s the usual Spanish fair--hot, caffeinated java that gets us out the door for hours 5, 6 and 7!
After more than a decade with my last team, there are a lot of differences that I’m adjusting to, but it is all coming along well. I keep reminding myself that the transition is a work in progress.
The most significant differences are probably with the bikes--particularly the saddle and the handlebars—because at this point in my career, these are areas that have basically grown into extensions of my body. This is why having a training camp is so vital. I’m getting 6-7+ hours a day on the bike to adjust. I know I’m right where I need to be before heading into the race season.
The other differences are a little subtler. It is about learning a new system and how things are organized and communicated. Overall, the Australian culture and mentality are quite laid back and flexible while still being professional and prepared. To be honest, I can't imagine a better environment to go through this change.
The squad at this camp is a reduced group because many of the guys are racing down in Australia. It’s definitely been exciting watching them find so much success at that first race and already feeling somewhat a part of it. This is the sort of momentum that carries across the entire team.
The squad here in Spain is a unique one with nine or so different nationalities represented. Despite the strong Australian core, there isn’t a single Aussie rider here! Chris Juul-Jensen is definitely the jokester of the group. He must also be in great shape because he always seems to have the breath to crack a funny one-liner even while we are climbing up a mountain and I’m huffing and puffing. We also have one women's team rider here--Annemiek van Vleuten--who has joined us every day despite being in the early phases of injury rehab after suffering a crash at Worlds (still pulled a top 10) and needed surgery. Despite doing days that are about double her usual race distance, she's completed every ride and had an awesome attitude through it all. I think we are all learning a bit from her approach and mentality.
Out on the Road
After a decade doing training camp in Denia, Spain, it is super refreshing to be on some new roads and having a change of scenery every day. It takes a bit of recalibration as we aren't doing as much specific work, but it’s invigorating to find some simple pleasure just being on the bike all day. We are looked after by a fantastic support staff, which makes the whole experience pretty perfect. I know it sounds cliched, but I’m basically living the dream!
The training side is definitely different from the more traditional camps I’ve done. Here the focus is on volume and accumulating time on the bike with a fair dose of climbing. It’s not necessarily the time to work on specific weaknesses or techniques. Instead, it is about laying a fat foundation to build upon during the season. In the past, I’ve trained with a little more intensity at this time of the year, but the volume is taxing me differently, and I know I'll be motivated to pick up the intensity when I'm back training at home in the next block.
It’s actually another training camp before I head off for my first race.
My wife Jamie gets credit for coming up with the idea for the Bookwalter Binge and for getting the project off the ground. In 2013, Jamie had just finished her master’s degree and was about to start work on her Ph.D. In true fashion, she decided to tackle yet another project, one that might use up all 24 hours of the day.
I wanted to hold an event in our hometown of Asheville, North Carolina as a way to connect with and give back to the community. Professional cycling can be a selfish job. Jamie and I wanted to continue to grow our roots in this community, even though we live abroad for much of the year.
My emotions were on a rollercoaster this season. For what may have been the first time, I was confronted by my age: 34 years … old? Teams began to view me as one of the “experienced” or “veteran” riders, which was a nice way of saying “he’s older.” There were benefits from this reputation: maturity, experience, and depth. But there were drawbacks too. For the first time, I had reservations regarding my age. Am I too old for pro cycling? Personally, I believe I have many good years left in me and am excited to apply all the learnings and growth that I’ve accumulated over the years.
The season’s most emotional moment came when Andy Rihs, owner and founder of Team BMC, passed away. Andy was an inspiring individual, in a social and charismatic, loving way, but also when it came to business confidence. We knew his passion and love for the project had helped it endure and I think we began to feel some uncertainty of what would happen without him around.
Representing the USA and What Makes Worlds Special
Racing for the USA has a special feeling because it is more than a traditional sports team; it’s my country and part of who I am. Racing with the national team isn’t about sponsorships, business, points or rankings. It’s about being the best we can be with our countrymen and women.
The dynamic with national teams is definitely different. I joke that national team events are more pleasant because countries like Belgium--who are notorious for being the most ruthless positioning fighters--only have eight or so guys in the race. Tactically, it is different and always a bit more open and unknown. It’s strange to see my teammates who I race with all season in different jerseys, but it is nice already knowing their strengths and weaknesses. It’s also that rare opportunity to be in a race environment that is comfortable and friendly with no translation needed!
Missing Out on 2017 Worlds
Last year, I was excited and proud to be selected for the Worlds team. I didn’t race Worlds in 2016 because the course didn’t suit me and it had already been a very long season with the Tour de France and Rio Olympic Games.
I was so inspired and eager to be back at Worlds in 2017 and to race in beautiful Norway--somewhere I had never experienced.
Unfortunately the injuries from the Tour of Britain crash--notably the concussion---were much more severe than initially thought and I had to withdraw from Worlds. I’m incredibly thankful this year to be at the end of September healthy and heading back to the World Championships.
Experience at Worlds
This will be my seventh year racing Elite Worlds (2008, 2009, 2011, 2012, 2014, 2015). I also did 2002 Cyclocross and MTB Worlds as a junior and 2006 Road Worlds as a U23.
In 2012, I had a similar path to Worlds with finishing the Vuelta just a few weeks prior. That season, the team added in a Belgium race between the Vuelta and Worlds that definitely added a lot of stress and made it challenging to stay healthy. That meant I didn’t show up at Worlds in the shape that I would have liked.
This year is similar having raced the Vuelta, but my recovery has gone smoother. I’ve had some nice days at home where I focused on recovering both mentally and physically. It is a delicate balance after a Grand Tour. There is a razor-thin line between resting too much and being stale or not resting enough and being fatigued. I’ve learned to take good care of myself, and I think that if there is any way to prepare for this hellaciously hilly Worlds course, it was racing this year’s Vuelta.
The Innsbruck Course
There is no better way to put it---this year’s course looks absolutely brutal. At 265 kilometers and close to 5,000 meters of climbing that alone tells that it’ll be an extremely demanding day and then there are the added challenges of technical roads and a circuit. The final climb that we only do once will demand some special gearing. Tentatively, I am planning to ride a 36 - 30 gear setup.
A race like Liege-Bastogne-Liege is another super long one-day with lots of climbing, but it is on open, point-to-point roads, which gives it an entirely different feel. A circuit often feels like a steel cage match, bouncing from barrier to barrier (and never being able to find a quiet place to pee!) There’s no denying this race will be a huge battle of attrition and take around 7 hours for the finishers.
Just finishing will be a considerable feat and those that are playing for a result on the final lap will undoubtedly be the strongest and also luckiest to be “on” this particular day.
Heading into Sunday
I arrived in Austria on Wednesday and met up with the USA guys. We did our final bigger training ride and saw some of the course yesterday.
I have no experience on these roads, so recon came down to this ride. Traditionally at Worlds, there are multiple times when the circuit is closed to traffic and open specifically for training, but not this year. The USA hotel is about 80 km outside of Innsbruck, so we got 1-2 laps on the circuit and a portion of the run-in.
The next few days are now all about resting up mixed with a few openers to stay sharp. Fueling also starts to become a more significant factor. You want to carb load, but when you aren’t riding as much, you don’t want to overeat and blimp out with all that climbing….
I felt very similar when I went into the Rio Games in 2016. It was about two weeks after the Tour and felt pretty similar. I showed up very strong on race day, so I am hoping for the same on Sunday!