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Brent Bookwalter breaks into big time in Qatar

DOHA, Qatar (VN) — Brent Bookwalter (BMC Racing) broke into the big time on Sunday with a stage win in the Tour of Qatar. After fighting heavy winds and Swiss rivals, he collected his first international victory and a golden jersey to along with it.

“It’s exciting,” Bookwalter told VeloNews. “It means so much, it’s the accumulation of hard work, not just of me, but everyone that’s close with me and who’s stood with me. My family, friends and coaches have been working hard for it.

Riding as a wildcard in the 2010 Giro d’Italia, Bookwalter nearly won the opening time trial. Only Bradley Wiggins was faster, beating the resident of New Mexico by two seconds.

Time has passed. Now 28, Bookwalter has finished two grand tours and began his sixth year as a pro on Sunday. After missing last year’s Tour, this win came as something of a confirmation.

“It’s a big honor to have [the leader’s jersey]. The class of the field here is high,” said Bookwalter. “I came here four years a go as a second-year pro. I was blown out of the water, I wasn’t ready for it. To come back a few years later, I knew I was a different rider.”

BMC Racing’s masterstroke was placing five of its men at the front of the race. Alongside Bookwalter were Taylor Phinney, Adam Blythe, Greg Van Avermaet and Michael Schär. The move formed when the race turned southwest towards Dukhan Beach and wind ripped through the peloton.

Schär made the front move and the other four were in a 28-man group with John Degenkolb (Argos-Shimano), Juan Antonio Flecha (Vacansoleil-DCM) and Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky).

Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) was distanced by 30 to 45 seconds. Schär attacked. Once his move returned, Bookwalter jumped with Martin Elmiger (IAM Cycling) and Gregory Rast (RadioShack-Leopard).

“We thought it’d blow apart in echelons like it always does in Qatar. [The plan] was basically watch out for each other and stack as many guys in the front group as we could,” said Bookwalter. “And then obviously, we had Taylor and Adam for the sprint.”

Over 12km, Bookwalter played his game with the two Swiss riders and the peloton behind. His group’s advantage hovered around 40 to 45 seconds. Most pundits believed with the might behind, the first stage would end in a bunch kick, perhaps with Cavendish going head to head with Degenkolb.

Omega Pharma pulled Cavendish back into the action. It briefly pulled the main group along, but then turned it over to Sky. With 3km to race, the gap was barely a half-minute.

“You would’ve thought that we would’ve came back really fast,” Bookwalter said. “I think no one really knew what the wind was going to do in the last four K.”

Bookwalter scolded himself for being stuck on the front out of the final turn and knew the Swiss were teaming against him. He said Rast shouted for Elmiger to sprint, but he was able to react in time.

“I had to go early. … Bookwalter on my wheel and in the wind. I felt fast, but maybe I’m not so fast anymore,” Elmiger told VeloNews.

“I knew [Bookwalter] could sprint, I saw he was strong. … I don’t know him, but you have to be tough as a rider to do that.”

The gap was so close between the trio and the bunch, judges gave the first 39 riders the same time. Bonus seconds gave Bookwalter a four-second lead over Elmiger. Phinney won the first intermediate sprint, placed third in the second and sits fifth overall at five seconds back.

With the focus mainly on Phinney ahead of Qatar, the team is thrilled for its helper.

“Taylor was beside himself at the finish, he’s really excited,” said Bookwalter.

The team will now put its muscle into defending Bookwalter’s lead and strengthening Phinney’s overall chances. On Monday they face a 14km team time trial west of Doha.

“We’ve been working hard on [team time trials], especially in the training camp. We are ready for the challenge,” said Bookwalter.