It’s hard to imagine a breakout season after nearly a decade in the elite peloton, but that’s what happened to Brent Bookwalter in 2015.
The 31-year-old American had comfortably slotted into a helper’s role at BMC Racing, helping Cadel Evans to victory the 2011 Tour de France and later riding to back Tejay van Garderen. Last year, however, Bookwalter got more chances, and he turned the disappointment of not being selected to go to the 2015 Tour into positives, and posted his best results in years.
“It was looking like I had a Tour start, but I didn’t get the nod,” Bookwalter said at a team camp. “I was a little frustrated, but that happens on a team as deep as BMC, and I was able to turn that into some good performances.”
Bookwalter poured that frustration and form into the pedals, performing with consistency over the mountainous Tour of Austria, with fourth overall, before returning to the United States, where he emerged as one of the main protagonists on the summer calendar. He notched seven top-3s in stages at the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah and the USA Pro Cycling Challenge, including a stage victory at Arapahoe Basin, en route to podium finishes in both races. He finished it off with a top-20 result in the world championships in Richmond, Virginia.
For Bookwalter, it was just desserts for a rider who’s been part of BMC since its inception in 2008.
“I was very satisfied with the season,” Bookwalter told a small group of journalists. “I quickly fell into that worker role … and that was amazing and fulfilling, but as I got older and more mature, I realized that I could still be a good teammate, but get my own results as well.”
As Bookwalter admits, finding those individual opportunities isn’t so easy on a team packed with big names. Van Garderen and newcomer Richie Porte require an entire squad of support riders at nearly every race they start. Philippe Gilbert and Greg Van Avermaet equally dominate the one-day classics, meaning BMC brings top challengers for victory to just about every major race on the WorldTour calendar. That leaves very little room for the team’s other 20 or so riders.
Like many top teams, however, BMC does try to give its riders a chance to lead, at least a few times during the long racing season. And last year, Bookwalter took full advantage of those opportunities. For 2016, he hopes to find a balance between working for others and taking the reins when he can.
“You have to make your own opportunities,” he explained. “I used to get frustrated with my calendar, but I had a big epiphany when I won a stage at the Tour of Qatar [stage 1 in 2013]. I realized I don’t need the perfect schedule. I can still win a stage, even when I am working for others, in the right opportunity.”
With the departure of Peter Stetina to Trek – Segafredo, Bookwalter might get a chance to lead at this year’s Amgen Tour of California, but he’s not sweating it. The team might send Rohan Dennis and instead send Bookwalter off to the Giro d’Italia. Bookwalter prefers to focus on what he can control, and that means being prepared and in top physical condition wherever he races.
“I don’t want to get fixated on any one race. My schedule changes all the time, and that’s been an asset of mine, that I can go with the flow,” Bookwalter continued. “I am trying to approach the season with that attitude.”
Bookwalter, who is an active voice for change within the peloton, said his heart is in performing well in the North American races. He does, however, want to return to the Tour de France. He’s raced three Tours, including Evans’ victorious bid in 2011. With the arrival of Porte, he believes BMC will go a long way come July with the pairing of the Tasmanian and van Garderen, twice fifth at the Tour.
“I’m very excited about Richie coming to the team,” Bookwalter said. “I think they will work very well together. It’s not going to be a burden to have two of the best guys in the Tour. Richie did it with [Sky’s Chris] Froome, so I think he and Tejay will mix it up pretty good.”
Bookwalter is hoping to be there for a front-row seat to see if the pair can live up to the BMC challenge of aiming for outright victory in the Tour de France.