After a breakthrough 2010 season in which he almost defeated Bradley Wiggins for the win at the prologue of the Giro d'Italia and then backed that up with an 11th place finish at the Tour de France prologue, some might say that Brent Bookwalter's 2011 season was a bit of a letdown. But, looks can be deceiving.
Bookwalter played a key supporting role in Cadel Evans' and Team BMC's first-ever Tour de France victory. Riding to keep your team leader in yellow all the way to Paris is an opportunity, and a heavy responsibility, that few pros get to experience in their careers.
"It is something you hope for. It's a position any rider would relish and be proud of being in. But until it actually happens you don't quite realize what it entails," said Bookwalter. "It was definitely, even for me, a career achievement and a career moment to be part of the effort of such a great team and a great rider like Cadel."
What was Bookwalter's role on that triumphant Tour team? "I think of myself as an in between kind of guy. I am not the best climber on the team to help Cadel. I am not the biggest Classics powerhouse, flatlander guy. I feel like I can do a little bit of both and fill in a lot of gaps in between."
"I had a fair amount of time with Cadel the previous year doing the Giro and the Tour with him. I felt like last year at the Tour we had good chemistry. I felt like I was capable of taking care of him whatever that meant. Whether it was a one of those crazy, hectic, first flat stages or a day further along in the race that was hilly," said Bookwalter.
Having proven himself as a domestique, Bookwalter does have some other goals. "Without a doubt, I would like to get some actual results. I am not the kind of guy that is fixated on one result or one race or one goal or a stat that if I don't get it my career is not going to be a success. But, that said it would be nice to be in the mix myself at the races."
Bookwalter, who was fourth at the 2011 US Pro Championships in the time trial is also looking to improve in that discipline. "I think I showed some flashes of potential in 2010 in the TT. I would like to continue chipping away at that and looking for opportunities."
But, he also acknowledges his domestique role. "I look to be the consummate teammate as well. I have only been racing at the ProTour level for two years [2010, 2011]. I think I can tell a difference each year in my productivity. It is different to be a complete, productive teammate for 95% of a race at a ProTour race than it is to do the same at smaller, lower level like a 2.1 or a 2.HC. That is an area where I feel I have made progress."
Bookwalter's goals might seem reasonable, but Team BMC underwent a major overhaul at the end of the 2011 season with the signings of big name stars Philip Gilbert and Thor Hushovd. It was clear that the squad was gearing up for a major run at the Classics.
"I have already been through this process before. This is my fifth year with this team. Every year I have been on the team, it has been one of those years where it dramatically increased its stock and hired on a bunch of talent and was looking to make a big step up. When we brought on George [Hincapie] and Cadel and Marcus Burghardt and all those guys it was the same kind of deal that year," said Bookwalter.
"For me, yeah, this year we have more of the best riders in the world than we have ever had before, but the process for finding your place within the team and adapting to the changes that are going on around you is similar. I feel like I have been successful adapting and rising to the challenge before, so I am confident that I can do it again," adds Bookwalter.
And Bookwalter has proven that claim. "The first couple years I was with the team when we were a Pro Continental team I would do whatever races we got in to. Whether that was Paris-Roubaix or the Ardennes classics or Tour of Romandie or Three Days of West Flanders in Belgium. This big mix. I think I showed the team early that I am capable of riding all the races we got thrown in to."
With three Grand Tours under his belt, Bookwalter appears to have found his niche. "As the team started to become a larger organization and had broader goals across the board I had to become more focused so now I am definitely more in the stage race squad than I am in the one-day [race] squad."
Not surprisingly, Bookwalter's 2012 season is geared toward the major stage races. "I started with Volta a Algarve then did Paris-Nice. Next up will be Criterium International. Then I have a little break before Tour de Romandie. Then I go back to the States for California and Nationals then I think I come back for Tour de Suisse and by then we will have a better idea of the Tour team."
The competition for a slot on the Tour de France team will be intense. "We have a lot of riders who are superstars in their own right as well as the defending Tour de France champion. Just getting on the Tour team will be very tough. But that is a goal of mine and my program is geared towards helping me get in the condition I need to get that spot and we will see how it progresses in the next few months. Competition for spots on Team BMC's Tour team will be fierce."
How is Bookwalter's year shaping up? "I am happy with my season so far. I do a lot of the same races year after year so I can use them as a gauge. Maybe not even result-wise, but just how the race unfolds and how you are feeling within a race and what you are capable of doing in a race changes. That kind of stuff doesn't shine through to results or resumes. Obviously, you don't build a career or get contracts off of improvements like that, but it is that improvement which inspires one to go for tangible performances."
Next on Bookwalter's program is the Criterium International. "It will be my first year doing it. It is cool to check out another nice place in the world. It sounds like a beautiful area and obviously an intense race with three good stages in two days. I think we will have Cadel going and hopefully I will get a little rebound in form going from Paris-Nice."
Bookwalter's European base is Girona, but even with a huge cadre of English-speaking riders and residents, things can be trying. "It is a challenge. Just like the racing at a high level, it gets slightly more comfortable each year," said Bookwalter.
"This year, the biggest change is having my wife over here with me. We just got married last November, and she just finished grad school so she is taking a breather to decide what is next. Having her over here definitely creates an actual feeling of home as opposed to just a place where you are staying between races," said Bookwalter.
With a newly revamped team and a new wife there is a bit of uncertainty for Brent Bookwalter in 2012. But, if anything is for certain, it is his ability to adapt to new situations. Look for Bookwalter to rise to the challenges and continue his successful ways this season.