It was just one month ago that the Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO) announced the wildcard selections for the 107th edition of Paris-Roubaix, and among the eight discretionary picks was the American BMC Racing Team, the USA's sole UCI Professional Continental squad. Cyclingnews' Peter Hymas talked to three members of the team about the mad scramble to prepare for the biggest one-day race of the year.
The BMC Racing Team hasn't had the luxury of taking in the traditional buildup to Paris-Roubaix. Most teams have a steady diet of grueling European one-day classics and short stage races to fine tune fitness and acclimate the body to the demands put forth by gnarled pavé and adverse weather conditions.
Instead, the team's top competition came at the Tour of Qatar, Amgen Tour of California and Critérium International. Additionally, the team has been active this Spring in Europe, racing in Switzerland, Belgium, and the Netherlands.
Of the five American and three Swiss members of BMC Racing Team's Paris-Roubaix roster, only one, Tony Cruz, has previously started Paris-Roubaix. Veteran members of the team, however, such as Cruz and Swiss Alexandre Moos bring a wealth of European ProTour experience to the squad on the road while directeur sportif John Lelangue and the team's support staff have been feverishly at work to ensure a flawless trek from Compiègne to Roubaix.
Brent Bookwalter: First timer
For Brent Bookwalter, 25, Sunday's start in Paris-Roubaix will be his first-ever appearance in one of cycling's five Monuments in his four years as a professional. He talked to Cyclingnews from his hotel in France on Thursday, having only arrived in Europe the day before.
"In early March we did a trip to Belgium for a one-day race called Le Samyn and then Driedaagse van West-Vlaanderen. I got home from that and I found out about the invite that week fresh off the plane from just being over here. First I got the news that we were invited and then they started letting us know who was selected for the team."
Bookwalter discussed some changes to his training to prepare for Paris-Roubaix. "Between now and then it's been exciting. It definitely lit a fire beneath me. I didn't know exactly what to expect so I talked guys like Tony [Cruz], I talked to other guys who've done the race before and picked their brain on training.
"I did some longer miles, I did some motorpacing and did some strength work. I raced San Dimas and Redlands with the team the past couple of weeks. Unfortunately there were no big Euro races to prep me coming in, but I did the best stuff in the US at least."
While Bookwalter had never ridden the pavé sections of Paris-Roubaix prior to his team's recon, but he's not exactly a cobbles neophyte. "It's definitely not foreign to me, so I think I've got that going for me. I've done a fair number of races with cobbles in them on the national team, although I never did the U23 Paris-Roubaix, unfortunately."
Bookwalter related his experience of riding Paris-Roubaix pavé sections for the first time during his Thursday course recon. "We went and previewed the first 10 cobble sectors today [April 9] and based on those it's a different world of cobbles. I say I've raced on cobblestones but collectively I've done nothing of the magnitude and severity of these. They're all long, they're all exposed, and they're all up or down and have corners in them.
"You could put any one of these cobble sections in a race with one or two cobble sections in it and you would think, 'That's the decisive part of the race, it's a really bad cobble section' but here you have one after the next after the next after the next...They just keep hitting you. I can only imagine the rate of attrition and the decimation that will hit the field."
Bookwalter discussed the importance of having Paris-Roubaix veteran and teammate Tony Cruz acting as a mentor. "It's cool rooming with him because he's had more experience than anyone else on the team. He communicates well relating all the little things from what hand position you need riding the cobbles to what gear you'll need to be in on various pavé sectors. He's discussed how the race unfolded here or there in the past.
"It's helpful, inspiring and adds confidence to have someone tell you these things first-hand," continued Bookwalter. "It's a race that can easily be overwhelming for a first-time guy."
Weather is always a factor at Paris-Roubaix and Bookwalter talked about his preference for Sunday. "From a sheer terror point of view, I kind of hope it's dry. When it rains and it really makes it even more of a totally different race, just epic and crazy. It hasn't rained a lot here lately but it's amazing to see that there's still plenty of mud within the cobbles and on the sides of the road, opportunities to get good and dirty. Either way, the moisture will still be a factor."
Bookwalter describe the team's equipment choices for Paris-Roubaix, a race which exacts extreme tolls on both man and machine."We don't have any crazy prototype, one-off Paris-Roubaix bikes. We're still a growing team. We're at a good level now, but we're looking to get higher. We're not at the point now where we have the resources to do a whole other fleet of bikes just for a day of racing, or a week of racing.
"The good news is our regular bikes are awesome, extremely versatile bikes," continued Bookwalter "For Roubaix, they'll have some wheels with low-profile aluminum rims and wide tubulars. We have some different forks with a little more rake and a little more clearance. Then, we've got some cool new pedals from Speedplay that are kind of a mud, all-terrain road pedal. It allows the mud to clear out of the cleat in case you have to put a foot down which, judging by today, I wouldn't be too surprised if I did on Sunday.
Jeff Louder: New to Roubaix, not the Monuments
Jeff Louder, 31, will be making his first start at Paris-Roubaix, but the Utah native with 10 years of professional experience isn't a newcomer to the Monuments. Earlier in his career, Louder rode the Ronde van Vlaanderen and Liège-Bastogne-Liège while racing for a Belgian team. Louder, who arrived in Europe for the first time this season approximately two weeks ago, will arrive at Paris-Roubaix directly from racing the Circuit Cycliste Sarthe. Louder spoke to Cyclingnews while still competing in the four-day stage race.
"I had trained really hard for the Tour of California, it was a major objective for the team. For whatever reason it didn't work out in any GC way, but once I recovered from the race, and it was a really hard race, I came back pretty strong. I trained hard after California not realizing that I was going to do Roubaix and these other European races that I'm doing.
"The result is that I've got some good form now," said Louder. "I won Redlands and the form was confirmed today [Wednesday]. I was eighth in the time trial in Sarthe this afternoon, so it's going well."
Louder finished 10th overall in the Circuit de Sarthe on Friday and will only have one day of rest before starting Paris-Roubaix on Sunday. "Ideally, I'd like more rest, just a few more days, but we only get so many invites in Europe and we need to take the most advantage of those. I'm going to race this race [Sarthe] through and end it on a high note. In some ways, for such a big race, it's kind of nice to have some good speed in the legs."
Louder commented on the effect of arriving for Paris-Roubaix with such a narrow margin of direct preparation time on the parcours. "I'll be going in pretty blind. It's kind of funny, my dad gave me the last six years of Roubaix DVDs to review, but I didn't get around to it because I've been too busy.
"It's just going to be one pavé section at a time," said Louder. "I'm just going to have to go off of enthusiasm and guidance from the car. Tony [Cruz] is our one veteran, he's done it and finished it, so I'll talk to him, watch him and collectively try to work off of his experience."
Louder discussed the importance of the team's wild card bid from the ASO, and the importance of Paris-Roubaix in the larger goal of BMC Racing Team receiving an invitation to the Tour de France. "There's always pressure on the team, especially when we're doing big races, to honor the race and perform at our best, particularly if it's an ASO event. John Lelangue has a history with ASO, and obviously they put on a large majority of the best races in the world, so it's very important for us as a team that does hope to do the Tour in a few years that we do well.
"Also, for all of the riders that are in the race, it doesn't matter what team you're on, when you get to do a Monument like Paris-Roubaix it's an honor and a privilege. Cycling's a very traditional sport and to just be a part of the tradition I think you don't show up to that unprepared. It's always very motivating to be a part of history, so to speak, and be a part of the races that we all grew up dreaming of competing in. I'm honored that I get to go and I'm also honored that my team has been invited because it's an indication that we're on the right track to bigger things."
Tony Cruz: Seasoned pro
Seasoned professional Tony Cruz, has started Paris-Roubaix five times, and has one finish to his credit. He is the only BMC Racing team member to have experience in the Queen of the Classics. Cruz, 37, has raced Paris-Roubaix on ProTour teams such as US Postal and Discovery Channel and has played key roles as a domestique in assisting George Hincapie and Viatcheslav Ekimov to podium finishes.
In addition to Cruz's yeoman work for this teammates through years of Classics, the California native has multiple Grand Tour finishes to his credit, riding in support of Levi Leipheimer's and Roberto Heras' Vuelta e España podium finishes and Paolo Savoldelli's 2005 Giro d'Italia victory.
Cruz now enters Paris-Roubaix as a team leader, and he talked to Cyclingnews from his hotel in France prior to his sixth start. Cruz discussed the race through the eyes of a quintessential professional, with his attention to detail and wealth of knowledge ready to impart to his teammates. Additionally, unlike previous years when he rode a full calendar of European classics coming into Paris-Roubaix, Cruz comes into this year's race with a body that hasn't been beaten down by racing.
"I'm actually feeling really good, I'm feeling fresher," said Cruz. "Most of the years it's been really tough because I've had to perform a lot beforehand and you feel a little tired. You're at the end of the whole Classics swing so there have been quite a few times where I felt 'I just want to go home, I'm tired.'
"I'll definitely be more relaxed and I guess it's my turn to follow wheels now," continued Cruz. "I know who the key players are. I'm pretty confident and just need to make sure I don't over-extend myself and that I'm always in position to react to the bigger guys."
Cruz discussed the reconnaissance rides his team has been taking on the sections of Paris-Roubaix pavé and how he dials in his bike for the rigorous terrain. "We did from the first section all the way through to the forest, which is 10 sections. We had ridden them at race speed. It gives the newer guys a chance to see what it's like to actually come into a pavé section at 50 to 60 km/h and actually hold that speed all the way across. It's better to try to ride them at race speed, and besides, going slow on pavé just doesn't work.
"For me, what it allows me to do is tweak my bike a little bit to find my optimal position," continued Cruz. "I have to run my hoods a little bit higher than normal because if I sit too far forward I think there's too much weight on the front end and it makes it hard to control the bike. My quads also tend to load up a lot faster. By sitting back further with a little higher stance on the bike it just feels more balanced.
Crucial to success at Roubaix is having a support staff able to leap frog along the route in support of its riders "We have some pretty experienced mechanics," said Cruz. "We've also been getting some tips from the Astana guys. We'll have two guys out at the end of each pavé section and then one in the car which is kind of a routine setup for this type of race with the bigger teams."
When asked to discuss BMC Racing's goals in Paris-Roubaix and what would constitute success, Cruz was cooly confident in his reply. "I think success for the team would be a top ten finish. That's about the lowest placing that I and the team would like to see.
Regardless the outcome for BMC Racing on Sunday, any of their riders who finish will feel the welcoming accolades of the crowd in Roubaix which is an experience no rider forgets. "I've actually only finished Roubaix one time ," said Cruz. "When I came into the velodrome with my group it felt like I had won the race. Just to come into the velodrome and do your laps, it felt pretty amazing."