As one of only two Americans to make the men's road team for the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brent Bookwalter knows the odds are stacked against him for a podium spot, but the first-time Olympian is ready to give his best and hope he can pull off something special.
"The goal for the road race is to simply do the absolute best result that I can. I don't want to limit myself in any way," Bookwalter said. "I think the Olympic field and the Olympic event has sometimes shown it can produce some surprise results and surprise medallists, especially with the teams that are there, the team size and racing on a course that has rarely ever been raced on. I am feeling ambitious and motivated to be the best Brent Bookwalter there is and getting the most out of myself."
At 32, Bookwalter is in his ninth season with the BMC Racing Team, and has eight Grand Tours behind him, but none of that has jaded the experience of being a first-time Olympian.
"It is a little bit surreal to be going to the Olympics because the Olympics are one of these ionic events in my mind. From my memory of my childhood, I have watched and have been passionate about them. Now, to realize that I am going and I am going to be part of that center stage and taking part in the racing, is really inspiring and motivating and encouraging. I am trying to let that not detract from my preparation and stay confident in my own preparation. That is something I know has worked for me and that I have developed over the past 10 years in racing professionally."
Because the United States lacked WorldTour points, the country only earned two places for the Olympic Games men's road events this year. Bookwalter and Taylor Phinney will compete in both the road race and time trial. Having only two will be a disadvantage in the road race against powerful teams like those from Great Britain, Spain, Italy, Australia, or Colombia that have five riders, but Bookwalter doesn't think a result is impossible.
"I think having one teammate – Taylor – does affect the way we will race a little bit, as a pro and a con. The downside is that we don't have the numbers to play. We don't have the numbers to support a leader as heavily as we could with five. But the good thing is we can kind of sit back and key off the other teams a little bit. Hopefully, we can lurk in the shadows a little bit and then use our experience to pick the right moments and be a factor at the end of the race.
"I think the road race is definitely a little more open because of the dynamic of it - the sort of atypical team sizes and team management. I think the road race is fairly open to play out in what type of rider can be there for the podium and medal."
The road race is more of a focus for Bookwalter than the time trial. Although he has been second in a Giro d'Italia individual time trial (2010), Bookwalter says Phinney is better prepared for the Olympic Games test on August 10.
"He has kind of foregone any racing the past month or two to just specifically prepare for the time trial. That is a lot different path than I have had. I have not done a ton of hours on my time trial bike like Taylor, so I know going in he is putting a lot of expectation and hope on himself for the time trial. I am just trying to keep an open mind on both events and I will be relying more on my general fitness and physical level from having done the Tour de France the past few weeks and benefiting from the form I have got from there."
Bookwalter had a bad crash on the first stage of the Tour de France, but soldiered through to support team leader Richie Porte to a fifth place overall. He was able to regroup a bit at his home in Asheville, North Carolina before heading to join Team USA in Rio earlier this week.
"This is the first time I have come out of and had a goal for myself so soon after the Tour de France," he said. "The good thing about that is that it has inspired me to keep the wheels rolling and stay motivated and keep riding and take care of myself. That is a tricky balance because there is a huge lead up to the Tour - training camps and sacrifices and hard work and all the training equates to months on the road in France. I would have liked to have kicked back this week and sort of gotten out of the training schedule bubble and live a little. Instead, I am trying to keep things running. So far I am feeling pretty good about that."
His BMC teammate Tejay van Garderen opted out of the Olympic selection out of concerns over the Zika virus, a mosquito-borne disease, but Bookwalter said he is confident with the precautions that have been provided.
"It is definitely on my mind and I have talked to some of the medical staff about it and what they recommend and their precautions. I have also done my own research on it a little bit. I am quite content, confident and comfortable with what precautions that we can take - things like being vigilant with bug spray and wearing protective clothing and staying in an-air conditioned environment when possible, while limiting my time outside in the evening hours. So I feel like I have a decent handle on my plan of attack to mitigate that risk and that concern. And the rest we will see when I get down there. It is hard to really know or comprehend what I am getting into without actually seeing it. So I am trying to be open-minded and stay positive and get excited about a little bit of the unknown and what is going to happen down there."