CashCall Cycling's Chris Barton has been to the pinnacle of the sport and back again, now the 25-year-old from Camarillo, California, is hoping to ride his way back to the top one more time.
Barton took over the KOM jersey during Saturday's stage 5 Menomonie Road Race at the Nature Valley Grand Prix after a gutsy ride in a seven-rider breakaway where he claimed enough KOM points to take over the climber's jersey lead from previous leader Janier Acevedo (Jamis-Hagens Berman).
It's been a long road back for the former BMC development team and pro team rider who contracted mononucleosis shortly after signing his first pro contract.
"When I signed my first professional contract with BMC, right after training camp that year I got mononucleosis, and it was a pretty acute case of it," Barton said Saturday just before receiving the KOM jersey. "So I was bedridden for awhile. Then I came back a little too soon that season. I had a couple of good races and then I relapsed and had to take more time off. And then I was just kind of playing catch up with training and racing."
The disease is an offshoot of the Esptein Barr Virus, which is sometimes referred to as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and it can be tough to overcome. It's the same virus that Team Saxo-Tinkoff's Michael Rogers had to overcome.
"It affects different people differently," Barton said. "Some people just get tired in training, but with me it was like I woke up and thought I had some kind of infection or something because it was super painful. I thought I had tonsillitis because I looked in mirror and everything was white. I went to the doctor and he told me I have mono. Since then it's been a slow process, and I had some other issues with some surgeries. It's been slow getting back, but I'm getting back."
Barton started his cycling career on both the mountain bike and on the road, winning national championships in cross country and the road race as a junior in 2006. As a rider with the US national U23 team he competed in some of the biggest races in Europe, including Tour de l'Avenir and Fleche du Sud.
His rise continued on BMC's development squad in 2009 and then with the big guns on the pro team in 2010 and 2011. He rode the Giro d'Italia in 2011, but the team let him go after that season and he signed with the Bissell Pro Cycling UCI Continental team last year. After another somewhat disappointing season with just a handful of top-20 and top-10 results, Barton once again found himself without a contract at the end of the season and moved this year to the domestic elite amateur ranks with the Southern California-based CashCall team of Paul Abrahams.
"I didn't get to race a ton last year," he said. "But this year I've had every opportunity to prove myself. I got off to a slow start at the beginning of the year, but I feel like I'm coming around."
Throughout the difficult journey, Barton said, he has learned to soldier on by putting his results in context and not expecting too much too soon.
"You have to try and get in the mental state of not expecting yourself to be at a certain level physically," he said. "You have to do the best you can and be happy with a good result for you. You can't compare yourself to four years ago, you have to compare yourself to yesterday, basically. I just keep doing it because I love it. I can't imagine a different lifestyle for me."
Like any young cyclist, Barton aspires to making it back to the WorldTour, but he's also happy just racing his bike at a high level once more and being a part of the sport he loves.
"I want to keep it going as long as I can at any level I can get to," he said. "It's always great if you can make a living doing it, too. But there are a lot of different niches in the sport besides racer. So I think there's definitely a future for me in some job. Right now I'm focused on racing, and being the best at racing my bike. But down the road in 10 or 20 years I would still love to be involved in the sport some way."
But Barton's immediate focus will be Sunday's Nature Valley Grand Prix finalé in Stillwater and its difficult terrain, including 21 trips up the 17 percent grades of Chilkoot Hill. He'll be wearing the green polka dot jersey of the best climber in the race so far, a jersey that also marks the beginning of what he hopes will be a long string of success.
"It means the world for me because I've worked so hard," he said. "Mentally and physically it's a struggle, so it feels really good to get on the podium. Really good."