Columbia-HTC's Craig Lewis is at a potential turning point in his career. Last year, he rode to an impressive 11th place at the Giro di Lombardia in support of teammate Morris Possoni, who finished ninth. These past few months, he's showing the form of his life.
Lewis might be the forgotten man of US cycling. Only 24, he's been a pro for five years, first with TIAA-CREF, and for the past two years with Columbia-Highroad and Columbia-HTC. Columbia, the top team in the world, has been an apprenticeship, one where if he can step up, he'll be able to take on some leadership responsibilities. If he had been on a smaller or less successful team, he might have had more opportunities to ride for himself and have some more results next to his name. But that doesn't necessarily translate into progress as a rider.
Lewis, though seen as a climber and stage racer by many, has spent countless kilometres on the front in support of his teammates. This year, he was the first guy pounding out tempo for teammate Mark Cavendish at the Tours of Ireland and Missouri. He was George Hincapie's only teammate when Hincapie won the USPRO Championships this summer, and his pace on several ascents of Paris Mountain shredded the field. Impressive for a guy diagnosed with H1N1 (swine flu) earlier that week. Since Missouri, he was the top American at the World Championships, riding to 58th.
Some might be frustrated by always being the guy called on to bring back the break. For people fixated on results as a way to measure worth, riding in support of others can be difficult. Lewis seems to take it in stride. "I'm riding the front 70 percent of the races I'm doing, riding at the front the whole day for my teammates. When I was on Garmin, I couldn't do it for one day. With Highroad, the first year, I could go longer and longer. The second year (this year), I could go all the way to the finish."
He's had a free hand at a few races, like the Dauphiné Libéré (24th on GC) and Tour of Ireland (fourth on final stage, seventh on GC), but on Columbia, it's hard not to have someone going better than you.
Columbia team director Allan Peiper has been in Lewis' shoes. He started on the Peugeot team, at the bottom. He says for a young rider like Lewis, "the only way to get your chance is to take it when you can. For sure in a team setup you need to work for the team and follow orders but by going with the breaks, doing your work, you sometimes end up in a winning break."
Lewis has a pretty big opportunity with Columbia. "Up until now Craig has been moving up the ladder, doing the domestique work and having the occasional result for himself," said Peiper. "There are a few riders leaving the team this year who leave a void and create an opportunity for someone like Craig to step directly into. But that void is only momentary so time is of the essence and again results speak volumes."
Just this past weekend, Lewis finished 41st at the Giro dell'Emilia in support of team leader Thomas Lövkvist, who finished third. Reached after the race, Lewis said, "Compared to last year where I only did two of the five laps I was much better this year. I felt very strong on the climb and even better on the two longer ones we did before entering the final laps."
Lewis was 13th at the GP Beghelli, on the same time at the winner in the bunch gallop; he was trying to set up team leader Kim Kirchen for the sprint, but got boxed in.
The weekend produced both good news and bad news. Lövkvist is flying, so he's both a protected rider and one other teams will be looking for. Further, Lewis said, "Maxime [Monfort] and Kim [Kirchen] also look very strong. Marco [Pinotti] as well is very motivated as the race is in his backyard basically."
Lewis and Columbia will have a responsibility to race at the front. So, he'll probably be an aggressor, making it harder to get a result, but with the right move, he's got the form that could take him to the finish at or near the head of the race. Not quite a void, but a window of opportunity.
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