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Bookwalter to support all levels of riders in post-retirement

Brent Bookwalter (BikeExchange)
Brent Bookwalter (BikeExchange) (Image credit: Getty Images)

Brent Bookwalter ended his career as a professional racer this year, having spent three seasons at Team BikeExchange and 11 years with BMC Racing. He will continue advocating for riders of all levels when he joins the Pro Cyclist Foundation as vice-chairperson of the Foundation's Advisory Board of Directors.

The PCF launched in 2020 with the support of the Black Swift Group, LLC, and has already donated more than $350,000 to cycling initiatives including the HotTubes, Onto Cycling, and Lux Cycling development programmes, the Aevelo and Twenty24 teams, plus USA Cycling's Mud Fund and USA Cycling's Foundation. Its mission is "to offer professional cyclists improved access to legal, wellness and career services to benefit the sport of cycling at all levels".

Founder and fellow Board Chairman Greg Casals said Bookwalter's role will connect the organisation with the European peloton as part of its expansion plans. 

"Brent is going to be instrumental in our ability to effectively deploy what we think will be at least a million-dollar budget for support in 2022," Casals said in a press release.

Bookwalter has been on the board of the ANAPRC (North American Pro Riders' union) and has advocated for rider safety with the Extreme Weather Protocol and pay protections during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Cyclingnews spoke to Bookwalter from his home in North Carolina's mountains about the decision to end his career, the surprising 14 years he spent racing, and the challenging transition to life after cycling.

Cyclingnews: I'm sure it's nice to be home after such a long career spent overseas.

Brent Bookwalter: I love coming back here – of all the places I've ridden, this one gets me going with the forest and the access to trails, especially this time of year. But we're not fully out of the woods yet [with being overseas]. My wife's working on a PhD over in Spain and needs about a year to finish that. So we're gonna be back over there in January and hopefully, she'll finish that up in the next year. That will keep us there and sort of transition us out slowly.

CN: If you'll still be in Europe, why did you decide to retire?

BB: It was quite intentional. I feel pretty fortunate that it was intentional and really thought out. It was a process that was happening for the past couple of years. I deliberately made the decision early in this year to put the late-season contract conundrum out of the equation and not be being lured back in. I felt like then I could really make the decision for the right reasons and make it mine and ultimately feel good about it. 

I'm ready to be done. It's been a huge part of my life and I'm really proud of everything I accomplished. But I've reached a point now where I'm excited to explore new challenges and kind of broaden the other parts of my life.

I'm a dad now. Jamie will be finishing up this PhD, and that'll sort of kick us down to the next chapter. Next phase. I realised that I was becoming more and more excited for all of that and less excited to race. Really. I still love the bike as much as ever, but it's been a long run, and it felt like it was time to turn the page.

CN: You were in really good form this year and so close to a national title in Knoxville.

BB: I've been close so many times. It stung to be so close again. But I think when I look at that nationals experience it was really impactful, in that it was the sentimental send-off I wanted. I didn't know when my last race of the season would be over in Europe, but having nationals be just down the road in Knoxville – that's where my wife Jamie is from – and announcing and deciding I was going to retire right around that time, it took all the pressure off. I was just out there by myself with no team support – lubing my own chain and filling my own bottles and had my inner circle team on the side of the road, and somehow turned it into a really inspired ride and was only beaten by my good friend Joey [Rosskopf]. So that was a highlight of the season for sure. Yeah, one that's right up there with the highlights of the career, too.

CN: Do you have any regrets about retiring as the season ended?

BB: No, definitely not. The last few races that I did were in Italy and we had some really nasty weather. And those courses are so demanding, even if you're in amazing shape. So they weren't the fairytale final races of the career that I'd envisioned or people would want for me, but the good thing about that was that it didn't leave any doubts in my mind. It was like, wow, I'm done. I milked it all out. I felt like I've asked so much of my body and my mind over all these years racing and you keep asking it for more and more. I felt like in those last few races my body and mind were calling my bluff, saying 'No way man. You've done this trick to us before and now we're done'.

The transition now is interesting because every year for the past 20 years this part of the calendar year has been the offseason or downtime or home time and that's still what I'm doing now. So really, the biggest difference now is that there is no impending pressure to train that's always hovering over the head this time of year. So that feels really liberating. I think when January comes around, and everyone's going out to training camps, and I'm not as in shape as I've been for the past 15 or 20 years, that'll be another level of the transition and adjustment, that'll probably be a little weird, but I'm excited for it. I'm excited to ski more this winter and still keep riding, play dad a little more and mostly support Jamie as she finishes the PhD.

CN: Do you plan to do any gravel races? It seems to be what everybody is doing.

BB: Yeah, I was just hanging out with a Kiel [Reijnen] and Alex [Howes] - they were in town for our event a couple of weekends ago. They're all gung ho and going full steam ahead on [gravel]. I wouldn't rule it out. I'd be interested in doing some of these events that everyone seems to be having a great time with and seeing a community of riders that I haven't met before and interacted with before. But I definitely won't be structuring my whole year around training and travel and all that.

CN: When you first joined BMC back in the day, did you envision that you would be in the WorldTour for this long?

BB: No way. My whole career has been just really stay focused on where I'm at and look one step in front of me, and maybe dream 10 steps in front of me. But no, I mean, going back to the days when I was a beginner mountain bike racer in Michigan, I just wanted to get to that elite category and try to race for a state championship maybe. And then when BMC took me on when I was kind of broken and battered [having suffered a compound tibia fracture in 2007] and even unsure if I'd be able to pedal again. I thought, gosh, even if I could just do one year at this level, and just see what it's like, that'd be amazing. And then it was 'let's try to do one Grand Tour' and 'try to win a race' and all these little steps. They added up to quite a career and quite an adventure. So I'm proud of that.

Brent Bookwalter won the opening stage at Tour of Qatar in 2013 (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

CN: What would you say was the highlight of your career? I know that winning that Tour of Qatar stage was pretty good.

BB: There are so many facets of what I loved about bike racing, and there are so many facets of the adventure in the career that I'm proud of. Some of them aren't result-based, they're not hands-in-the-air-across-the-line stuff. But that win in 2013 in the first stage of Qatar was definitely a highlight. Not just for the win itself, but for the path that I took to get there. 

I did that race for the first time a few years prior and I vowed I'd never go back – I hated it, it was the worst thing ever for me. And I couldn't imagine it and also how it fit in, that race, in terms of my past with BMC. I had been a part of Cadel [Evans'] winning Tour team in 2011 but I didn't quite follow up in 2012 with a performance year in terms of coming off the Tour de France winning team. The team began to put more pressure on me to get my own results – it was like 'you're kind of done developing, we need to see some performances from you'. 

So that winter before I won that Qatar stage in the beginning of the season, I set out to change my mind and worked with a psychologist for the first time and really had some good training with my coach. It was kind of separate to the team at the time, with a home training camp instead of the team training camp, and then came out of the blocks just guns a blazing in Qatar and did something that I never thought I could do. So that was special for that.

CN: You spent most of your career as a domestique, which is a very important role in pro cycling. Do you see that being a more difficult career path for riders?

BB: It's give and take. I think there's a burden with being the leader that a domestique maybe doesn't carry. And it goes both ways, though. I think the hustle to stay alive and to stay in the game and stay under contract and to prove value [as a domestique], especially as I got older, was really challenging. I think the tendency with all these teams especially now the past few years is to go grab those new shiny toys, the new riders, and it's hard to stay relevant and stay in the mix and keep proving year in, year out. It seems to only keep getting harder. 

Maybe that's because I was kind of at the end of my career, but the dynamic and the role of a domestique, I think definitely wasn't the same at the end of my career as it was in the beginning. When I look at the guys who were, you know, 35 to 40 years old when I entered the sport, a lot of those guys had that role and they were really respected for it and appreciated for it – there were more sort of franchise team riders who've been in their teams for a long time. Now to stay alive, oftentimes you see guys jumping around teams and being put under a lot of pressure just to perform. It's hard. It's a hustle to keep it going.

CN: You are one of the last riders of the generation to bridge the Armstrong generation, through that whole shift. Has there been a big change in the peloton?

BB: For sure. Yeah. I think there's been tons of changes. When I did my first Tour [de France] Lance was there on his comeback. When we think about that Tour and who the players were, who was there, and even how the races evolved, how the gruppetto works, how the riders respected each other, or looked for leadership in the peloton. That's a lot different than now 15 years later. In some ways for better, maybe in some ways, for worse, but it's definitely changed. And I think the change is sort of evident in that how few of the guys from my generation and my age that were there when I started were still in it when I left. There's a pretty high attrition rate amongst Americans. Not a lot of guys are still around – it was hard to adapt through that generational shift.

CN: The Armstrong ban really highlighted this lack of voice that the riders had to defend themselves or withstand pressure from teams. Did that come into play in your role with the riders' union?

BB: Yeah, a little bit... It didn't really have anything directly to do with moving on from that dark era, if you will, but it had more to do with recognising that there were conversations going on, governance taking place, decisions being made and – even in the generation before me – there weren't riders in the room making those decisions. 

Maybe at the time, the sport wasn't ready for it, or the riders weren't interested in it. But a group of us realised that we did want a voice in it and we wanted to try to leave some sort of positive legacy in the sport even after we were done. And it was worth a try to get engaged and learn the pathways, who the players were and create the relationships to make a go of it. And I wouldn't say we were 100 per cent successful, but definitely made some progress and created some awareness. And I think those changes will continue to live on, and hopefully just continue to reinstill that value of the need of ownership and buy-in, personally, when it comes to looking after our careers and how we're represented and how we're involved, and to be in the room with the other big stakeholders in the sport.

CN: It sounds like the Pro Cyclist Foundation's goals are similar to the Cyclists' Alliance.

BB: They've done an amazing job. In the few years, they've been around, they've managed to really do a lot of things and offer a lot of support – the CPA has been around for 15 or 20 years and is still unable to impact individual riders in the way that the Cyclists' Alliance has. They're a sort of model startup association in terms of impact and outreach. It's impressive to see – I think us guys have something to learn from the ladies in that regard, even though their association came after ours.

I'd say, there's definitely some crossover. I think there's potential even for collaboration in the future. The Pro Cyclist Foundation is not restricted to gender or to the level of professional – it's really quite open. That's what's exciting to me is it's a chance to provide outreach and impact and support to this community of athletes that I just spent my whole adult life being part of at every level of the sport. And it's a chance to continue to stay connected with them and to provide deserved, meaningful, impactful and needed support. 

As the Cyclists' Alliance is showing even at the top level of women's sport, there's a need for some of these services. And the condition for the men generally is better - the mens' salaries are, are generally higher, and there's more team spots for men. But there's still holes in the system, and there are still places that men need support. And I think the Foundation can make an impact there.

It very much has a team-building feel and sense right now. And that was one of the things I realised I was gonna miss the most about professional racing was this sense of team and the collaboration of what I can bring as an individual and putting that into the team, everyone putting that in, and then ultimately creating something that's much bigger than any one of ourselves. That sort of new excitement buzzes in the foundation. I'm looking forward to stepping into it.

CN: The transition from pro cycling is always a difficult one, what is the day to day like?

BB: I never would do this as a professional while I'm racing and training, but today, I was out on the bike at just after seven o'clock, as the sun came up trying to fit it in because it's not the highest priority in the day anymore. It's still something I love and it's still the best way that I can get exercise and the enjoyment of being outside.

The work with the foundation is part-time, and I'm quite pleased to not have all my time for the next indefinite period all booked out. I've seen with other riders, and I've done some different workshops with USA Olympic Committee and some other great resources to realise that the tendency is to fill everything immediately. Pro cycling leaves a big void for all of us that step away, but some people know what they want to do, they have an opportunity to fill up all that time, and it's a great fit. And others sort of do that out of paranoia and panic and insecurity. And I feel that tendency and desire to want to do it but I also realise I need some time to sort of reflect and be deliberate and really figure out how I'm going to spend that extra bit of time.

Fortunately, I did a lot of the hard soul searching work with some great support and help but that journey will continue and I know there's going to be challenging days - there are already – I'm feeling that void and that hole a little bit. But it's quickly replacing and filled with the excitement and opportunity and the flexibility not having to just be all bike racing all the time.

CN: Any advice for the riders who are on the verge of retirement like yourself?

BB: I've got all kinds of advice! For me, there was a process of acceptance of knowing that it's going to be OK and that there's a whole world of opportunity out there, which I'm not even completely into yet. One of the things a friend told me was, you're not bowing out, you're not running away with the tail between your legs, you're planting your flag of victory on your career. And that was pivotal and how I viewed it. 

Whether you're three years or five years or 20 years as a pro, I don't care how many you've done, that's something to be proud of and it's something that most people can only dream of, and never get the chance to do. I think a lot of self-compassion is needed. I think there's a lot of a sense of pride that is deserved, that should be felt. 

And then I think it's important to get deliberate and tactical and strategic with how that transition is going to look with loved ones and advisors and that whole team of people really that, for me, I was able to assemble through my career. I understand everyone's personal team looks a little different, but you know, lean on them and build it out and rely on them and don't do it alone.

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