On his last participation in the Tour of Qatar in 2009, Brent Bookwalter was nervously feeling his way into professional racing at international level, while BMC was a middling Pro Continental team that was straining to punch above its weight in a peloton replete with classics winners and contenders. After six days of high winds and unforgiving speeds, the 101st-placed Bookwalter was doubtless glad to chalk his outing in the Gulf down to experience.
But you cannot step into the same river twice, and even if the conditions, pace and exposed roads of the Tour of Qatar remain unchanged, Bookwalter himself approached the race in a very different state. Now a veteran of four Grand Tours and a mainstay of one of the WorldTour's most expensively-assembled squads, it was a rather more confident Bookwalter who claimed victory on stage 1 at Dukhan Beach on Sunday.
"I came here four years ago, as a second-year pro, and I wasn't ready for it, I got totally blown out of the water," Bookwalter said as he waited at doping control afterwards. "It really blew my mind because of how hard the wind makes the race. But coming back now a few years later, I knew I was a different rider."
Bookwalter's victory was as impressive as it was surprising. After his BMC team had been one of the day's principal aggressors on a day of intermittent crosswinds that repeatedly split the peloton, Bookwalter found himself with four teammates in the lead group on the run-in to the finish and his role was to try and prepare the ground for Taylor Phinney and Adam Blythe in the finale.
"I'd just talked with Taylor and asked him if he wanted me to ride so as to prohibit attacks. That's when those moves went and I saw my chance," Bookwalter said.
When the Swiss pair of Martin Elmiger (IAM Cycling) and Gregory Rast (RadioShack-Trek) attacked with 10km to go, Bookwalter drifted across instinctively, and by the time he looked back, the trio had put daylight between themselves and the peloton. "It was headwind and I kept telling myself just stay on the wheel and then we'll see how it shuffles," he said of his decision to put his shoulder to the wheel.
In spite of that headwind, however, Bookwalter and company stretched their lead out to some 45 seconds, although that margin tumbled dramatically inside the final three kilometres. The peloton was within touching distance as they entered the finishing straight, but Bookwalter took a calculated gamble by riding on the front to ensure that the leaders would stay clear to contest the sprint.
"I actually was kind of hoping to get one more pull from the others, but they both said no with 500 to go, so I just tried to keep it rolling," he said. When Rast finally came around him, Bookwalter dived onto his wheel and then showed considerable strength to take out the sprint into a stiff headwind.
"It's great for Brent and bit of a surprise; I wouldn't have picked him for a win here, but he outclassed some pretty solid guys," his teammate Phinney said afterwards.
Bookwalter takes the first golden jersey of the race ahead of Monday's team time trial, where BMC will be the last team off. With Phinney and Steve Cummings in their ranks, they are among the favourites for victory, and after placing five riders in the main peloton, BMC have a number of options for overall honours.
"We'll take it one day at a time, but we're here to perform," Bookwalter said. "We have a number of guys in that front group and I think we'll do a good team time trial tomorrow."
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