Every great story has its odd couple, the polar opposite characters whose contrasting personalities make each other shine. And like Maverick and Iceman in Top Gun, TJ Eisenhart and Brent Bookwalter are two very different sides of American cycling who, if Tour of Utah was any indication, will add a special element to the Colorado Classic's cast of characters.
Case in point: the opening press conference of the race in Colorado Springs, and Bookwalter dutifully describes his team as the "best in the world", speaking about his long journey from his start with BMC Racing as a domestique to becoming the only American to have finished on the podium of the most recent major stage races - Tour of California, Tour of Utah, Tour of Alberta and the now-defunct USA Pro Challenge in Colorado.
"When I got on the team, all I wanted to do was to work for others. I got to a turning point around 2012, the year after Cadel [Evans] won the Tour, I realized I had more in me still," Bookwalter said. "It's not all I aspire to, I still wanted more out of myself. I worked hard to make that transition, to turn myself into a rider who also races for results, who is at front or race, and have that fire in me." He then went on to describe his gratitude for his team - a polished, professional press conference statement of a seasoned WorldTour rider.
Bookwalter's style comes in sharp contrast to that of neo-pro TJ Eisenhart (Holowesko-Citadel), a self-styled neo-hippie who sports a chunky turquoise necklace, and headband over bleach-blonde locks.
"Yeah, man. It's for sure a vibe on Holwesko-Citadel," Eisenhart said when asked about the contrast between his 2016 trainee stint with BMC to his current Continental team. "We just go out and like, race it. It doesn't matter, we give it all, man."
"For me, man - I felt like on BMC I was kind of like this caterpillar, I was just, like, following orders. I'm grateful for my time with BMC Racing, but this winter I feel like turned into a butterfly. Just being with the team has helped me a lot, with not being afraid to express who I am, just enjoying racing, and just enjoy being blown away by the beauty of mother nature.
"Holowesko-Citadel is pretty rad, man. It's all about free spirits. It's all about like having a good time and racing. It's just so cool, man, when you're happy you go out and rip it and have a good time. No matter what, if we won or lost, we still have a righteous after party. It's awesome, man."
However different Eisenhart and Bookwalter are off the bike, in the race they are quite similar types of riders. Neither rider is afraid to take risks to try to win rather than race to keep a good placing. They linked up in the Tour of Utah on the penultimate stage to Snowbird Resort where Bookwalter was fifth on GC at 44 seconds, Eisenhart sixth at 58 seconds, attacking out of the field on an early climb to try and put race leader Rob Britton under pressure.
The tactic didn't quite work out, but Eisenhart pointed to that day as an example of how his team race together.
"You saw that at the Tour of Utah with two stage wins with Ty Magner and John Murphy and then me attacking far out with Brent and putting on a show. You saw that we'd rather race for the win than just sit in and chill."
Small teams, dynamic racing
The Colorado Classic will be contested by six-man teams, a peloton of fewer than 100 riders, over four relatively short, intense stages - the first in Colorado Springs, then to Breckenridge and two stages in Denver. It's a never before tried format for a UCI 2.HC race, and it will be interesting to see which style is more successful: the military precision and discipline of BMC Racing, the guns-blazing style of Holowesko, or perhaps somewhere in between like Cannondale-Drapac.
Taylor Phinney returns to his home race after completing his first Tour de France, helping teammate Rigoberto Uran take second place overall. He called the format "new and fresh", and said "I look forward to how the racing will play out. I'm definitely going to try to put my hands up in the air."
The opening stage is more likely one for riders like Magner or Trek-Segafredo's Kiel Reijnen. Though Reijnen was quick to announce that he was not racing for the GC. "I'll just confirm I'm not here for GC," Reijnen said. "In theory, the smaller teams should make for more dynamic, less controlled racing.
"The day where the teamwork is really going to come into play is the Moonstone (stage 2) and Gap Road climb (stage 3). If you're isolated - you only have five teammates - you have to hope there are other teams with similar interests."
The second stage in Breckenridge is above 8,000 feet in elevation with a terribly steep, sharp climb taken in 10 times on a stage that's just over 100km.
Bookwalter knows the Moonstone Road climb well - in 2015, he wore the race leader's yellow jersey when the USA Pro Challenge entered Breckenridge, facing the climb near the end of a 203km stage from Aspen.
"I lost the lead to my teammate Rohan Dennis there two years ago," Bookwalter said. "I feel like I have some unfinished business on that climb for sure. It's going to be tough. It's a different scenario this year, we're approaching it 10 times, and obviously not after 200k of racing over a bunch of mountains like a few years ago."
Laura Weislo has been with Cyclingnews since 2006 after making a switch from a career in science. As Deputy Editor, she coordinates coverage for North American events and global news. A swimmer in her younger days, Laura made the change to cycling later in life, but was immediately swept up by a huge passion for the sport. Riding for fitness quickly gave way to the competitive urge, and a decade of racing later she can look back on a number of high profile races and say with confidence, "I started". While her racing days are over for the most part, she continues to dabble in cyclo-cross and competing against fellow pathletes on the greenways of Raleigh, North Carolina.
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