The Pro Cyclist Foundation’s newest Board member, recently retired pro road cyclist Brent Bookwalter, wants to clear a path for riders living outside the US to compete for stars-and-stripes jerseys. His vision is to clear the debris scattered on the career path for many internationally-based US cyclists, young and veteran alike, that make it difficult to travel, gear up and be competitive at home races.
To do this Bookwalter is spearheading a new Nationals Rider Support Project, funded by the Pro Cyclist Foundation. It offers support to a number of American riders based abroad so they can compete in Knoxville, Tennessee at the USA Cycling Pro Road National Championships. The riders receive the mechanical, logistical and ground support that their foreign trade teams are unable, or unwilling, to provide.
“It's really a project that I was inspired to try to head up and get off the ground when I started working for the foundation a little more towards the end of last year. Support should be an inspiration to compete, the lack of support should not be a deterrent to compete,” he told Cyclingnews.
Among the riders to benefit from logistics support as a single rider were Thursday’s time trial champions, Leah Thomas (Trek-Segafredo) and Lawson Craddock (Team BikeExchange-Jayco). In addition, men’s silver medalist Magnus Sheffield (Ineos Grenadiers) received assistance from the project.
Fighting for a national jersey and a medal are important trophies for anyone’s career. But you have to be in it to win it and Bookwalter uses his personal experience to help others. Over his 16-year pro road career, he raced for two WorldTour teams, competed in all three Grand Tours with a total of 11 appearances and competed at USA Cycling Pro Road Championships 10 times. In nine appearances in road race nationals he finished in the top 10 five times, and in six appearances in the time trial he never finished below fourth, but did not win any titles.
He said when many racers go to European teams the US Nationals go off the radar, ‘out of sight, out of mind’. Many teams look at the event as one big expense – airfare, ground travel, equipment (usually multiple bicycles), housing, feed zone support, and more – rather than an investment in a highly-coveted competition.
“I was really fortunate, you know, most of my career with 11 years on the BMC Racing Team. BMC did such a fantastic job of supporting us as athletes at the National Championships. I reaped the benefits of that for the majority of my career. And it was amazing,” Bookwalter told Cyclingnews from his home in Spain.
“There was one year in particular where I was the only rider and I had a mechanic, a director a van, a car, all for me. I was like, this is excessive, but it just happened that way. Gavin Chilcott [chief operating officer for Continuum Sports] told me on numerous occasions, ‘We're one of the biggest teams in the US, we're gonna send a full support staff to Nationals whether we have one rider or five riders, because it's the right thing to do’.
“And then the last few years of my career when I went to ride with GreenEdge, being an Australian team and a multinational team, I was still really inspired to go back to the nationals and try to win that jersey that I've been hunting for. And, again, just to have the unique chance to race in the US in front of friends and family and contribute to the sport and try to inspire others as well. GreenEdge had a different policy. In fact, it was kind of like, ‘well, good luck if you want to go’. So yeah, it's daunting to go put it together yourself. And I did it last year.”
Bookwalter likened the self-support task to travel and ride as individuals at US Pro Road Nationals, something he did in 2021 when racing for a WorldTour team, as putting together a puzzle for two months. And all that just to do one bike race? “Yes” is the short answer.
“So for some rider, man or woman, who rides for a Dutch team and is over there investing in their livelihood, trying to live there the whole season, it's completely different to try to go back to Tennessee for only a week or two in the middle of the summer, and put it together. We can provide a support network,” Bookwalter explained.
The budget for the Nationals Rider Support Project comes from the Foundation. There is some collaboration with USA Cycling like referrals for staffing needs and miscellaneous equipment. The criteria for an athlete to qualify for the inaugural year of funding was to be on an international or domestic team based outside the US and live outside the US for most of the calendar year.
“A couple of the younger riders, like Cole [Kessler] or Finn [Gullickson] or Riley [Sheehan], this was not something they by any means expected. They’re super psyched and appreciative.
“And the same with the two InstaFund riders, Maddie [Ward] and Heidi [Franz]. They ride for a Canadian team and are racing in the US for a fair bit of the year. They're some of America's best women and their team does not send a support structure to the US National Championships. At one point there was talk of their [team] vehicle making its way to Knoxville, and that got pulled for Canadian Nationals [in Alberta -ed.].”
At the other end of the spectrum are veteran WorldTour riders like Craddock, Thomas and Coryn Labecki (Jumbo-Visma). Last year Labecki gave feedback to Bookwalter which he used to develop some of the elements for the programme.
“One of my takeaways was by talking with Coryn. She knows how to handle herself. She does have a supportive spouse and network. And she loves to race and she's a competitor. She's good clearly good at building her own team, and she has done it before. For someone like her it’s about adding one more layer of comfort and ease and convenience.
“For Leah, she has a history with a really supportive host family in Knoxville that she was really excited to go back and stay with. They have a car, and let her use it. They really take care of her. But, you know, they don't have a professional mechanic. So yeah, it is like a nice plug-and-play system that they can take advantage of.
“Everyone does their own race. If they chose to work together in some way, that’s not the Foundation’s role. We put together the support team, which hopefully makes their life a little easier and then their performance becomes a little stronger.”
2022 project beneficiaries at USA Cycling Pro Road Championships
- Leah Thomas (Trek-Segafredo)
- Coryn Labecki (Jumbo-Visma)
- Maddy Ward (InstaFund Racing)
- Heide Franz (InstaFund Racing)
- Lawson Craddock (Team BikeExchange-Jayco)
- Riley Sheehan (Premier Tech U23 Cycling Project)
- Finn Gullickson (CR4C Roanne)
- Cole Kessler (Israel Cycling Academy)
- Luke Lamperti (Trinity Racing)
- Magnus Sheffield (Ineos Grenadiers)
- Lucas Bourgoyne (WB-Fybolia Morbihan)
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