BMC Racing's Brent Bookwalter scored one of his top professional results last year at the Amgen Tour of California, finishing on the podium behind Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step Floors) and teammate Rohan Dennis.
Despite being the top 2016 finisher in this year's race, Bookwalter isn't the designated leader for the US-based WorldTour team. Included in BMC's roster announcement Friday was the designation of 39-year-old Samuel Sanchez as the team's go-to rider for the general classification.
Bookwalter seemed to take it all in stride during Friday's pre-race press conference, joking with reporters that they should ask BMC Director Jackson Stewart, who was standing in the back of the room, why he's not the leader of the team.
"I hope I won't be getting bottles and riding the front in the first few K of the race," Bookwalter joked when Cyclingnews asked him what his role will be when the race rolls out of Sacramento on Sunday.
"Looking at Sanchez and his palmares and what he's done, I think he's capable and deserving of being protected," Bookwalter said of the 2008 Olympic champion who finished second in the 2010 Tour de France.
"That said, I'm highly motivated, and last year gave me good confidence. As always, the goal at the end of the week is to get the best results possible, whether that's him or me or a wildcard that comes up."
Bookwalter, 33, has had an impressive run-up to the race so far, finishing second to Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) in the Queen stage at the Tour of the Alps and following that with fourth overall at the Tour de Yorkshire, where he finished fourth on the final day.
"Obviously it's a lot different race here," Bookwalter said. "Tour of the Alps was five stages, all big mountains and no TT. Yorkshire was just three days and more technical terrain. So much different race here, but when the form is good, the legs are good and the body is good, everything is firing. I think I'm there and I'm looking forward to this week."
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The major tests for the GC contenders throughout the seven stages will be the stage 5 climb up Mt. Baldy and the 24km time trial at Big Bear Lake the next day. Bookwalter proved he could climb with the best in last year's race and when he won the USA Pro Challenge stage to Arapahoe Basin in 2015. His time trial skills should keep him in contention if he performs well on the Baldy.
"The altitude component throws a wrench into it little bit," Bookwalter said of the time trial. "A flat TT of 24km would usually hurt some of the lighter more climbing specialists, but I think when it's at 7,000 feet [2,134 metres] that neutralises that a little bit and should keep it a tight race until the last moment."
Changing roles within the team
Bookwalter is now in his 10th season with BMC after starting with the team in 2008 when it was a Pro Continental outfit. As the team grew in scope and size, Bookwalter found himself slotted into a worker role, a position he says he's been slowly and steadily climbing out of over the past few years.
Tour of the Alps was the first race in a long time where the team was working entirely for him.
"It's been a long time in coming, and it's been a long transition," he said. "When everyone starts racing, we like winning and we do it for performing, and that feeling of being in the heat of the action in the closing moments of the race is part of what drives us."
As a domestique, Bookwalter focused on "working, working, working" and lost sight of that winning attitude that had inspired him to begin with. He says he rediscovered that mentality toward the end of 2013, the year he took his first UCI pro win during the opening stage at the Tour of Qatar.
"I sort of had this realization that I can still win and I can still perform," he said. "It's about believing in myself and creating those opportunities for myself. Even if the team BMC isn't always thinking that way, myself with my personal team, we need to be thinking that way and still hold myself accountable to that level."
Bookwalter acknowledges that wins have been few and far between, but he says he's been up there battling in the heat of the moment, stoking the fires that keep him motivated for such a difficult profession.
"When I ask myself why I'm racing and why I'm still dong this, that's one of the reasons," he said. "There are a lot of reasons, but part of it is to still feel that and the progress and getting better, still chipping away at it. It's gratifying."
Bookwalter has also found gratification in flipping his mentality from up-and-comer to veteran road captain, someone who can pass on the things he's learned to the younger riders on the team and try to lead by example.
"It's weird how it happens," he said. "One minute you're the young guy, and the next minute you're the veteran or the old guy. I'm not sure when that happened, but here we are."