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He’s ridden seven editions of the Road World Championships as a pro, had one appearance at the Olympics, one Mountain Bike Worlds, and one Cyclocross Worlds. He’s garnered a legion of fans, made himself popular in the peloton, set up a life in Girona, Spain, and he runs a popular off-season gran fondo in North Carolina. He’s 34 years old with a wealth of experience, and we’re supremely excited to welcome BMC Racing Team’s Brent Bookwalter to guest blog on ASSOS.COM with his insider look at an epic edition of the Road World Championships. Here’s his account:
The time spent with the USA crew leading into Worlds is some of my favorite moments of the year. This past week was an awesome block of time. We had amazing early fall weather, and the scenery and roads we trained through were jaw-dropping and stunning.
After a few relaxed days in paradise, it was time to get down to business, and we knew Sunday would be a massive day with colossal attrition.
The Boels-Dolmans women’s team was gracious enough to donate their bus to the Team USA efforts for the past week. Joining us in that bus and sharing a team car also were the Canadians.
This is just another example of the great vibe at a World Championship — competitors in the same bus enjoying time together. The conversations swirled around, “Who’s wearing a base layer? Who’s the team to watch today? How many gels do you take with you?” It was all the usual pre-race squawk but with a unique combination of guys. And one of those rare moments where it was all in English!
We knew we had a serious seven-hour slugfest ahead of us but still, the start line energy was high and position fighting in the neutral was passive aggressive as we headed into the 85-kilometer stretch from Kufstein to Innsbruck. It took a while for the break to go, and we had Ben up there sniffing out the moves. He made numerous solid attempts but unfortunately never found the right combination. After his Vuelta exploits, I think teams who were controlling the beginning were very wary of letting him go, which was probably a smart move on their part!
The national team dynamic was clearly evident with no team wanting to commit too much too soon. The break’s gap quickly ballooned out to 20 minutes. I knew there was still plenty of time to bring them back but started to realize this meant the race would be hard fought for the remaining 200 km because there wouldn’t be time to ramp it up gradually. Instead, we would be pegged the entire time. Sprinting out of the corners felt like we were on the final lap even when we still had 100 km to go and mountains on mountains to climb.
The course was hugely physical with so much accumulated climbing. While the circuit formed the meat of the racing, the stretch leading to it was very demanding with plenty of climbing and technical aspects. It equaled the hardest mountains stages of any race I’ve ridden, but what made it even more challenging was the “steel cage match” nature of the technical city circuit between the climb/descent. There was never a moment to roll along, take a breath, eat a bar, and it was absolutely impossible to pee!
Like all Worlds, the feed zones were a cluster and proved decisive for many riders. Taking a bottle or musette means taking a risk, losing position and spending the next lap trying to regain it. Quite the snafu when the race is seven hours. One missed bottle or a short window where you miss taking in some energy can quickly lead to your race unraveling. Personally, I did okay overall but definitely could have been better at this aspect.
The crowds in and around Innsbruck were insane. The main climb had an incredible multinational atmosphere that is only found at the World Championships. As we hammered up the climb lap after lap, I tried to occasionally snap out of the race fog and be fully aware and appreciate the fantastic environment. Each time I was quickly brought back to the reality of suffering and relentless position fighting.
Toward the end, I was feeling ok but not super. I knew it would be a tall order to keep myself in the mix until the final lap. I used all my experience from past Worlds and focused on spending as little energy as possible while staying in “good enough” position. My aim was to avoid falling out from the back of the pack. I definitely lost some energy being too far back through the city and got whipped around.
As we got deeper into the race, there were more and more crashes, which is always a clear sign guys are on their limit. I knew the race would soon explode.
I was hoping I would find myself still in play toward the later moments. I’ve learned after 200 km it’s not really about feeling strong but about staying alive, so I kept telling myself one more lap, one more lap.
That chance began to evaporate on the penultimate lap when attacks flew over the top of the climb and some splits in the bunch edged me off the back. I poured it all on to regain contact. Once on the descent, I was no match for the guys up front doing their final “pull and peel” efforts, and I was resigned to chasing with a few others.
I wanted to finish but was also pretty cooked. We pushed to make it to the bell lap in time so we could continue and then it was survival mode. My legs were cramping, and it took everything I had to crawl up the main climb on the final lap.
I linked up with my BMC teammates Nico and Damiano who were also completely on empty. Misery always loves company and we decided we would try to haul ourselves up the final “hell climb.” I’ve never been so unsure of my abilities to physically stay on my bike and ride up a climb. Even with a 36 x 30 gear, I was extremely over-geared and found myself paper boying (zigzagging) back and forth up the narrow wall. Despite being minutes behind the leaders, the crowds were still amazing and clearly respected our efforts to push on.
In the end, it wasn’t the result that we believed we were capable of, but I can confidently say we did our absolute best with what we had. I am proud to have fought to the finish on such an epic edition of Worlds.
2018 is winding down but not done yet. My next race is the Tour of Turkey and then finally back home for the Binge!
Follow all Brent’s racing exploits over on his website www.brentbookwalter.com, where he’ll document the move from BMC Racing Team to Dimension Data for 2019. On October 27, he’ll be back in North Carolina for another staging of the Bookwalter Binge, a superb gran fondo with timed segments and a great atmosphere.