He was still in shock from the compound fracture to his left tibia, but Brent Bookwalter can remember the emergency surgery he received in Belgium that day.
Well, he thinks it was Belgium; some aspects of the events remain hazy. Physicians gave him a nerve block for his lower half, allowing him to remain awake for the operation.
“I could hear, like, the power tools going,” Bookwalter said by phone Thursday.
“I could hear these doctors in French, a language I didn’t even speak, trying to piece me back together.”
It was April of 2007. Bookwalter was 23 years old and training with the Under-23 U.S. National Cycling Team. He was an up-and-coming cyclist — just out of college, making enough money to support himself for the first time and eager to latch on to a professional team. Then came the race in Belgium, the slick cobblestones, the chaos of flying bikes. Bookwalter hit a light pole, and everything changed in an instant.
As he sat on the sidewalk and tried to gather his thoughts through the pain, and for months after that, his future was hazy. Bookwalter didn’t know whether he’d ever regain full strength, or whether anyone would sign him.
Eleven years later, Bookwalter is in Southern California, preparing to ride for BMC Racing Team in his 10th Tour of California, which begins Sunday. (The Tour will not pass through Santa Rosa this time, but we can still acknowledge its existence.) These characters have all grown up together. The Tour of California launched in 2006. BMC Racing started up in 2007, and Bookwalter joined the team that same year.
Eleven years is a long time with one team, in any sport. It’s especially rare in cycling.
“The first part of defying the odds with that is just the team existing,” Bookwalter said. “It’s a tough world out there for teams to find sponsors, and then to stay with them. For riders, contracts are really short term. It’s tough to stay alive and stay in the game.”
Bookwalter is alive and in the game. In fact, at 34, the Michigan native may be riding as well as ever. So far this year, he has finished 21st in the Abu Dhabi Tour (first among Americans), 37th in the Volta Ciclista a Catalunya (second among Americans) and 12th in the Tour de Yorkshire (also second).
It is the continuation of a profitable partnership between Bookwalter and BMC Racing. To be clear, the relationship has been advantageous for both parties.
Professional cycling is a cutthroat business. But Bookwalter’s ties to his team are stronger than most, because of the gamble BMC took back in 2007, and because of his enduring relationship with Gavin Chilcott, now the team’s chief operating officer.
After all, when Chilcott, a Santa Rosa native, first signed Bookwalter, the cyclist couldn’t even pedal.
Following the crash, Bookwalter had moved back home with his parents, in the Grand Rapids area. He had a degree in biology from Lees-McRae College in North Carolina, but was hoping not to use it just yet.
Before his injury, Bookwalter was getting attention from elite teams — including Discovery Channel Pro Cycling Team, whose roster included Lance Armstrong and George Hincapie. Those contacts were now in jeopardy.