Barber: Brent Bookwalter, BMC Racing have grown up together

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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.

Bookwalter’s recovery from leg surgery was not going smoothly.

“They always say for fractures, two or three months and you get a good amount of healing,” Bookwalter said. “In that time, I had really none. No healing was happening. So that was a really tough time.”

Doctors — this time in Michigan — performed a second surgery three months after the first. Bookwalter said they cleaned out the wound, “remodeled the hardware” and “almost had to rebreak the bone.” Things went better this time. He started pedaling on a stationary bike five or six months after the crash, and was back to serious training by the winter of 2007-08. It was a hard ride, though.

During the second surgery, doctors had to cut through Bookwalter’s patellar tendon, which, as he notes, is heavily involved in the pedal stroke. He did rigorous physical therapy every day for months, slowly recovering flexibility and rebuilding the atrophied muscles in his left leg.

“I remember going to our first team training camp with BMC that following January, in 2008, and I was just suffering like crazy and really far behind and getting beat up by my teammates,” Bookwalter said. “Had to have special gearing put on my bike that would let me do climbs and pedal easier. Yeah, it was a little discouraging.”

He found advocates, though, in a pair of doctors — Dr. Eric Heiden and Dr. Max Testa. They had gotten to know Bookwalter through their work with the U.S. national team, and were familiar with his rehab. Now both doctors were being recruited by BMC Racing. They vouched for Bookwalter. Chilcott listened, and BMC signed the injured athlete.

As Bookwalter recalls, his initial contract had wording to protect the team in case he was unable to get his strength back. It all went through Chilcott.

“Gavin was who we were having talks with,” Bookwalter said. “Not really negotiations, because there wasn’t a lot to negotiate.”

Looking back, BMC was a perfect landing spot.

“They had really big ambitions for that coming season and even the future years, looking ahead,” Bookwalter said. “But it was still culturally largely American. And they were interested in developing riders and being part of bringing riders up. If BMC was then what it is now, it definitely wouldn’t have worked.”

Since then, Bookwalter has evolved into one of America’s top veteran cyclists. He spent years supporting others in the team, but is now BMC’s featured rider in some races. He finished third in the 2016 Tour of California, and fourth last year. This year, he is likely to take a back seat, so to speak, to teammate Tejay van Garderen, who won the race in 2013.

Bookwalter has paid his dues, mentally and physically. But he knows that, in many ways, he owes a debt to Team BMC.

“Oh yeah, for sure,” he said. “Time creates that loyalty, but the ups and downs that I think we fall through together cements and facilitates that loyalty. It’s like any relationship that you’ve had a long time. It’s not all sunshine and rainbows all the time, but you get through a lot of things together, have some tough moments, but you have a lot of triumphs and successes, too. And with each, the bond grows a little deeper and stronger.”

Much of that bond is wrapped around Chilcott, who used to be BMC Racing’s director sportif — more or less the team manager. Bookwalter got his professional start because of Chilcott’s faith, and has developed under the Santa Rosan’s tutelage.

His only complaint is that Chilcott doesn’t spend as much time on the pavement these days. When Bookwalter joined the team, Chilcott rode in the director’s car, devised team tactics and yelled at riders over the radio.

“Now, fast-forward to 11 years later, he’s in position where he’s doing a lot more managing behind the scenes and office stuff — doing things that are hugely important to a team functioning, and we couldn’t do without him,” Bookwalter said. “But I don’t see him as much as I’d like to. And I tell him that every time I see him. I miss him, and I wish he’d get back in the team car.”

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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