By Megan Hall
Before Lees-McRae cycling had its pick of riders, before the reign of Carla Swart, and before the Lees-McRae College name became synonymous with collegiate cycling championships, the College had the cycling powerhouse known as Brent Bookwalter.
Hailing from Michigan, Bookwalter began racing in 1998 when a childhood friend took him to a race and showed him the ropes. From there he climbed the ranks of the Michigan mountain biking elite and never looked back.
“I have never met a more diverse and disciplined rider. He has a background that started in mountain biking and transitioned into cyclocross and on to road, where he now is a professional bike racer in the road discipline competing against the world’s best. His background and experiences keep him calm and focused in all racing situations,” said Robert Jameson, a former teammate of Bookwalter’s and now the Lees-McRae College assistant cycling coach.
At the time Bookwalter entered Lees-McRae, the College was still relatively new to the collegiate cycling scene. But when Bookwalter graduated in 2006, he had accumulated an incredible 15 national championships (7 of which are individual championships) and Lees-McRae was nationally recognized for its cycling program.
“The first [national championship] I won is really special. I was new to LMC and LMC was rather new to collegiate cycling. It was the first time an individual from the school had won a national title in a sport, and it was an honor to be a part of that. Another one that I hold a little closer to my heart is the last one I won while at LMC, in cyclocross. [I have] good memories of that race as a hard fought battle and some epic conditions. SNOWY!” said Bookwalter in a 2010 interview with NashvilleCyclist.com.
Not only was Bookwalter the first Bobcat to win a national championship in cycling, he was also the foundation of an emerging Cinderella team, putting as much time and effort as possible into making the Lees-McRae College cycling team the national success they are today.
“I was lucky enough to race with Brent for one season, and as long as I have known Brent, he has been pursuing a professional career as well as achieving collegiate success. Even through a grueling travel schedule, he managed to maintain good academic standing while also having a strong influence on his collegiate team,” said Dane Garvik, a former teammate of Bookwalter at Lees-McRae. “His dedication was absolutely inspiring. He was a big part of why our team was so successful. He took it upon himself to teach the team as much as possible about cycling collegiately and professionally, as well as how to balance both.”
In the world of professional cycling it is not unusual for young cyclists to forego college in hopes of finding success on the professional circuit, but not Brent Bookwalter.
“Collegiate cycling played a huge part in allowing me to develop into the rider and person I am today. I think during that time of your life, both of those things (personal and ‘professional’) should go hand in hand. For me, LMC was a perfect place for that. It allowed me to pursue my ambitions and dreams as a cyclist while keeping it in a healthy balance with the rest of my life, so I still had fun and didn’t try to push it too fast,” said Bookwalter on NashvilleCyclist.com.
For Bookwalter, taking time to get a quality education did not slow down his professional career. Since 2005 he has been a regular on the professional circuit, racing for teams such as Advantage Benefits Endeavour Cycling Team (2005), Priority Health Cycling Team (2006), and his most recent venture, BMC Racing Team (2008).
While recovering from a broken leg in 2007, Bookwalter began talking to BMC Racing before he was even able to walk. By 2008 he was on the team.
“I’ve been so fortunate to have great people who have always believed in me, sometimes even more than I believe in myself. I think that is what you need when you are going through a really tough time, and my path crossing with BMC was a prime example of that. Gavin and Charlie really believed in me from the very first time I spoke with them. That was really inspiring for me in my quest to return to a high level within the sport. It’s a unique foundation for a relationship with a team and I think both sides benefit from that mutual faith and/or belief in each other,” said Bookwalter in a 2010 interview on NashvilleCyclist.com.
In the midst of his third season with BMC Racing, Bookwalter got the chance of a lifetime. He was named one of nine starting riders for BMC in the 2010 Tour de France. This is his first appearance in the grand tour race.
In his Tour de France blog, courtesy of VeloNews.com, Bookwalter says:
“Without having had it firmly locked in my sights in the months and weeks leading up to the race, arriving at a sporting event which has the magnitude of the Tour de France has been interesting exercise in focus and expectation…I didn’t fully expect to race the Tour… Upon being selected it actually came as a bit of a shock at the comments I received and the influx of attention. The Tour is cycling…it is a goal or dream that always exists from the first time you pin on a race number … a sort of ‘perma-goal’ for just about any cyclist…It’s an honor to be here.”
Bookwalter may now be climbing in the Pyrenees, but he once climbed the mountain roads of the High Country of western North Carolina on his bike not unlike Tour de France legend Lance Armstrong. Armstrong famously trained in Banner Elk and Boone after surviving cancer and credits the mountains with helping him regain his inspiration to do the Tour de France.
“The American Tour legend Lance Armstrong was partially created and fostered by these mountains much like Brent Bookwalter. The North Carolina High Country is Brent’s roots much like Armstrong’s, and now the future hope of a great American cyclist in the Tour de France just might be Brent and once again from these very mountains,” said Jameson.
Editor’s Note: As of July 20, Bookwalter’s team BMC Racing is in 13th position overall. Bookwalter is journaling his debut experience in a Tour de France Diary for VeloNews.com. To read about his journey, visit VeloNews.com and search Brent Bookwalter.
Image: Brent Bookwalter after a muddy mountain bike race in 2005 with former Bobcat Cycling Coach Doug Owen.