Local Tour de France competitor helps teammate grab yellow jacket

by MATT MARN

Only a decade ago, Brent Bookwalter was a local cycling enthusiast when he began competing in local amateur events. Years later, he met Cadel Evans, a professional cyclist, and asked for his autograph.

In 2011, Bookwalter helped his professional cycling team bring home the win at the most prestigious cycling race in the world.

Bookwalter is one of the competitors on the BMC racing team who recently traveled to France to compete in the 98th Tour de France, a cycling race spanning 21 stages in over 23 days, measuring over 3,400 kilometers in length, also stretching part of the route into Italy.

The competition ended on July 24, 2011 with Evans crossing the finish line and taking home the win for BMC. And he couldn’t have done it without the help of a long list of support teammates, including Bookwalter.

Bookwalter grew up ripping around Rockford on his bike, where he often saw signs for local mountain bike competitions over at Cannonsburg and Pando ski areas. When he was 12 or 13, a friend took him to a competition, and he has never looked back.

Connie Zinger, Bookwalter’s mother, remembered that since then he rose through the local mountain

biking ranks by entering those same competitions

he went to watch, and moving on to state and even national championships.

“He started out like any kid, riding a bike and loving it,” Zinger said.

“I don’t come from an especially athletic family,” Bookwalter said. “When I was younger I played a lot of sports, but began doing more and more cycling. I was always ‘ok’ at every sport, not the best… here I am out there alone, and control my own success.”

Bookwalter also pointed out, however, at that time he had no idea cycling was such a team sport.

“It wasn’t even in my scope at all,” he said. “It’s a sole pursuit, but it’s also very social… You have control, but it’s a team sport. It’s the best of both worlds.”

He stuck through his education through college, where he got a degree in biology from Lee McCrae, where he also made more of a name for himself behind the handlebars, winning numerous championships at the collegiate level.

After riding for a variety of teams and sponsors both in America and abroad, Bookwalter signed with BMC, a Swiss cycling company, with whom he has ridden for years. Together they have toured Europe in a myriad of races from Italy and Spain, now to France once more for the most prestigious cycling race in the world.

The road has not been without its struggles. Four years ago he hit a lamppost, shattering a leg bone, and was rushed to the emergency room. He required surgery, and then another later back in Grand Rapids when the first surgery was found to not have healed properly. He also broke his collarbone during a race in Spain.

Zinger says yes, it is stressful and scary being a mother watching from the sidelines, but she supports him with everything she has.

“We all just have a lot of faith,” she said. “We are happy and thankful for what we have. He takes risks, but its part of his dream. We encourage him to do what is best; there are times I want to despair, but I encourage him. When he was younger, I guided him, but he’s very levelheaded and disciplined. I admire him for that.”

Bookwalter said some days take more discipline than others. First it was a hobby, which changed to a sport, then an obsession.

“Like many things in life, it changes as you go,” he said. “It’s still a passion, but now it’s my job, too. Responsibilities and pressures greater than before; some days it is more about trying to punch it in, get it done.”

But like all athletes, he finds a special place where he can find the strength to finish strong. The first place he looks is to his teammates and family.

“I was blessed with a lot of support, mental and financial,” he said. “The people that supported me every step of the way set me up with the team, and I rose from there.”

Bookwalter was interviewed by VeloNews in an article which can be found on his blog at brentbookwalter.com. VeloNews asked about how Cadel Evans, BMC teammate and winner of the 2011 Tour de France, inspires Bookwalter and the rest of the team when they see him dig so deep inside for drive.

“You see the pictures coming across the line, looking like he’s ready to eat someone, we’re like, whoa! That’s our guy,” Bookwalter said. “He’s ready to ball. So we’re ready to go to war for him. It charges us up and inspires us. Eyes on the prize.”

When asked about the comment he made to VeloNews, Bookwalter said when it comes to what drives him and the others in his team, as well as the others in the sport, it is hard to put into words.

“What works to push me… would have to be the fascination with pushing through, finishing tough. After you make it to the finish line, you are changed as a person and as an athlete, it is a powerful, transforming experience.”

Bookwalter also said it helps his team drive each other to be part of a common goal.

“A lot of people worked hard to get me there, and have a lot invested in me. They help keep me going as well,” he said.

“Don’t underestimate the power of believing in yourself, and surrounding yourself with people who believe in you, too,” Bookwalter added. “People who can pick you back up when you fall, people who believe in you—it has done a lot for me, I can’t say enough about that. I wouldn’t be here without the effort and heart of supporters around me.”

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