It has been nearly two weeks since Brent Bookwalter returned to train and ride around Park City, a place he’s now so familiar with he knows the names of the streets, and all the twists and turns around town by heart. BMC Racing Team teammate Joey Rosskopf recently joked to Bookwalter that he’s made the annual summertime stop in Utah basically every year since he graduated from high school.
Since 2008, it has become engrained to Bookwalter’s schedule, too. The 34-year-old, who has represented BMC on eight Grand Tours since joining the team a decade ago and was part of the crew that helped Cadel Evans win the 2011 Tour de France, has a nostalgic connection to the roadways around the Beehive State.
“It’s a good dose of America,” he said. “It’s hot and it’s high and it’s dry and rolls into the race really well.”
It’s also where Bookwalter — who splits time living in Asheville, N.C., and Girona, Spain — once re-centered a young career that weaved so far off course so early on that the Tour of Utah always reminds him of how things could’ve gone wrong, but how he managed to overcome the most painful moment of his cycling career. Riding on the France-Belgium border in 2007, he crashed and suffered a compound fracture of his tibia. Bookwalter could see the bone burst through his skin.
A surgeon was called in from home and emergency surgery was performed while he was wide awake. Bookwalter, at one point, heard that the lower part of his leg might not be saved due to the severity of the break. The surgeon fixed his leg with power tools and just a sheet to keep Bookwalter from looking down. That was way back when, before he became a household name in pro cycling, before celebrating a teammate’s Tour de France victory, before eventually representing the United States at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
It wasn’t until after months of recovery, during his first pro ride in Utah in 2008 and his first year with BMC, that he felt truly back on track.
“I would say it was the first time that I felt like myself again,” he said. “I was racing at the front and putting in strong team performances and still finding that fire and feeling like my body was in a place where my mind was striving to be for so long, so that sort of cemented some strong sentiment and love for it.”
His career highlights have been topped with the elation in France, and the experience and pride of sporting the Stars & Stripes in Brazil, but Bookwalter says he’s often most comfortable in Utah, where he has had his share of success. In 2015, he finished third overall and in 2017, he had three Top 5 finishes at the Tour of Utah, including a win in the second stage and a second place in the seventh and final stage in Park City.
“Hopefully I’ve got more Tour of Utahs in me this year,” he said, “and for years to come.”
The TOU field has increasingly gotten stronger over the years. Bookwalter said the word is spreading overseas, too. He and his teammates have quipped in the past that when they travel to Europe, they try their best not to mention it to their peers who have yet to compete in the race.
“I think they sort of caught the bug,” he said. “The secret’s out a little bit. More teams are seeing [the Tour of Utah] as a great fit into their summer transition out of that midsummer season and setting them up for last races of the year.”
Bookwalter is already looking forward to — and also dreading — the signature climb up Empire Pass out of Midway and into Park City on the final stage of the race.
“That’s just such a world-class climb,” he said. “There aren’t that many climbs we do in the U.S. that are that demanding.”
The payoff, however, is thousands of fans lining Park City’s Main Street, making it one of the cooler sights in American cycling. And Bookwalter, who will compete in his fifth Tour of Utah this week, knows what it takes to get there.
“You don’t get there without going through everything up Empire,” he said.
2018 LARRY H. MILLER TOUR OF UTAH
Prologue: Monday, St. George
Stage 1: Tuesday, Cedar City
Stage 2: Wednesday, Payson
Stage 3: Thursday, Antelope Island to Layton
Stage 4: Friday, Salt Lake City
Stage 5: Saturday, Aug. 11: Canyons Village to Snowbird Resort
Stage 6: Sunday, Aug. 12: Park City