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Olympic rookie Brent Bookwalter and two-time Olympian Taylor Phinney form the U.S. men’s road contingent, tasked with making America’s mark on the Olympic Games in August.
The BMC Racing teammates, aged 32 and 27 respectively, head to Rio de Janeiro to contend in both the time trial and road race, outnumbered by nations such as Spain, Italy, Colombia, and Belgium, which all have five starters in the road race. Based on nation ranking determined by results earned in 2015, the U.S. earned just two spots in Rio.
Bookwalter is a WorldTour veteran who will start his eighth grand tour on July 2 and brings an all-arounder’s ability to Rio. Phinney is an Olympic veteran and time-trial specialist, familiar with the surroundings of Olympic hoopla and the stresses of the world’s greatest sporting event.
“I’m so excited, just the energy around the Olympics and the Olympic Village is the coolest,” Phinney told CyclingTips. “It’s the biggest stage that we get to step on as athletes, and that’s really what I look forward to about it.”
Bookwalter said he experienced a range of emotions when he found out he would become an Olympian. “It was happiness, relief, excitement, it’s hard to put into words really,” he said. “Going to the Olympics is something I have been thinking about and dreaming about for a long, long time.”
Phinney has “always loved the Olympics” — which comes as little surprise as his parents, Davis Phinney and Connie Carpenter, were both Olympic medalists. His road to Rio, however, was never assured. A devastating crash at the 2014 U.S. national road race championship nearly ended his career, but a return to the Olympics was on his mind throughout his rehabilitation, and helped with his motivation.
“I’ve always been really moved by the Olympics, so when I had my crash I was cognizant of the fact I had two years really to get back to a level to qualify for Rio,” Phinney said. “That was definitely my biggest goal during recovery.”
Both men were selected due to their abilities against the clock, which was USA Cycling’s primary selection criteria, as all TT competitors must also compete in the road race. (In an effort to keep total athlete numbers down, UCI rules state that all 40 riders who compete in the Olympic time trial must also ride in the road race.)
The U.S. duo will take drastically different paths to Rio. Bookwalter will endure three weeks of racing around France, while Phinney will hone his form in the hills of Boulder, Colorado, where he was born and raised.
“I won’t have that specific time-trial preparation like [Phinney] will, as I am doing the Tour de France, but if there is any race that is going to prepare you well for the Olympics and give you a lot of depth, it’s the Tour,” Bookwalter said. “I definitely have that going for me. I think I will come out of the Tour versatile, with a lot of good form and strong legs. Mentally, I will put equal effort into the TT and the road race.”
It’s no secret Phinney is focusing on the time trial at the Olympics, as he looks to improve on his fourth-place in London. The 54km, hourlong effort will require not only great physical strength, but mental focus as well.
“I have the month of July really to just hone in on the TT and getting into that mind space of an hourlong time trial, which is a unique place to be in,” Phinney said. “I’m lucky enough not to have to race. I did a block in Belgium the last couple of weeks, but for the time trials I can go deep in training and I can really do what I need to do when I have the freedom to be at home and eat the right food. It’s a nice time to have to really focus on something, especially something as big as the Olympics. The training will be hard, but it’s nothing I can’t do.”
Bookwalter is not likely a medal contender for the time trial, but could still pull off a solid result; he’s been in the top 10 in time trials at the Vuelta a Andalusia, Tour de Suisse, and Criterium International, and finished second to Bradley Wiggins in the 8.4km prologue of the 2010 Giro d’Italia.
Though Phinney also finished fourth in the London road race, he though will play superdomestique to Bookwalter, as the American duo goes up against the five-rider powerhouse teams of Spain, Belgium, Colombia, Italy, and Great Britain.
“It’s a really unique situation in the road race, because the biggest team is still only five guys, so no team can really control,” Phinney said. “It’s going to be a really difficult road race, it’s pretty hilly. There’s always usually a big break. Brent’s the better climber of us, so we’ll definitely be going for Brent in the road race.”
The Rio road-race course features the Category 1 Vista Chinesa climb — 8.5km at 5.7% — three times in the finale of the race. Bookwalter may not be able to climb with the likes of Chris Froome, Vincenzo Nibali, Alejandro Valverde, or Alberto Contador, but he may not need to. The final summit comes with nearly 25km to the finish, and without race radios, it’s possible a small front group of climbers will be caught before the line.
“We’ve got those three climbs in the finale of the race and those are pretty much going to be equated to three 20-minute efforts deep into a six-plus hour race,” Bookwalter said. “I think the strongest world-class climbers may be able to get away on that climb the last lap, but then we’re still a pretty good ways from the finish and it’s going to be hard for one or two guys to go alone. I think there’s going to be a bit of regrouping coming into the finish, and I think that’ll yield to me.”
Phinney plans on using his Olympic experience to stay focused on the task at hand, but also to show his teammate what the biggest sporting event is all about too.
“Just having the experience of going to the Olympics and experiencing the village and how crazy everything is, that was a big shock the first time around,” Phinney said. “It was a shock even the second time around. I think I’m even more prepared for it this time around. I think it is special, if not the most special thing you can be a part of as an athlete. It’s the most intense experience you can have as an athlete — in a positive way.”
Sending just two riders to Rio is not the most optimal situation for the United States, but Bookwalter and Phinney will aim play to each other’s strengths — the yin to each other’s yang.