A dream come true: Larry Warbasse returns to Vuelta as US road champion
“Holy shit. Holy shit. Holy shit.”
Two simple words ran through Larry Warbasse’s mind as he crossed the finish line in Knoxville, Tennessee, with his hands on his head. A smile spread across his face, not only of joy, but utter disbelief. The realization of achieving a lifelong dream would take a few moments to sink in as the pain of the effort began to wash over him.
He was the 2017 U.S. national road champion.
“I was in disbelief because I didn’t really know if it would be possible racing alone,” Warbasse said after winning the national title, the only American riding for Aqua Blue Sport in Knoxville.
“I just knew it was really unlikely,” he continued. “I knew I probably had the condition to win, but I didn’t know if the circumstances would be able to play into my favor in a race like that.
The national title came on the heels of his first pro victory, when he emphatically won a mountain stage at the Tour de Suisse. After the stage, his passion and dedication for the sport beamed into living rooms across the world as the emotion of the achievement engulfed him during the post-race TV interview and the tears flowed.
Tears of happiness flowed in Switzerland and in Tennessee, but there have been moments of anguish as well.
Against family norm
Warbasse grew up in Traverse City, Michigan, where the expectation within his family was a college degree, maybe grad school, and then a career. Within the Warbasse family, being a professional athlete was never part of the conversation.
“I never really planned to be a professional cyclist, it was just something I did for fun and something I enjoyed,” Warbasse said. “It never really seemed like it would be a realistic career option for me, just because that was not how I was raised.”
Freshman year at the University of Michigan was no cakewalk for Warbasse. With strong enough grades to be admitted to the university’s highly competitive business school, Warbasse dealt with a full schedule of classes and the stress of keeping up his grades, while still trying to find time to race his bike.
“I really had no free time, and I was super stressed,” he said. “It was just not an easy year for me.”
While being a professional cyclist was not what he aspired to at the time, he had enough skill and natural ability to compete in Europe. Three days after his freshman year ended in the spring of 2009, the stress had been lifted and Warbasse packed his bags for Europe to ride with the USA Cycling national team.
The European experience was a different world compared with life on a college campus in the States. For Warbasse, it was pure bliss.
“I just loved what I was doing so much, riding my bike and every day just revolved around cycling,” Warbasse said. “I looked forward to waking up every morning and starting the next day. It was at that moment that I thought ‘If I could do this, why would I do something I didn’t like at all, if I could do something I loved?'”
It was then that Warbasse decided to be a professional cyclist.
With that goal in mind, he set about creating a path to the pros. During his junior year he decided to take the spring semester off so he could fully focus on his dream. First, he went to Greenville, South Carolina, to “have some good training partners and train in warmer weather.”
One of those “training partners” was Greenville’s own George Hincapie, who was still racing for BMC Racing. Warbasse was on BMC Racing’s under-23 development team.
After finishing a good year with solid results, BMC Racing offered Warbasse a two-year contract to race at the top tier. The offer was for 2013, allowing him to finish out his eligibility at the under-23 level and gain that much more experience.
In Warbasse’s mind, taking the contract was a no-brainer — a dream come true.
At the same time, this was not in the cards from the family’s perspective.
“I can tell you we had a lot of discussions about whether he should take it,” Warbasse’s mother, Jamie, said. “In his mind there was no question and in my mind and my husband’s mind, we wanted to see him finish school first. We saw how important it was to him, we saw how committed he was and we just decided we needed support him and be all in.”
Finding his feet
Racing at the top level of professional cycling is no easy task, especially for an American. Warbasse found a second home along the Cote d’Azur in Nice. Americans Joe Dombrowski and Ian Boswell set up camp there as well, so he wasn’t alone in his new adventure.
At BMC, Warbasse rode as a domestique. In his first season, he was thrust into difficult stage races such as Volta Ciclista a Catalunya and Vuelta Ciclista al Pais Vasco. The following year he made his Grand Tour debut at the Vuelta a España, which he finished. He’s since started three Grand Tours — the Vuelta, twice, and the Giro, once.
Warbasse documented the occasional tearful calls home in an editorial for Rouleur after his win at Tour de Suisse. His mom was one of the rocks in his foundation that kept him level and persisting.
“It’s terrible,” his mother said about her son’s emotional phone calls. “No one wants to see their child upset and it’s a tough sport and professional sports certainly have their ups and downs. They are so tough and the organizations really expect so much and can be somewhat fickle.
“I am always someone who tries to fix things and that is something I cannot fix. I can only be supportive and loving and cheer him on. It’s sometimes hard to find the right words, because what you are thinking and what you are saying can be at odds.”
After two years with BMC, Warbasse changed teams, but that elusive first pro win never came. IAM Cycling picked him up and kept him going with one-year contracts, but their disbandment at the end of the 2016 season meant he was out of a job.
By this point Warbasse had become comfortable living in Europe and signed with the new Irish Pro Continental team Aqua Blue Sport, which allowed him to continue to live in Nice. He signed a two-year contract, giving him a bit of breathing room.
Warbasse rarely races in the US, which sometimes garners him the nickname “The Forgotten American,” but that doesn’t deter him. If the outpouring of congratulations he received after finally securing that elusive first win is any indication, Warbasse is definitely well regarded.
Warbasse may be likable and intelligent, but don’t let his kindness fool you — he’s also driven and competitive.
“I guess it took me a while to find my feet, but I did eventually,” he said.
His first race in the stars-and-stripes jersey was the Vuelta a Burgos; he rode in the breakaway on the final stage. However the move contained several well-placed GC contenders. Riding for eventual winner Mikel Landa, Team Sky to let the group cook out in front; they never gained more than a two-minute lead.
“I was lucky enough to get in there in the right move — there were 14 of us,” he said. “Unfortunately there were some guys who were high up on GC. They didn’t want to let us go behind and we had to ride really hard to get ahead. But it was very hot and it was just a tough, tough day.”
This weekend, he’ll start in the Vuelta for the fourth time. This time, however, he’ll start as a national champion and Tour de Suisse stage winner.