The coronavirus derailed competitive sports over the past year. For many professional cyclists, it stopped them in their tracks. Scattered across the world, many had to ask tough questions about their futures in the sport.
BPR’s Megan Cain caught up with a few world class cyclists pedaling around Asheville in the year of the pandemic.
“We’re just minutes away.” Minutes away from Andrew Giniat’s first race in nine months.
“This is now very nearly the make or break time,” Giniat said.
He rolls his bike to the start line. You can hear laughs and jeers, but you can’t see anybody’s smiles. They’re all wearing masks. A small crowd assembles behind the caution tape that zig zags through a grassy field. Like Giniat, they’re ready to go.
Giniat is a professional cyclist. He’s racing in one of the few races left on his calendar in preparation for the cyclocross world cups in Europe. Think of cyclocross like a marriage between mountain and road biking. When Giniat isn’t racing, he lives and trains in Asheville.
Back in March of last year, Giniat was on the way to his first big race of the season. When he was an hour away, he got the call. The race was canceled.
“It definitely hit me like a ton of bricks, it felt like things were getting serious, real quick,” Giniat said.
When racing was canceled, Brazilian National Champion Vitor Zucco was in Belgium. As the reigning national champion, Zucco gets to wear his flag across his chest at every race. But riding up and down Town Mountain doesn’t quite warrant such an occasion. He hasn’t had the opportunity to wear his flag in almost a year.
“It felt like everything around me was crumbling down,” Zucco said.
Zucco admits he’s sacrificed personal relationships for a professional cycling career. “And when it stopped, it felt like I had given up everything for no reason,” Zucco said.
Zucco’s current teammate, Brendan Rhim lost his previous team during that month. When racing was canceled, he was stuck in Spain. His team spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on rentals, logistics and training. “And you know, everything got shut down and we didn't end up racing so all the sponsors are saying well, we’re not going to pay the rest of the sponsorship money we promised,” Rhim said.
The financial burden was too much. Rhim’s team folded. With no season and no results to flaunt, Rhim had to scramble to find a new team. “It has been frustrating to get so close to kind of a breakthrough in my career, and then just have it all get put on pause. But I’d emphasize paused, not collapsed,” Rhim said.
Rhim’s just starting his career, unlike olympic cyclist Brent Bookwalter. A veteran of the sport and an Olympian in 2016, Bookwalter worried that this might be the end. “I’m a lot closer to the end than I am the beginning. So then I’m starting to think, ‘What if this is it? What if my career’s done and this is how it ends? Some pandemic comes and knocks all the races out and then I never get back to it?’” Bookwalter said.
So he came home. Back to Asheville, back to what’s kept him riding for so long – the love of his bike. He had just become a father too, and his entire livelihood was thrown into jeopardy. “Oh, just yeah, so much unexpected. Just, just really like loss of control, I guess control is a bit of an illusion. And I've learned that as a parent even more,” Bookwalter said.
Like any new dad, Bookwalter was scared after his son was born. He leaned on his confidence as a professional bike racer. “I’m a dang good bike racer and I have a job doing this. So when that component was sent into question and sent into doubt, I had to do some soul-searching and ask myself, why am I still doing this?” Bookwalter said.
He says the answer changes daily, but that didn’t stop him from pulling off what he dubbed one of the best races of his career in 2020. Bookwalter is back in action for a new season with an uncertain schedule as some races have already been canceled or postponed.
He even made it back to Europe, and he’s taking the uncertainty of the season in stride. “We all have a duty to the world and the greater population to have our sport come second to the health of society. I think we’re all okay with that and thankful to be professional bike racers and racing during this tense, complicated time,” Bookwalter said.
Andrew Giniat is patiently waiting to race again. He completed a short European schedule in December and January, but he wants more. He’s 29 now. He’s got no time to waste. “You know, to some degree, this is a young’s man’s sport and there’s definitely a shelf life to athletes. Every year you miss racing, whether it’s due to injury or a global pandemic, that’s a year you aren’t going to get back,” Giniat said.
His season is set to start in May – and May can’t come soon enough. “I am so excited to get back to racing to get back to some level of normalcy,” Giniat said.
Until then, he’ll bide his time tearing up the mountains in Asheville.