West Michigan native enjoys role in teammate Cadel Evans’ Tour de France victory

Most athletes dream of competing at the highest level in their sport. For cyclists, the highest level is the Tour de France.

On Sunday, Rockford High School graduate Brent Bookwalter completed that dream for a second time.

"The Tour is the most demanding cycling event in the world, physically, mentally, all around," he said.

Bookwalter, 27, was among 167 cyclists who finished the 2011 event Sunday in Paris. He finished in 114th place, a 33-spot improvement from his 147th-place finish in his tour debut in 2010.

But Bookwalter said personal results after the 21-stage, 3,430.5-kilometer race (2,132 miles) aren't the most important thing.

Bookwalter, who turned pro in 2008, competes for BMC Racing, a 27-member, Swiss-based racing team. Australian Cadel Evans is the headlining member of BMC, and the person the whole team was focused on helping.

Evans, 34, won the 2011 Tour de France on Sunday, becoming the first Australian champion ever. He is also the oldest winner of cycling's biggest race since 1922.

"Most people don't realize, but cycling is very much a team sport. My role within my team is solely to help our leader, Cadel," Bookwalter said. "My overall position is not a priority. When a team has a true contender, everything is done for him and with the end of the three weeks in mind."

Evans touched on the team, and individual aspect, after the victory.

"I couldn't be any happier. A few people always believed in me. I always believed in me. And we did it," Evans said to ESPN reporters after the race. "I really can't quite believe it right now. I have been concentrating on one event for so long."

Bookwalter's friend and fellow cyclist Dave DeYoung, 44, said Evans owes a lot to Bookwalter and the rest of the team for his success in the Tour.

DeYoung said BMC teammates were ahead of Evans when some of the highly publicized crashes took place in the early stages, and were able to notify and shield him to keep him away from danger. He said the team often drafted Evans throughout the tour, which made his ride about 30 percent easier.

Connie Zinger, Bookwalter's mother, said he always has been a selfless person, which allowed him to focus more on his teammate's well-being than his own.

"I think he takes a lot of pride in what he does and he's that way with everything," Zinger said. "He's a very good guy, and likes to be a helper. If you understand cycling, that's the way it is."

Bookwalter said he called on his experience from 2010 to help get himself and his teammates through the race this year.

"My experience last year helped me to know what I was in for this year and gives me some confidence since I'm not a rookie," he said. "On the other hand, knowing what to expect can also be daunting since riding the tour really involves a lot of grueling suffering."

DeYoung said the grind of such a long race can be mentally overwhelming for the competitors.

"When he's in a tour like that, he's really underground. He said he feels like he's in the twilight zone," DeYoung said. "He barely has time to even look up."

But DeYoung said Bookwalter and BMC were willing to push through and accomplish the ultimate goal.

"That whole team was solely committed to getting Cadel in yellow for the win," DeYoung said. "(Bookwalter) is one of those guys. He's totally committed to it."

Bookwalter put his feelings into words Saturday night.

"A year ago, it was the eve of me riding into Paris in my first Tour de France. I could hardly believe it," Bookwalter wrote on his blog. "After three weeks where we have all been to what feels like the brink of oblivion (at least for me!), it's purely incredible."

Bookwalter said he doesn't know whether he will compete in the Tour de France in 2012, but DeYoung believes Bookwalter will ride in the event again.

"I think the fact that he's an all-around rider, I would see him definitely competing next year," DeYoung said. "He's got five to seven more active years left racing. "(He can do it) if he stays focused and wants it bad enough."

Zinger said she also expects Bookwalter to compete in his third Tour de France next year.

"He understands it better, has more experience, he's matured more," Zinger said of Bookwalter. "And the team that he's on, they are really close and really they all work well together."