When Will Barta suffered a broken femur at last year’s under-23 Giro d’Italia, the injury not only signalled a premature end to his season, but it also risked forcing him to wait another year before making the step up to WorldTour level.
The American youngster had drawn the eye of several teams thanks to his performances at Hagens Berman Axeon, but as he lay in a hospital bed, still unsure of the severity of his injury, his plans of progressing to the elite ranks in 2019 looked altogether uncertain.
“It was challenging because for a few days, I didn’t even know what part of my leg I had broken, to be honest,” Barta told Cyclingnews at this week’s Volta ao Algarve. “It was my greater trochanter, but at first I thought it was the ball, and that would have been a little more challenging.”
Shortly afterwards, Barta received further encouraging news. Despite the injury and accompanying lengthy lay-off, Jim Ochowicz offered him a contract for the 2019 season almost as soon the merger between BMC and CCC had been confirmed in early July. The burden of Barta’s rehabilitation, arduous though it was, was lightened considerably.
“I had been talking with some teams but a bit of that went away because obviously it was a bit of a gamble for them,” Barta said. “But as soon as CCC Team was confirmed as sponsor, I talked to them that week. It was really nice that they had such confidence in me with an injury like that.”
Barta was back on a stationary bike within four weeks of his Giro crash and returned to training on the road within two months. “They cut the gluteus muscle for the surgery and I couldn’t use that for a long time, so just getting that to fire right has been the biggest challenge,” he said.
Another complication, of course, was the compromise between Barta’s desire to hit the ground running in his first professional season, and his need to rehabilitate fully from a serious injury. His recovery time has perhaps been a touch quicker than it might have been in other circumstances, though he reports few ill effects after his eight months out of competition.
“My physical therapists supported it because they understood that it was a necessity, and on the bike it’s been not so bad,” Barta said. “I wouldn’t say my leg is quite at 100 percent yet, because I’m still getting some of the strength back. It was quite a big injury and operation, so I think it just takes a little time and patience to get back to where I want to be. It’s a process.”
A neo-professional’s first races with his new team are a tentative affair at the best of times. For Barta, still feeling his way back into action after a lengthy lay-off, the feeling is even more pronounced, though he was in the thick of the action on stage 2 of the Volta ao Algarve, infiltrating the day’s early break on a day that saw the CCC Team go on the offensive in a bid to set up local rider Antonio Antunes ahead of the summit finish on the Alto da Fóia.
“It’s a step up, but coming back to amateur races after an eight-month lay-off would already have been challenging,” said Barta, who began his season at the Vuelta a Murcia last week.
The 23-year-old will return to his European base in Nice for the best part of a month after the Volta ao Algarve ahead of his next appointment at the Volta ao Catalunya. His diet of racing in his maiden season will comprise primarily of shorter stage races, though a ride in Liège-Bastogne-Liège, where he placed fourth in the under-23 race in 2017, might also be on the cards.
“I think this year is really about learning, and a big goal for me is just to have a healthy season this year and learn all the way through it. I think I’ll find opportunities when they arise,” said Barta, who freely acknowledges that he is still defining himself as a rider.
“When I was younger, I thought I was a long climber, then when I was under-23 I thought I was a punchy climber. By the end of my time as an under-23, I thought I was a long climber and time trialist, so I’m still trying to find where my potential really is, but I think I’m lucky in that I kind of have an overall set.”
That set extends, it seems, beyond his raw talent on a bike. A product of Axel Merckx’s Hagens Bermans Axeon finishing school, Barta arrives at WorldTour level imbued with the knowledge sense that a rider’s life does not consist solely of what happens between the start and finish line.
“Axeon understand that you’re still young but they also push you to be responsible. I think for so many of us – especially the Americans because you have to come to Europe – you really grow up a lot doing that,” Barta said. “You have a job of racing and training, but they also make you realise that it’s more than just that if you want to be at this level. You have to be able to speak with the media, manage yourself and all that stuff which, when you’re really young, you don’t really think about.”
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