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PEZ Talk: Caja Rural’s Chris Butler

Rider Interview: When PEZ interviewed the Caja Rural-Seguros RGA’s new US signing, Chris Butler in January, he didn’t know when he would start racing in 2017. Then what do we see? His name on the start list for the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana, so what better time to hear what he has to say about life on a Spanish team.

We first spoke to Chris back in 2010 when he was a neo-pro with BMC and then again at the end of the 2014 season after he had signed with Team SmartStop. Now he is in Europe with Spain’s second biggest team, ProContinental Caja Rural-Seguros RGA and as he will be writing a regular blog for PEZ this season, these are his first impressions of Spanish team life.

PEZ: How did you become a member of the Caja Rural-Seguros RGA team?
Chris Butler:
Last year I was on Cycling Academy and they made a good step up to ProContinental, and I guess I was one of the older guys on the team, but I’m still hungry for more – If I could take a bit more of a step up and expose myself to more climbing race. Cycling Academy was great and awesome, it will grow over the next few years and some of my best friends are on the team, but for 2017 I think they are focusing a bit more on Classics stuff. These guys (Caja Rural) do some of the best climbing races in the World and that’s the sort of riders they have. They have a lot of climbers, they don’t have a 100 kilo sprinter, everyone is a ‘get over the climb and do a good sprint’ it’s how they mould you. It’s really where I want to be. It’s a great team, they do more WorldTour races than any other ProConti team. They do a lot of awesome climbing ones and not too much in Belgium. They do Grand Tours, World Tour races and some of the HC races are really good. So the Schedule is amazing, it’s the perfect platform.

PEZ: What about the team racing in the US?
They have ridden races like Philadelphia, but I would like to see them in the bigger stage races in America, like Utah and Colorado, but it’s a little bit tough because this team is all about the Vuelta a España and that kind of conflicts and it’s an unknown variable for them a few week before. Hopefully down the road we will be able to do some of those big races because everyone enjoys them.

PEZ: How did the contact come about with the team?
Last year I had some pretty good results, and that makes things a lot easier, that was the biggest thing. Last year we didn’t do so many super-big races, but we won quite a few races – it’s good to win a race, when you win a race its something. So even though they were small, it helps and it’s good for your name and sponsor. It was a good season and I had a few contacts from different sponsors and directors and it kind of came about that it was a perfect scenario for me. If they wanted to add an American, it wasn’t like a bunch of people sending out resumés and the big thing was that I can speak Spanish pretty well. Out of American bike racers, I think I’m at the top of the Spanish speaking ability… which isn’t much for an American, but I studied Spanish for six years at high school and my first year in University and so I can conjugate every verb. I haven’t used it until recently, but it’s coming back. So, it was a combination of good results and I can speak Spanish. I showed them that I had a passion for the team and didn’t want to stay in America. It’s a really good fit.

PEZ: Where will you live?
In Pamplona. The team is based in Pamplona, they gave me the option that I could live anywhere I wanted, but I really want to take this year and embrace it and absorb all the information and help I can get from the team. Use my Spanish more, maybe if I went to Girona I don’t know how much Spanish they speak there and the people I would be hanging out with would be a lot of English speakers. So, I have a lot of cycling goals I want, but as a human being, my life goal is that I am going to be fluent in Spanish. Cycling is all about constantly improving and having stimulus and this is just one more thing.

PEZ: What differences have you noticed so far between Caja Rural and your previous team?
It is so Spanish. There are quite a few differences in culture, thats not to say one is better than another, but I have to get used to it and embrace it. An easy one would be the time schedule; everything is slid back an hour, the training, the lunch, the dinner. It’s OK to go to sleep at 1am, coz the training isn’t util 11. We are always the last ones for dinner. It’s also a little more fluid with the training, not so structured if you don’t fulfill a certain metric that your day is not ruined. Make the most of everything and instead of always planing ahead and chopping up next week and worrying about stuff, it’s more like living each moment at a time.

Another thing was when we transported here (Costa Blanca) from Pamplona, we traveled here to do an easy ride before sunset. We stopped for lunch and everyone is playing on their phones, 10 minutes pass and we were asking why are we not going inside? It was because the restaurant didn’t open for another 20 minutes. So here we are waiting for 30 minutes for lunch, when the average, crazy American would be trying to race his GPS. They see the ETA and their goal is to beat that by 2 minutes. You stop for gas, you grab a drink and a bag of nuts and you go full gas just to gain some satisfaction from beating that ETA and that’s what the American culture is. For them it’s a case of ‘if you have to rush to get through the day, it’s a day that’s not worth living’. So they would rather have a more human experience; sit down, enjoy lunch, be human – it’s almost barbaric to deny yourself company and be social. It’s something I have embraced and at the end of the day it was just an easy ride after traveling, it didn’t matter if we rode an hour and five minutes or an hour and forty-five. Everyone was relaxed. That was an eye opening experience and after that I knew these guys know what they are doing and everything will work.

PEZ: Looking back at 2011, do you think that maybe you were too young to be riding the Giro d’Italia for a WorldTour team (BMC)?
Yeah, for my situation it was, because I bought a bike when I was 19 and I was Pro before I was even done with Under 23 and in those two short years in-between I was in university and so I was only racing two month out of the year. So when I started racing pro I was still at school. The winter was a bit rough with timing and so my base wasn’t that big. Yes… it was too soon, but that’s life, you always want to bite off more than you can chew and it was very eye opening to learn from so many great professionals, and you see the top of the sport, how hard people train, how professional they are, you learn a lot of stuff. Maybe instead of taking eight years to move up and see it, I kind of peeked in and saw it and I’ve taken that with me. I’ve been on different level teams, but I wouldn’t change a thing.

PEZ: What was your high point in 2016?
Cycling Academy is a really cool team and to see that culture. Israel was cool, I am a Christian, so I’ve studied that stuff, as a human being it was cool to see that stuff that I had learned about, that was a really amazing experience. I would never trade that for anything. I’ve been to so many countries racing, but that was the most special.

PEZ: Riding for Caja Rural worked well for Hugh Carthy, now he’s with Cannondale.
Yeah, it’s a really good platform, they give you everything you need, the bikes are great, Fuji are awesome. I think they were the first bike company in the World that is still going on today, the longest running bike company and now they are at the forefront. They have the Fuji SL that is one of the lightest frames and the stiffest and it’s pretty cool that they have kept up with the times and always deliver a good product and they are really into feed-back. They have a few different teams and they really ask the athletes and get input to make changes to the bike. Instead of coming up with something in the laboratory and giving it to the athlete, it’s the reverse process, they listen first and make the corrections. All the stuff they are coming out with is trick and awesome and I love it.

PEZ: What are you looking forward to the most in 2017?
I definitely want to help out my teammates, help them achieve some of their goals and then once I’m absolutely confident that my form is where it needs to be, then we will see what we can do. There are so many great guys on this team, so at first I want to help them, learn from then, experience the races, get my feet settled in Pamplona and then to start to goal some races, maybe in April.

PEZ: What about la Vuelta, do you think it would be possible to get a ride?
Mathematically it’s 50%… mathematically. But really you want the best team to go and so that comes down to each rider to help make that decision. I want to help the team and prove my worth then ride into my own form. We’ll see, it’s definitely a dream.

PEZ: What do you think of the course?
It looks pretty crazy and hilly, the guys are always talking about it. It’s truly exciting, especially for this team because this is our Grand Tour. It’s pretty amazing to hear the thoughts of Sergio (Pardilla) and some of the big guys on the team. There is a lot to be learnt.

PEZ: Do many of the guys speak English?
They can speak enough English and I think the first step was me was being an Anglo speaking Spanish. Speaking a foreign language when you are not too confident in it, sometimes I mess up and feel like an idiot and I’m embarrassed, but it’s the same for them. At first they are a little gun shy of speaking English, but its up to me to learn Spanish. These are some smart guys, they know sufficient English, but my language of choice will be Spanish first. To be honest this would not be the team for someone who does not speak Spanish and not love Spanish culture. There might be a translator, but he wont be there all the time, it’s not the mechanic or the soigneur job to learn English and not your teammates job, speaking Spanish is quite important. It’s something I’ve had in my back pocket, but not had to use and now I’m able to pull it out and finally it’s serving a purpose.

PEZ: Who have you learnt the most from over the years?
The guy that first got me into the sport was George Hincapie, who lives in my town, he’s always been a good friend. I can get along with everyone, guys my own age or older guys and I have learnt a lot along the way. There is always the opportunity to learn and everyone at this level has something to share. Also another local hardworking guy from Carolinas, where I live, is Brent Bookwalter. He’s a consummate pro, really hard working, he does everything correctly, perfectly, the training and recovery and the racing. He’s a really good guy to learn from.

PEZ: You are really where you want to be now.
Exactly. Of course as an athlete you always want the best: Biggest best team, biggest best contract, biggest best races. The races they have and the support and how it fits my specific personality is pretty good. A lot of climbing races and it’s Spanish and so it would be silly, if the results come, to move to another team that is just an inch better, just because. If they didn’t speak a language I didn’t speak or they went to races I didn’t like, there would be no point. So I feel very embraced here and I’ll race against some of the best riders in the World and so it is definitely where I want to be.

We caught up with Chris at the end of the Volta a la Valenciana: “The team was very supportive and worked magic to get me my visa for Spain. They really set me up well with my visa good to go for the year and nice place in Pamplona to base out of. Though, that visa effort consumed my last 2 weeks so I did no riding. So they just told me to use the race as like a training camp and stay safe, which again was very understanding of them. So I started the race from ground zero and now I will fully be in Europe for all the year and can start to build my level back up. I’m also looking forward to sharing my year with the PEZ readers on a regular basis.

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