Hilton Head native Butler climbing in world of cycling

May 2, 2010 

Climbing, climbing, climbing.

Always climbing, literally and figuratively.

Since Chris Butler first became serious about competitive cycling during his freshman year at Furman University, he has been climbing.

First, he climbed the slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains near Greenville. It was there, during his sophomore year at Furman, that he first realized he might have a future in the sport. In a time trial at Paris Mountain State Park, on a climb serious riders often use to see how they measure up to the world's best, Butler suddenly saw just how much potential he had.

"I pretty much did it just as fast as some of the top pros in America," Butler said. "I pretty much smoked it."

From there, he began climbing the ranks of the world's best young riders. He burst onto the scene at the 2008 USA Cycling Division II collegiate championships, winning national titles in the road race and team time trial and taking second in the criterium. His team repeated as champion of the time trial in 2009, and he placed seventh in the road race.

But he wasn't done there. He's still climbing.

THE ACCIDENTAL CYCLIST

The irony isn't lost on Butler. A kid who grew up on an island where the only elevation change of note is the bridge across Skull Creek wouldn't seem the most logical choice to become one of the best in the world at riding a bike up the side of a mountain.

He found his way to the sport almost by accident, picking up cycling as a cross-training tool when he was a standout cross country runner at Hilton Head Christian Academy.

When he got to Furman and began riding in the Blue Ridge Mountains, he discovered his specialty.

And it didn't take long for others to discover it, as well.

By his sophomore year at Furman, Butler was named to the USA Cycling National Development Team and the Hincapie Sportswear Development Team, headed by U.S. champion George Hincapie.

Two years later, and in only his fourth year as a serious cyclist, Butler signed on as a member of the BMC racing team's under-23 squad and reported to the team's training camp in January, riding alongside the likes of Hincapie and reigning world champion Cadel Evans as the team went on "recon" rides of key stages of the upcoming Tour of California, the biggest race in the United States.

Butler impressed the team's leaders, and he was told if all went well, he probably would be called up to the professional team at some point this year.

He was cautiously optimistic but began applying to graduate schools for the fall, just in case things didn't pan out.

But the call came sooner than expected. At the end of March, Butler was offered a contract to ride for BMC. It was time to start preparing for his first professional race.

"That pretty much made my decision for me," Butler said. "This is what I wanted to do."

'GO FOR IT'

Butler's first international race as a professional was the Giro del Trentino, a four-stage race that concluded with a grueling 162-kilometer race to the top of Alpe di Pampeago in Italy.

Yes, the obvious translation is accurate -- a race to the top of one of the Alps.

"I went in with really, really low expectations," Butler said. "You just don't want to get last place."

To use Butler's phrase, he pretty much smoked it.

On the opening day of the race, Butler finished among the bottom third of the pack of 160 riders in a 12.5-kilometer time trial, but that was no reason for concern. He figured to make his move during the last three stages, the longer road races meandering up the mountain.

And he did.

He finished 60th in the second stage and 69th in third stage, steadily climbing up the standings. Butler's performance in the first two road race stages prompted the team to put its support behind him for the final stage.

"We are going to let Butler go for it," BMC Racing Team assistant director Mike Sayers said on the team's website before the final stage April 23. "He has been great here."

Butler saved his best for last, taking 44th in the final stage to finish 47th overall, the best showing among the eight BMC riders who competed.

"I think Chris showed that he's got the ability," Sayers said on the team's website after the race. "His first race as a pro came in one of the hardest races in Italy, at one of the hardest times of the year, right before the Giro (d'Italia). I think there's a big future there."

'A UNIQUE TALENT'

With his compact frame, muscle structure and endurance, Butler is a natural climber, which he confirmed that day he flew up Paris Mountain. He showed it again in the Italian Alps, where he excelled on long, steep climbs, reminding BMC officials why they are so excited about their newest team member.

"I think he's definitely a unique talent in America from the standpoint that his natural skill set is his ability to climb," Sayers said. "He's really built like the quintessential European climber, where he's better on long climbs, and you just don't see that in a lot of individuals.

"Definitely in America, there hasn't been a guy with his skill set who has come along for a while."

Sayers compared Butler's natural abilities to those of former teammate Scott Moninger, no faint praise considering Moninger won 275 races in his 17-year pro career before retiring in 2007.

Despite Butler's obvious potential and quick start as a professional, he is still a rookie with much to learn.

Because of injuries that have depleted the BMC roster, he has been forced into a more prominent role than the team management would prefer at this stage in his career, but Sayers says he wants Butler to understand that his performance this year will not be judged by results as much as his ability to learn from his experiences and hone his craft.

With that in mind, Sayers said the team has no intention this season of racing Butler in any of the Grand Tours -- the Tour of Italy, the Tour de France and the Tour of Spain -- and will spend much of this year and the early part of next year putting Butler in races where he can work on his weaknesses. Specifically, Sayers wants to see Butler improve his work riding on flats and in crosswinds and handling his bike in sketchy situations.

If he can improve in those areas, Sayers believes Butler's potential is almost limitless.

"He really could be a world-class rider, maybe even good enough to go to the Tour de France and perform at a very high level," Sayers said. "But the caveat to that is that he can't just rely on his natural climbing ability. It goes back to the quintessential thing where you need to practice your weakness and race your strength. As a team, we're going to force him to practice his weaknesses."

THE FUTURE IS NOW

Since his cycling career began, the future has always come sooner than expected for Butler. In four short years, he has steadily climbed from casual races to international competition featuring the best riders in the world.

For four years, Butler has been told he had a bright future in the sport. Now he is savoring it.

"Senior year, graduating college, and I've pretty much gotten a great job," Butler said. "I get a sweet salary, and this is my job, racing against some of the best people in the world."

Up next is the Tour of California beginning May 16. The race will be televised in the United State on Versus, and virtually every active big-name cyclist will be there, including Lance Armstrong.

If Butler needed any convincing that the beginning stages of his bright future have arrived, this would provide it.

"There's no higher level of competition," Butler said. "This is it."

His expectations will still be tempered, though perhaps not as much as they were in Italy. The Giro del Trentino taught him that he is ready for this next step in his career, that he can compete with the best in the world.

"It's a good starting point," Butler said. "I have the rest of my life to chip away at that and try to get up in, like, the top 10. I think it's attainable."

He isn't ready to stop climbing.

THE BUTLER FILE

Name: Chris Butler

Height: 5-11

Weight: 137

Date of birth: Feb. 16, 1988

Place of birth: Hilton Head Island

Residence: Greenville

Team: BMC Racing Team

Turned pro: 2010

Notes: Butler made his professional debut last week at the Giro del Trentino, a four-stage road race in the Italian Alps. He finished 47th among a field of 160 riders, the best finish among the eight BMC team members who competed. ... Butler took up cycling as a cross-training tool when he was a standout cross country runner at Hilton Head Christian Academy, but he didn't become serious about the sport until his freshman year at Furman University. ... While at Furman, Butler burst onto the scene at the 2008 USA Cycling Division II collegiate championships, winning national titles in the road race and team time trial and taking second in the criterium.

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