SALT LAKE CITY — When he regained consciousness in the back of a Canadian ambulance, he didn't know where he was, how he got there or what the future held for him.
All Chase Pinkham knew was he was in a world of pain, far from home, and a major chunk of his face had been sliced nearly off when a car cut in front of him while he was on a training ride, preparing for the Tour l'Abitibi — one of North America's premier bike racers for junior cyclists — in Quebec.
"I was riding along a road minding my own business," Pinkham said of the 2008 accident, "and the next thing I knew, I was riding in an ambulance."
The accident was catastrophic for the youngster. Then only 17 and still a student at West High, Pinkham had taken up the sport less than two years prior but had made a remarkably fast ascension from a novice to one of the state's up-and-coming stars.
Then, the accident in Canada happened and nearly derailed his dreams of becoming a professional cyclist.
Like many cyclists, Pinkham's concern wasn't his physical condition immediately after the accident.
"The first thing I did when I woke up," he said, "was ask my dad, 'How's my bike?' "
A summer of recovery followed by a winter of serious training, though, left him hungry to race. And when he finally got back on his bike to line up against the best competition the state had to offer, he more than held his own.
In fact, Pinkham's summer of 2009 was as good as any cyclist around. He quickly received his Cat 1 upgrade and caught the eye of professional teams with his performances in regional races against the best competition the nation had to throw at him.
After a strong showing in the Tour or Utah, where he was the top cyclist under 20 and finished 43rd overall, Pinkham was approached by the Trek-Livestrong team — a U-23 developmental team owned by Lance Armstrong — and was offered a contract.
"That was like, 'Maybe this pipe dream isn't such a pipe dream after all,' " Pinkham said. "It was like my hard work really paid off. I couldn't believe it."
Just before Christmas, Pinkham — who had just finished his first semester at the University of Utah — joined Armstrong, Levi Leipheimer and some of the best cycling talent in the world for a training camp. Pinkham's Trek-Livestrong team and Armstrong's new Radio Shack squad met in Arizona for a long weekend of training rides, getting fit for new bikes and instruction from legendary cycling experts such as Johan Bruyneel and Axel Merckx — a former teammate of Armstrong's and the son of legendary cyclist Eddy Merckx.
"You get down there and talk about surreal, it really was," Pinkham said. "You see these guys as the best guys in the world and ... you try not to be intimidated by these guys that have placed in the Tour (de France). It's hard to not be the fawning fan, but you can't help but look over and go 'Wow, that's Lance Armstrong and that's (Andreas) Kloden and there's Levi.' It was pretty amazing to be there with all of them."
More amazing, to think, that he is essentially teammates with them.
The Trek-Livestrong team is not at the same level as Armstrong's new Radio Shack team. But they are essentially under the same management, and the U-23 team has sent some of its top riders to the Radio Shack team — kind of like a Triple-A baseball player earning a promotion to the big leagues.
Still a relative newbie in the sport, Pinkham hopes to make that leap eventually.
If he does, and someday finds himself racing in the Tour de France, he'll be the second member of his family to race in the legendary competition. His aunt, Laura Howett, raced in the Tour de France many years ago when there was also a women's event.
That Utah has produced another pro cyclist is not terribly surprising. Athletes such as David Zabriskie, Burke Swindlehurst, Jeff Louder and Levi Leipheimer have become elite pros thanks to the training they get on the roads and in the canyons the state has to offer. But Pinkham's rise has been a fast one.
And considering the injury he had when his talent was just starting to manifest itself, Pinkham may indeed be one of the bright young stars of the sport.
"I think he's got all sorts of potential," Swindlehurst, a veteran pro cyclist on the domestic scene for the better part of a decade, said. "I've really been impressed with his drive and his power."
Pinkham, in search of the best training partners he can find, has joined Louder, Swindlehurst and the growing number of domestic pros that have relocated to Utah on many occasions. He pedaled more than 10,000 miles last year and made his presence known in many races.
A strong climber, Pinkham is also a budding star in time-trial races where he can unleash his power in the race against the clock. At the Valley of the Sun stage race in Arizona, and at the Callville Bay stage race near Las Vegas early last season, he caught the eyes of pro teams when Pinkham — a Utah Cat 2 racer forced to do much of his training indoors — had some of the best times of the races, beating most of the pros who had come out to race.
"When I placed sixth at Valley of the Sun, I beat a bunch of pros, and I thought 'Wow, maybe I'm not that far away after all,' " he said.
It was especially remarkable considering the damage his body took in Canada about eight months earlier.
Pinkham has had five reconstructive surgeries to repair the bones in his face. He lost seven teeth in the accident and had his nose nearly severed. The surgeries resulted in two more teeth being scrapped, and a set of implants is now in place.
He still bears considerable scars on the right side of his face. Future surgeries may help with that.
The injuries, he admits, have had a benefit he never expected.
Because his mouth was wired shut for more than a month, he was unable to eat normally and lost 15 pounds. He was, however, able to resume some training fairly soon, and when he finally got back on the bike ready to race, found his new weight, coupled with the power he never really lost from his legs, had left him in a position to cruise up mountains more strongly than he ever had.
It also left him with a new attitude.
"I was so motivated to win that, even though it was just a little teeny ride," Pinkham said, noting his first race back after the accident was a short but demanding uphill time trial in City Creek Canyon. "It's made me a much more aggressive rider. I ride on anger a lot."
Pinkham caught the bike-racing bug in 2007 and, after a few races in the lower levels of competition, found himself on a bike next to Leipheimer when the world-class cyclist returned to Utah to help host a cycling camp with Dr. Max Testa in September of 2007.
Leipheimer gave the youngster some tips on a ride up Big Cottonwood Canyon one day, and Pinkham soon began working with Testa at TOSH medical and training campus in Murray.
"It's really confidence-inspiring, I know that I can trust what he's saying," Pinkham said of the former team doctor for Armstrong's teams. "With Max, I know that I can trust him, and every race I've been targeting, I've been in tremendous form. Knowing that he's trained some of the best in the world is pretty humbling."
Pinkham, a Civil War nut who often participates in re-enactments with family and friends, will take a break from school this spring and summer to concentrate on the bike. Though he will certainly not get rich racing this year — his contract basically provides for race expenses only — he is devoting the year to improving.
He'll race internationally at times — hoping for some success in Europe and at the upcoming Tour of Qatar — but primarily focus on the domestic racing calendar.
The 2010 Tour of Utah, naturally, is on his agenda.
"It's on my race schedule for sure," Pinkham, who finished 45th overall in 2009, said. "I think over the year I'll really learn a lot, and I'd like another crack at that race."
Now a pro, Pinkham said his dream of racing his bike is still like a fantasy in many ways.
But the pain of racing at maximum effort is worth it and no longer scares him.
"If I can stand having my face ripped off and deal with that," he said, "I can deal with a 15-minute time trial."
Utah's Young Guns
Chase Pinkham is not the only youngster with a pro cycling contract. Here are a few others who will be racing up and down mountains on two wheels this season
Robbie Squire, 20, Felt-Holowesko Partners
Alta High grad and U of U student. After racing as a pro mountain biker, makes the leap to the U-23 developmental team supported by Dave Zabriskie's Garmin-Transitions squad.
Mitch Peterson, 23, Mona-Vie Cannondale
Skyline High grad has been racing mountain bike internationally for a few years. Reigning national collegiate MTB champion.
Alisha Welsh, 26, Peanut Butter & Co TWENTY12 Professional Cycling Team5 comments on this story
Former SUU track team runner is a climbing phenom. Recently signed with World Champ and Gold Medalist Kristen Armstrong's new team
Tayler Wiles, 20, Colavita Development
Not technically a pro, but the Murray High grad is on pro team's 'JV' squad... Placed 2nd in LOTOJA last year.
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