This weekend is almost like a homecoming for Jamie and Brent Bookwalter.
The husband-and-wife professional cyclists arrived in Chattanooga on Thursday night to compete in the USA Cycling Professional Road and Time Trial National Championships this weekend. They were busy Friday familiarizing themselves with the time trial course at the Volkswagen plant in preparation for today's national race.
BMC Racing's Brent Bookwalter will be one of the favorites to win the men's time trial competition after finishing third last year.
He and his wife already are very familiar with the Scenic City, having lived here just a few years ago while Jamie was finishing her undergraduate degree at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
"It's so exciting to be able to showcase Chattanooga," Jamie Dinkins Bookwalter said recently from the couple's home in Asheville, N.C. "I think that Chattanooga is really a hidden gem. People out West think that their Boulder [Colo.] is the best, but we have a cheaper Boulder that people can enjoy right here."
Jamie Dinkins came to UTC in 2004 as a heralded distance runner from Powell, Tenn. She was undefeated in cross country as a 12th-grader until the state championship race and was named runner of the year by the Knoxville News Sentinel. She signed to run track and cross country with the Lady Mocs and was enrolled in the honors program.
Unfortunately, her college running career didn't go as well as she had hoped.
"I was kind of plagued by injuries from the get-go. I ended up having three stress fractures right away, and it was just very, very frustrating.
"There's nothing worse than watching others do what you want do from the sidelines. It's terrible."
Jamie's coach at UTC, Bill Gautier, suggested that she take up cycling as she recovered from her injuries, but his plan didn't work out quite as he had envisioned.
"I like to say that I'm responsible for Jamie's cycling career," Gautier said, laughing. "When she got injured, I told her to take up bicycling. Unfortunately she never came back to running track."
Dinkins began riding mountain bikes and fell in love with the sport. She gave up her track scholarship and joined UTC's mountain bike club team.
"The club sports programs at UTC were just awesome," she said. "They gave me money to go to bike races, and I recruited some other UTC kids to go to races. It was just the best experience of my life.
"I point to collegiate mountain biking as one of the big points in my life because I met some of my best friends and I ended up meeting Brent, my husband, through UTC mountain biking."
In many ways, a broken tibia is responsible for Jamie Dinkins and Brent Bookwalter falling in love.
Bookwalter already was an up-and-coming American cyclist at Lees-McRae College in Banner Elk, N.C., and was the USA Cycling under-23 time trial national champion in 2006, but his career was sidetracked by a broken leg he sustained during a race in Belgium. A mutual friend suggested that Jamie contact Brent as he recovered, and sparks flew.
"One of our mutual friends suggested I send him a message on Facebook because we were both into mountain biking and raced in the same conference," she said. "So I Facebooked him and he wrote back this smooth reply, and that was it."
Jamie said Brent's leg injury helped their relationship blossom, because otherwise he would have been traveling around the world in the nomadic life of a pro cyclist.
"When we first met, he had that broken leg, so I got a lot of time with him," she said. "It's funny how life works, because if I met him now it may have been difficult to build a relationship."
Brent said meeting Jamie helped him through a difficult time as he recovered and began to rebuilt his cycling career.
"It was kind of a big turning point in my life professionally and personally," he said. "It was a tumultuous time of graduating college and just getting into pro cycling and to have that [injury] happen and not be sure if I would still be able to or still want to keep cycling.
"I was blessed to have Jamie come into my life at that time."
As Brent recovered and began preparing to resume his cycling career, he moved to Chattanooga to be closer to her while she finished her undergraduate degree.
Brent found a house on Lookout Mountain and began training on area roads.
"I loved living up on the mountain with that little community up there while still being close to downtown where Jamie lived," he said. "And it was a good, challenging ride home every day, to say the least."
After growing up in Grand Rapids, Mich., Brent found he liked living in the South, and it's served him well as a home base when he's not racing or training in Europe.
"I've lived in several places in the South, and it's really just a wonderful place to live," he said. "For me it's a great fit. I love the area, and it's better for my racing in Europe with a six-hour time difference as opposed to an eight- or nine-hour difference on the West Coast."
Jamie continued mountain biking while finishing her degree at UTC and moving on to graduate school at the University of Georgia. Two years ago she was offered a chance to join the Colavita women's pro road team. It was an achievement that doesn't surprise her former coach at UTC.
"She is one of the smartest and one of the most driven people I have known," Gautier said. "I'm just happy that she's had the success she's had."
This weekend will be the first year that the men's and women's U.S. pro championships have been held at the same place with equal price money, and as a result it will allow Jamie and Brent Bookwalter a chance to race at the same event.
"We have never done a race together, so it's very exciting," Jamie said. "All of our friends and family from all of our walks of life are coming to see us race."
For Brent, the chance to compete for the national championship ranks near the top of his list of accomplishments, which includes two appearances in the Tour de France and many of the other top European races. The fact that he gets to compete alongside his wife in a town where they once lived makes it even better.
"It's exciting because not a lot of Americans on European teams get to come back and ride nationals," he said last week while competing at the Tour of California, which was won by BMC teammate Tejay van Garderen. "It's extra special to come back to a place where I have some personal ties as well."
"[Racing in Chattanooga] will bring back some good memories and add some extra motivation. And whatever the result at the end of the day, I'm looking forward to going back to Chattanooga and riding on those roads that I trained on."
Contact Jim Tanner at email@example.com or 423-757-6478. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jftanner.