This season will be an incredible one in the United States. Cyclocross has truly exploded in this nation and for the first time (at least since Jan Wiejak for those of us that are old enough to remember this champion who taught the Americans what European cross REALLY is…) we will see seasoned Europeans toe the line here on our shores on a consistent basis. They’ll be competing in the biggest and best races from New England to Portland and all UCI stops in between. As Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com announced, multi-time Swiss Champion Christian Heule will race for the ‘Green Train’ here for the full fall schedule. But as I previously reported, Ben Berden will be yet another prominent European cyclocrosser coming to race here as well full time. Riding for a new bike manufacturer, Stoemper Bikes of Oregon, Ben will take on a full schedule here mixing it up with the best the US can throw at him.
Ben, as I reported in the last post, has a…past. He was a rising star as a Junior and U23 of the late 90’s generation…carrying into the new millennia with some significant wins as an Elite. Then, came the news of his EPO positive and many things changed for Ben to say the least. With his announcement on joining forces with Stoemper and coming to the US to race, I wanted to reach out to Ben personally and get a truer understanding of who he is, his past, his thoughts on doping and how he is assembling the next part of his career. I am visceral about those who cheat as anyone who has spent time on this blog knows, but for me, his decision (and other Europeans) to come race here is still very meaningful and an important milestone in our sport. Therefore, my own attitude aside, I wanted his words to essentially talk us through all of these points on his past and his core to help us all learn more. With that, an interview with Ben…
Ben, tell us about where you're from, the region of Belgium you were raised. Was cycling part of your family? Who influenced you to race?
BB: I’m from the far eastern part of Limburg in Belgium, near
Maastricht, Holland. Nobody really in my family rode bikes, I just
happened to start riding BMX and it went from there.
Tell us about your racing as a junior and what led you to focus on 'cross. Were you more influenced by road, mountain or BMX as a kid?
BB: I started riding BMX as a kid and was hooked. I rode
mountain bikes as well but there was no mountain bike racing for
juniors in Belgium at that time. So, at 16 I did my first cyclocross
You have an impressive palmares starting from being a Junior and Belofte' phenomenon to plenty of podium appearances in the biggest races on the calendar as an Elite. What are your strengths as a rider that separate you from the rest?
BB: I’m not really an explosive rider, but I always had very
consistent lap times – from early I could ride strong for the entire
race. And when I was younger, I had an ok sprint. When I
became a pro I always rode well in the sand, but tire options
were different then!
In December of 2004, you had a positive control at Essen and were eventually suspended for taking EPO in 2005. You have served your suspension and are back racing again. The pressure to succeed in Belgium (particularly) is incredibly high. My question is, what is your advice/counsel to juniors coming through the ranks to stay focused and stay clean?
BB: Like you say, the pressure to succeed is high. And, the
financial incentives are also high. Europe is I think a bit different
to the US – when racing elite it’s not difficult to find performance-
enhancing products. I was frustrated when I became a pro to
always be in the top 3, but never able to win. This desire to
win and the financial bonuses in the end won me over. Now it’s
different, now I’m happy to ride hard, do my best and just to be
racing as a pro, but it was a hard journey to get here. Giving
advice is not easy, but I think it’s important to keep in mind
perspective. Why are we doing this? Because we love riding
bikes and racing is fun. Be happy with the experience, and it will
be more rewarding.
|Photo by Ken Conley|
The cycling world is at the forefront of cleaning up drug use in our sport. Far greater than other sports including US Football, baseball, Track & Field, etc. This said, we see so many controls in road racing yet virtually nothing in cross. Is there enough being done in cross specifically to catch those cheating?
BB: Actually, here in Belgium the controls are pretty strong, you
have to report your whereabouts at all times, and there is always
testing after the main races. But at the end of the day, it’s still a
small sport, with small teams and few professional racers.
During your suspension period, what did you discover about yourself? What was learned from your experience? We know you have a tattoos that help remind you of your past. What motivates you to move forward at the highest levels of the sport and do it clean?
BB: It’s a good question. What I discovered about myself is
that I want to ride my bike! At first, I decided to go away from
the sport, I got a job and worked. But all my adult life, I only
knew biking. Soon I found that I missed racing. When I started
riding again, I was happy just to be able to race. This was the
big difference. I’m thankful for the people that supported me to
come back, as cycling is what I do.
Tell us about your decision to come and race in the United States. What is the perception among the 'cross peloton in Belgium about the racing circuit here in the States? What drove your decision to come and do a full season here?
BB: It’s always been my dream to race in the US. It’s no secret
that I like the US and US culture. It would have been one of my
professional regrets if I had retired without racing more in the
US. Luckily, I will get to do the entire season, through the USGP
Here in Belgium, we only see little glimpses of US cross. We are so
tied into the system here from a young age, and then there’s all
the start money if you are a top pro – this is the big difference
between Belgian racing and US. Also, Belgium is small - you can
do an entire cross season without boarding a single airplane.
We all know that US riders are getting stronger every year, and this
will only continue. The sport seems to grow a lot every year
there. I think it’s hard for US racers to come to Belgium for only
a few races, and vice versa for Belgians going to the US. But the
US is definitely at the forefront of cyclocross today.
What is your schedule while here in the US? Where will your home base be?
BB: Well, doing the USGP, then some races in Ohio, Iowa,
Seattle, Gloucester, Irvine…actually I don't know where many
of these places are! I start in Seattle and will be based in 2-3
places over the course of the season.
What is your favorite course among the GvA's and SuperPrestige series? What race or course holds the best memories for you?
BB: I always liked Koksijde, I won there 3 times and it was my
first world cup victory. The new race in Zonhoven is also good.
Very hard, but good.
Outside of cycling, what are your passions? We hear Harley's have a special place in your heart. Music? What drives you?
BB: I just sold my El Camino, so I’m a little sad for that. Aside
from old cars and motorcycles: nature. I’m not a city guy. And
of course, rock and roll.
You're definitely known for your style. Those years in "white" with Saey-Deschacht were memorable. White gloves, white Sidis....you definitely brought as I say in my blog 'the white sex' to the cross peloton. Ha! Tell us about your style. You're sort of the Sid Vicious in a peloton of Beethovens.
BB: What can I say? You have to look good on the bike.
We will be doing a 'Part 2' of this interview on Stoemper bikes, but tell us how you came to work with Stoemper.
BB: This is just one of those things that came together. I knew
the owners of Stoemper, they had an idea, we worked on this
with Gino Vervecken of Chaos Bike Shop, and we decided to go
for it. We all had the same vision and I know we are all excited
about this program. I hope it’s exciting for US cycling fans as
well, I will do my best to make it so!
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this interview series so we can learn more about this incredibly stealthy ‘start up’, Stoemper bikes.
I want to thank Ben for taking the time to work with me on this interview and David Alvarez of Steomper for helping Ben and I get connected. See you at the races!