Watch out cross, there’s a new roadie in town.
“I have been racing road races in the US for a long time and I have done all the big races for many years now and I would like some new experiences.” Kelly Benjamin said from Italy earlier this week.
After four years as a pro on the road, first with Cheerwine and then with Colavita/Baci, and more years than that of racing her bike, she decided that she needed new challenges in her career.
Benjamin, known for her sprints, power and laughter, has embarked on two different adventures this year. For the next six weeks, she is racing with the ACS Chirio Forno D’Asolo, a UCI team based in Italy. Then, it’s cyclocross time with the KCCX/Verge Elite Cyclocross Team Presented by Challenge Tires squad.
Time to get dirty…again. “I love mountain biking and actually began racing as a mountain biker but wasn’t sure that i could make a living doing it so i switched to road.” said the 34-year old. But that wasn’t the only reason, as she also noted that the efforts in cross are short and intense which suits her racing strengths.
Plus, well it’s simply fun. “Living in Portland I went to a lot of the Cross Crusades and the cross scene is just so cool, so different from road racing. I really, really like it and am looking forward to getting more involved in it.”
Racing cross is re-connecting with her roots in more ways than one. “Racing for KCCX is a real honor and a perfect fit for me since I am from Kansas City, and have known [team manager] Bill Marshall and most of the guys on the team for a long, long time.” said the former firefighter and fire apparatus engineer.
Her goals this season are simple, to get out there and see what she can do. “My goals for this season in cross are really just to race a lot and gain experience and improve as fast as i can.” Her first cross race will be CrossVegas, in Las Vegas and then the Greenware US Gran Prix of Cyclocross races and Cross National Championships as “key races”. “I am looking forward to representing well for KCCX and all of our sponsors but don’t feel any pressure to perform in my first season.”
She has done a total of three cross races in her life with one win. “The first one barely counts because I did it on a road bike and i had no idea what I was doing – that was three years ago.”
The next time was the Chris Cross International Cyclocross Race in Kansas at the end of 2008. “wow! I had been off of my bike for two weeks completely, resting from a long road season and then decided to go out and race a cross race…ouch! I ended up winning actually but then I promptly retired from the sport because it was too hard!”
Then the third race was the one that “really lit the fire and it has been smoldering ever since.” That was the Lone Star Cyclocross Festival, in Texas, on January 17, 2010 where she finished second.
“I did the Lone Star cross race on a whim after being out all night dancing with my friends and getting very little sleep. It too was very painful but I liked it a lot, it was super muddy and a blast to ride. I crashed though on the last lap while in striking distance of the leader on the only pavement section of the course – go figure! – and had to settle for second.”
Any special preparation for cross? “I think that racing on the roads of Europe and the training around Italy will prepare me well for cross, the roads are crap over here. But yes, I will prepare specifically for cross because I can’t do anything half-ass.”
Tough year. Her road season was both good and bad. “Honestly my road season has been a bit of a disappointment for me and no, I am definitely not satisfied. In some ways, it was great because I had the form of my life and I took a lot of big steps forward with my riding but that just made it all the more frustrating when things started going badly because I knew all the work that I had done to get to where I was. “
“It was also great because our team, Colavita/Baci was certainly the most dominating women’s team in the country this year and it is a blast to be a part of this team. The girls are amazing – so fun – and we work so well together, I think everyone can see that. So it was very fulfilling to be a part of that type of chemistry and talent.” Her teammate Cath Cheatley is on the cusp of winning the NRC Individual standings and her squad, Colavita/Baci leads the team standings with one race to go.
But she admits that this year was tough for her personally with a string of bad luck.
With sprinter extraordinaire Tina Pic retiring and moving behind the wheel as DS, Benjamin changed her usual winter training to be ready for the early races and take on the lead sprinter role.
“I never felt any great pressure from the team or otherwise because I was simply ready for that role and looking forward to it. Unfortunately I never really got the chance to show what I could do because of some misfortune, injuries and illness, but c’est la vie, right?”
It started off great with wins in March. “I came into the season flying with great form and won a race right out of the gate at San Dimas plus I took the field sprint in both the San Dimas crit and the Redlands crit while my teammates were winning. It was perfect.”
And it looked as if it would continue, with a gold medal at the Pan-American Games in Mexico for Shelley Evans, her teammate on the USA National team. “I had fantastic form at Sea Otter then I prepared well for Gila and was climbing better than ever when I had a bad crash on the second stage that really messed me up for awhile. My confidence was shattered and I was in a lot of pain. But I bounced back and went to Mexico with the US team where I helped Shelley Evans win a gold medal. I rode very well and was very proud of my contributions there.”
Things were still looking good where, after a short break, she helped her teammate Theresa Cliff-Ryan get a “stellar” third place at the Liberty Classic in Philadelphian early June.
Then the bad luck started. “I was in position to win the road race when there was a big pileup in front of me with 200 meters to go.” she said about the GP Cycliste de Gatineau, a UCI road race in Canada.
Then at US National Road Championship, where both she and her teammate Cliff-Ryan, were “involved in the crash with one to go that took out most of the sprinters, and then went down hard on the first lap of the road race and had to pull out.”
It seemed better at Fitchburg Longsjo Classic where she “showed signs of life”, winning the sprint jersey and taking second in the criterium but she was battling a case of bad flu with fever, coughing and chills. Not fully recovered, she pushed on to Cascade Cycling Classic, another hard stage race in Oregon. “I was still feeling the effects of my sickness and had to pull out on the second day, completely depleted with a resting heartrate of 116.” she exclaimed.
She added, “Thankfully Colavita had an amazingly strong team with all the riders capable of winning so that they really picked up the slack when things didn’t go according to plan – the benefits of having a strong, cohesive team!”
Recovery and Italy. After Cascade she “shut it down for a week and focused on recovering,” and then resumed training at home in Portland, Oregon.
Such a tough year did not discourage her, “it has only made me hungrier for success and more motivated than ever to get back out there and get back to winning.”
Now, she is living and racing in Europe and “finding some great form again. I hope to finish off the year benefiting from my great form and getting some good experience over here and hopefully some results too. That would make it all better.”
Why Italy? “It was time for a change, new challenges and to take my riding to the next level. It’s interesting so far and I desperately need to learn Italian to make communicating easier but I am up for the challenge and look forward to the adventure!”
Benjamin will be racing in Italy, France, Switzerland and the Netherlands, included the Trophée d’Or and Tour de l’Ardeche in France and the Giro di Toscana in Italy which should be her last race over the pond.
What about next year? “Mum’s the word at this point but there are some exciting things in the work.” she concluded with the, I am sure, Benjamin smile.