One year ago, Ben Day was sitting on the top of the moon. His long-time dream of racing in Europe at the top-level seemed to be within his grasp with the Pegasus Sports project. He had just won the overall at the San Dimas Stage Race and was about to embark on a very successful season with his Fly V Australia team.
Then it all unraveled. Getting back to training after being side-lined with illness since July, Day found out that his dream was not going to happen, at least not this time. The bottom fell out, the team folded and the 32-year old Australian was left without a ride. Day was crushed.
“I appreciate that we’re not saving the world or anything like that, being a cyclist isn’t a very noble cause, we’re not hurting anybody either but this is my life. I put my blood, sweat and tears into what I do and to have those opportunities pulled out from under you is crushing, it was really crushing.” Day said during our conversation.
For two months, he didn’t know what he would be doing and went a little ‘insane’. A re-connection with Chad Thomson , team manager of Kenda/5-Hour Energy p/b GearGrinder team, and Day is back racing in the USA. Building up a team once again to compete at the top level, he can be heard telling his guys what to do while still keeping an eye on the prize which for Day is still racing in Europe. But he fully aware that the clock is ticking.
Day and his team are off to a good start, winning the San Dimas Stage Race overall and about to start the Redlands Bicycle Classic on his tenth year as a professional racer. Yesterday, on beautiful afternoon in Redlands, CA, I sat down with Day to get his story and here are his words.
Last year, it was at this time that we talked. You were set to achieve your goal. When did you find out that Pegasus was not going to happen and what it meant for you?
Actually, it was around the date of my birthday [November 12]. I was in Nevada training for the National Championships. I got pretty sick end of July, straight after Cascade, that really shut my season down early so it took me a long time to get my fitness back. I was doing everything I could, I was really excited about the year ahead and we’d had a great training camp in November. I’d met the directors, got to see Henk [Vogels] and Ed [Beamon] again, we talked about race program and it was just so exciting, getting to do all the races that I wanted to do and I was really looking forwards to it, just making sure, dotting all the I’s and crossing all the T’s.
I was in Nevada preparing, trying to get ready for National Championships in January in Australia. Got a phone call, news isn’t good, money is not there anymore, it doesn’t look like we’re going to have time to get the license, application together, all these kinds of things. It got really frantic there so Christmas was a little bit of a sorry affair. I appreciate that we’re not saving the world or anything like that, being a cyclist isn’t a very noble cause, we’re not hurting anybody either but this is my life. I put my blood, sweat and tears into what I do and to have those opportunities pulled out from under you is crushing, it was really crushing. Thankfully, I have a wife who puts up with my shit (laughs) and she put up with my shit for a couple of months. We were hanging on a string for two months, not knowing which way it was going to go. I don’t hold anybody responsible for what happened, it’s just a crazy sequence of circumstances, events that caused this whole thing to crumble. Who in their wildest dreams could have known that the ship would explode so quickly and disappear like that?
When we talked, you were more than just a rider on the team. How involved were you?
I was just managing the guys. The thing I had there, I had an open enough relationship so that if anything was wrong, I could talk about it with Chris, we’d discuss it, whether it was taken and things were changed is a different thing (smile) but we had that communication there that we could do that. So that’s where I was involved, it was more looking after the interests of all the riders and making sure that everybody is looked after. And I always hope that I’ll be on teams where I can do that and here, I have a similar role and I’m enjoying that, it’s something that I thrive in. I think the guys are appreciating, having a few little things changed and made for the better.
I’ve wanted to ask you this: has your big mouth has ever gotten you into trouble when you started. You’re very vocal about your opinions and not everybody appreciates that.
It’s taken a long time for me to evolve into who I am. When I first went overseas, I was the one English-speaking guy on the team, I was in countries where no one spoke English. No friends there or anything like that, you don’t have a right to say anything so I was pretty quiet and pretty lost.
Yeah. It took awhile but you have to prove yourself too. I was trying to figure out the sport myself. I really hope that I still get back to Europe and I know getting back there is going to be a learning curve again, it’s different to racing here.
So for two months you didn’t know what was happening. How do you stay sane through that?
I didn’t, honestly I didn’t. I was like really depressed. I haven’t spoken about it much, I’d be sitting on the floor crying my eyes out. Like I said, it doesn’t make a lot of sense, we’re not saving the world but it’s everything that I’ve worked hard.
It’s your dream, that’s very important.
Yeah, the one thing I want to do this year is just be a little bit more open and honest about what really happens and what goes on, just in terms of talking to the media, and to you Lyne. Everyone tows this PR line, they say what the team expects them to say, they say what the sponsors expect them to say. Of course, I’m not going to disrespect what people are doing for me or hurt those relationships at all but at the same time, I think the people also want to know what the hell is going on sometimes.
So did you think for a second, that’s it, I’m going to focus on my coaching.
Yeah. On a couple of occasions, I said to [my wife] Isabelle, I can’t do this anymore. Every time she said ‘don’t be an idiot’, she was nicer about it than that, she’s a lot more patient than I am but she wouldn’t let me give up that dream. The thing I’m struggling with a little bit is I’m 32 now. I still consider myself young, I still consider myself that I have a lot of years left in my career. In terms of retirement age, I haven’t even thought about it yet. I’m still learning, I’m still improving, I’m winning more races every year but those opportunities are getting less and less, it’s hard to crack it in Europe. It’s hard to get on a good team where you get looked after well and that’s the thing I’m struggling with, it’s kind of a mid-career crisis almost (smiles).
Were you even training or did you stop?
I got through Nationals, it was easy to get through Nationals and they were trying to sort other things out, they had some sponsorships lead. The whole structure of the project was still there, everyone was working really hard to try and pull something through but nothing came through. So did the Nationals, spent a little bit of time in Brisbane, Australia before I came back to Boulder. During that time, I had a lot of time off the bike, during January and February I probably had 4 or 5 weeks where I didn’t do much training at all. For me, I’m very goal-orientated, if I don’t have a race or something to work towards, the process of training is hard for me which kind of worries when I retire, I’m going to re-establish other types of goals. It was a struggle, if I don’t feel it. It’s one thing that I’ve done, I really listen to myself, if I don’t feel it, I don’t do it. If I really don’t want to go training on that day, I don’t go training. I think that way I found a better balance with it all. Things are more passion, emotional and it’s been better for my results.
Here you are with Kenda/5-Hour Energy. It’s an interesting team, a lot of guys were on smaller teams, not used to fighting at the top level in the US, no dis-respect to the riders. How do you build that up to be at the top level which is where you want to be and where the team wants to be?
It’s a project for me now. Chad Thomson, the team owner, contacted me a year or two ago, he’s been chasing me for awhile. I’ve never really considered the team up until end of January this year because I was so involved with Fly V and Pegasus, that’s where my heart was. But Chad has always been really respectful towards me, he busted his ass to find some money to get me a decent salary to survive the year and support my wife. I signed on the team and then it was a matter of figuring out who the hell everyone was (laughs).
I didn’t know many of the guys at all, I’ve raced against Roman [Kilun] a bit, I’ve raced against Shawn [Milne] a bit but these are guys I’ve never sat down and had a beer with before. We started to establish that at training camp. I think training camp is fine and dandy, everyone is getting present, everyone is really excited but you don’t have the stress of racing and all those kind of things.
We brought a pretty strong squad, I believe this is more the core of the team that’s here at the moment. Last weekend was San Dimas which was our first time racing together, there’s a lot to learn but the rate at which they are learning is awesome. Even guys like Roman and Shawn, they have a lot of experience, they’ve been around for awhile, they’ve worked for leaders before and I’m sure I do things a little bit differently. They’re learning me and Saturday’s road race in San Dimas, the first half was absolutely chaos, we spoke about what I wanted to do the night before and the guys was just so eager and so enthusiastic that they were just chasing everything down. They weren’t controlling it correctly. Second half of the race, they were awesome and I lost no time at the finish line. And then in the crit, they were on the front until two laps to go, absolutely perfect.
Saturday night we sat down and we talked about it. I can’t fault these guys for not being enthusiastic and wanting to learn and wanting to improve. People like Jim Stemper for example, he’s a strong guy, probably stronger physically and he hasn’t developed [as strong] the tactical side yet but he just wants to learn, he’s eager. The guys are like that and we’ve been speaking about things and they’re learning quickly and they’re executing quite immediately. We’re still not perfect and we’ll keep on working on it. I’m sure Redlands will be the litmus test.
We’ve laughed about this in the past, that I can hear you telling your team what to do during the race. How do you that? How do you handle the pressure to catch your competitors, control the team?
For me, this is the joy of the sport, cycling is like a physical game of chess. It’s very rarely that it’s just the strongest person that wins. There’s some incredible bike riders out there but the nature of cycling and the way it is, there are so many tactics involved and managing your energy and all that kind of stuff. So that’s what I really enjoy about it, thinking a couple of moves ahead, being aware of what we should be doing, portraying the strongest team that we can possibly portray. It’s just something that I’ve just developed over the past couple of years, especially the last few years with Fly V, we were so successful and we were always winning races Somebody like Henk behind us, he’s always in it for the win, he doesn’t go to a race without encouraging people to win and that’s what I’m sort of trying to apply here, give everybody a lot of ambition. So I’m loving it. The guys came up to me after the crit on Sunday and said ‘thanks for letting me be a part of it’. I said ‘thank God you were here because I would never have fucking won that without you’ (laughs)
How did you learn this? Where did you learn to be a leader?
When I was in Europe, it was more getting my head kicked in more than anything. Coming to the US was really important for that. The first time that I realized I could do it was Tour de Beauce in 2007 which was my first decent Tour win and in that race, I had a great team around me. It just gave me the confidence to be vocal with the jersey on, the confidence to be vocal to talk to the guys and tell them what I wanted. And I’ve been comfortable with it ever since. The more races I go to, the more races I win, the more confidence I have. We all make mistakes for sure, for me it’s one of the things that I really love about the sport, marshaling the troops.
You say you want to go back to Europe. You are 32 so it has to happen sooner rather than later. What’s the plan for you to make it over there? Is it win, win, win?
(sigh) I don’t know if it’s just win, win, win. That’s what really, really frustrates me. There are so many politics in life, there are so many politics in cycling, I don’t think I have it figured out yet. I believe that I’ve done more than enough to be on the big stage over there but I’m not and that just cracks me, it drives me nuts.
Is it because the teams have not contacted you? Or is it not the right teams?
I don’t know, I just don’t know maybe I’m not developing the right relationships, maybe I’m not portraying myself correctly, I don’t know. I don’t know. I’ve worked with some managers in the past in Europe but you never know if this particular manager has your interest at heart, or if you’re one name on a list of hundred riders which is bullshit, how can they manage you in that situation. And, if you’re the dude who can garner a million Euros a year, or half a million, then they’re going to look after you a whole lot better. The people trying to get in there and trying to get stability, they’re the ones on that list and I don’t really know if they really project your cause in the right way. I’m looking at working with somebody again this year and I’ll do everything I can and speak with as many industry people as I can and just keep on putting it out there. Just see what happens with Kenda/5-Hour Energy, who knows, I figure I just have to be really vocal about it, talk to as many people as I can about it and see if I can create an opportunity.
And in the meantime race hard.
It’s so good to be racing again. I haven’t really raced since July last year. It’s a really long time and this is what I do. Now I can put all that shit behind me for awhile and concentrate on racing which is great.