2019 Giro d'Italia, Culture, Features -

Falling in love with cycling again

Do you remember how you first caught the cycling bug? Was it by watching a race on TV? Did a family member or friend get you hooked? Or has it always been a part of your life?

Ben Berend remembers how cycling first got its claws into him. It was something of an accident, years before he represented his country at the Winter Olympics. Now, with Nordic Combined skiing behind him, Ben’s love of cycling has re-emerged, stronger than ever.

We all have our story — the story of how we fell in love with cycling. Mine started with a dirt bike. My dad bought me one when I was 13, which surprised me — I didn’t ask for one or necessarily want one. He bought himself one as well. It seems clear to me now: my dad bought me a dirt bike so he could buy himself one.

We rode them a couple times. One time we took a buddy of mine with us and he broke his arm badly. The whole thing freaked me out. One week later I sold my dirt bike and bought a road bike.

I remember that road bike the way we all remember our first — much better and sexier than it really was. It was an aluminum Trek, light blue, with a million gears. The granny gears made up for the weight of the bike.

In all ways this bike was unremarkable, but to me it was the best bike I could ever own.

After a year or two, I began to notice other people’s bikes. I would take a quick glance — nothing too obvious, for my Trek’s sake. Sometimes I would lock my Trek in the garage and go upstairs to surf the web. I found myself looking at carbon fiber bikes, aero frames, wheel sets, components. I felt overwhelmed and excited — the possibilities were endless.

When I outgrew the Trek, my dad took me to the local ski and bike shop. A Cervelo R3 was for sale. It was advertised as the bike ridden in Paris-Roubaix by Team Cervelo which, to me, was possibly the coolest thing in the universe. It was also the cheapest carbon bike in the store, though I didn’t see it way. It was white, red, and black and it was so incredibly light. I couldn’t believe this bike was going to be mine.

I was hooked. I liked to go fast. I liked to be alone, far from town. At night I began to dream less of skiing (my original obsession) and more of cobbled roads and pelotons. My bedtime always got earlier in the spring because the Classics were on TV far too early in the morning.

I started racing my bike. The feeling was electrifying. I got my ear pierced like Philippe Gilbert. I thought I was good; I thought maybe I could be on TV someday. Then again, don’t we all?

I remember one specific moment so vividly. As a 16-year-old kid, I went to a bike race in Boulder, Colorado. I crossed the finish line in third place. I was proud. The podium ceremony for the junior class began so I started walking up to the podium prematurely. I soon stopped in my tracks when I realised my name hadn’t been called.

I didn’t recognize the kid who stood on top of the podium that day. He wasn’t in the race! I hunted down the results and what I saw stuck with me: the winner had slipped away at the start and ridden the entire 50-mile (80km) race alone, finishing a whopping eight minutes in front of us. Not only that but he was years younger than me and had massive shaved legs.

I remember those stupid legs. Seeing them was when I knew I was never going to be a pro cyclist.

I moved away from biking. I stopped racing and pursued sports that involved snow. Every year my bike spent less time on the roads. I competed in the Winter Olympics. It was all incredible.

But now, I’ve recently moved on from skiing and can feel cycling creeping back into my life. That feeling I had as a 16-year-old kid, flying around on that old Trek? I’m starting to think it never left me. The bike I have now is a lot lighter and I’m surely heavier, though that’s all that has changed.

I managed to watch the last stage of the Giro on Sunday. I was in Europe with my girlfriend celebrating our college graduation. It sort of happened by accident. We flew into Venice on Sunday morning and I realized the Giro was finishing just an hour’s train ride away, in Verona. We got on the train, did a lot of walking, and found ourselves sitting in the dirt beneath the shade of a tree on the side of a road.

Every minute a motorcycle would drive past, followed by a cyclist who, in turn, was followed by a team car with six bikes on the roof. Sometimes another car and another motorcycle would follow as well. Every now and then a helicopter would sweep above our heads and I would gaze up, watching the propellers.

In comparison to other spectator sports, cycling should really be at the bottom of the list. The riders fly by in blurs of color and then they’re gone. But there is something about it that absolutely grips me. I know I’m not crazy — most of you reading this feel that same pull.

Maybe we understand what it takes to ride such a race. The physical toll. Maybe we understand why they do it, that weightless feeling, the speed on your face, as if you drove a convertible. Maybe it’s the culture, the history, the fanfare, or maybe … we still can’t pin down why cycling grips us.

That evening after dinner, my girlfriend and I walked down the same road. I sat down in the same dirt underneath the same tree. The barriers, sponsorship signs, and fans were all gone. The heroic riders were gone as well, replaced by the occasional civilian car. The road had become so quiet and yet my ears were still ringing from the noise just hours before.

This old winding road had turned into a battleground for a brief moment, and then it went back to exactly the way it was before. If I hadn’t witnessed it with my own eyes, I wouldn’t think it happened. I sat beside that road and replaced the cars with riders. Blurring past, sweating, and grimacing. In my head I still saw the barriers, the sponsorship banners, the fans.

My ear is still pierced like Gilbert. That feeling pulls me closer. I smile as I picture my bike hanging up in the garage at home. I only rode it a handful of times last year. I have a feeling that will change.

About the author

Colorado born and raised, Ben Berend was a 2018 US Olympian in Nordic Combined skiing (it’s a sport — just google it). He ditched the big skis and jumps for a college degree but is currently a cross-country skier for the University of New Mexico (#golobos). Ben describes himself as a 23-year-old dude trying to prove to the world that Liberal Arts ain’t no joke. He’s an enthusiast of all things bikes.

You can follow him on Instagram and read more of his work at his website.

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