I first chat to Ben after what is meant to be a study day – he has a big maths exam on Tuesday. I say “meant to be” because he’s just returned from a 250 kilometre road ride and admits he probably should have been using the time to practise quadratic equations, not going for a PB on Hobart’s hilly roads.
After only five years on the bike Ben has some impressive palmarès to his name. He’s the current U-19 National Champion; finished 12th, 10th and 4th at World Cup races; and secured 28th place at World Championships this year. He comes from good company though, with Sid Taberlay, a professional mountain biker and Olympian as his cousin-in-law, riding bikes is in the family.
Ben explains how he got into mountain biking, “Sid asked me if I wanted to go for a ride. So I borrowed an old 20 kilogram clunker – and loved it.” The next adventure was the Mount Wellington Challenge, a 21 kilometre time trial climbing a steep 1,114 metres. “I think I surprised everyone by making it to the top in a semi-respectable time,” grins Ben. It wasn’t long after that Ben hit the dirt, racing with a school team in a local 24 hour and he hasn’t looked back since.
I smile to myself as he says “I was just a kid when I started riding.” Now 17 years old he’s hardly an old guy, but as the interview progresses I find myself forgetting how young he is. “I think most people don’t realise how mature he is for his age,” agrees Sid.
There’s no denying Sid’s continuing influence on Ben. They ride and race together all over Australia, Europe, America and South Africa. “Sid’s taught me how to pick a track apart, and I can select the fastest lines just by following him in practise,” says Ben. Sid continues, “I’ve probably influenced Ben in lots of ways, from taking up racing to travelling the globe chasing a dream. I just try to be a resource for him to learn from.”
You could say Ben has some big shoes to fill with Sid as his mentor. In fact, some locals jokingly call Ben “Sid’s Fast Cousin”. Time will tell if he beats Sid on the bike, but with size 44 flippers compared to Sid’s 42, he’s already done that in the sock department. While this means he can no longer benefit from hand-me-down shoes, Ben landed a sponsorship deal with Specialized Australia three years ago, so he’s pretty sorted in the gear department these days.
“I was fortunate enough to meet the founder of Specialized a few years ago at Nationals in Adelaide,” explains Ben. “I went on to race in the US and ended up winning Sea Otter and Specialized were there. I guess I won the right race at the right time and knew the right people. Like anything there was a bit of luck involved, but I was also riding well at the time.”
With next year’s World Championship in his sights, Ben is laying the foundation for a good performance. He raced World Cups and the World Championship this year for the experience, with good results. “I really enjoyed racing World Cups and learnt a lot. It’s completely different from racing in Australia. At home I race the same guys all the time.” He describes battling it out with stand out Junior, Billy Sewell, “we find ourselves out the front of races all the time. Some days I beat him, some days he beats me. It’s just how it goes. But overseas there are so many top riders, so it was good to find out what I would be in for before I went to World Champs.”
Ben sounds excited about his plans to travel overseas again next year, relishing the opportunity to race the more technical trails the international scene has to offer. “My favourite is South Africa. It has a solid climb and some fast technical sections. I really like challenging trails and think I have an advantage with my skills compared the tight twisty tracks here, where it’s difficult to get good flow happening.”
His bike handling abilities haven’t gone unnoticed in Hobart’s riding community either. At 17 he’s half the age of local rider, Luke Roberts, who sees him hitting the trails around Mt Wellington and at local races. “He’s fast and technically excellent. Pretty impressive for such a young guy,” says Luke.
While Ben is clearly competitive he’s conscious of the fact that he wants to keep riding fun. To date he hasn’t formally had a coach, training when and how he wants. “I’ve never been forced to do it. I just love riding. I do most of my training with Sid, so I guess he’s kind of my coach, but I’ve never really had a program. Sid just tries to make it fun and keep me interested. I think if I’d started with a strict program I’d be over it by now.”
However, next year Ben wants to take his riding to the next level and has decided it’s time to get a coach. “Going into my second year at World Champs I want to look at all the things I can do to improve and ride faster, and getting a coach is one of them.” Gene Bates, head coach at the Tasmanian Institute of Sport, has recently agreed to take Ben on as an athlete in his program. Ben says he’s looking forward to the other aspects of preparation that a coach can provide, such as phased training, goal setting and mental preparation.
Ben’s dreaming big for next year – winning National and Oceania titles; a podium finish at a World Cup; and a top ten at the World Championship. According to Sid, he’s strong performances to date mean these dreams aren’t unrealistic. “As a first year Junior this year he just missed the World Cup podium by a place. Being a Junior again in 2013 and one of the stronger Juniors from this year, he will be gunning for the podium. Given the right course I feel he could get a World Cup win.”
And you never know, maybe one day the tables will turn and Sid will be known by the locals as “Ben’s Cousin”. Ben can only dream!
Words : Liz Drummond Photos : Jordy Davis