Fifty-three weeks ago Ben Day had a conversation with a close confidant while negotiating what would be his final professional contract as a cyclist. With a rapidly-growing coaching business to his name, it was suggested that Day might want to consider stepping off the bike a little earlier in order to maintain the quality in both endeavours. And so it was at this week’s USA Pro Cycling Challenge in Colorado that the Australian UnitedHealthcare cyclist would ride his last race after a 13-year career.
The farewell of Jens Voigt was hard to miss at the USA Pro Challenge, the 42-year-old’s last hurrah coming with its own t-shirt chronicling his final appearances throughout the state of Colorado. Voigt, a rock-star of cycling, taking to the stage one last time. It was befitting for Voigt, but far from Day’s understated style.
“He’s a lot noisier than me,” Day laughs when considering the juxtaposition of his finale and Voigt’s. “We were in a few breaks together in Utah and he was giving me shit about my beard; he didn’t think it was real professional. I’ve got a lot of respect for him. Man, he’s a noisy bugger but he races his bike well and he’s really putting on an amazing show for all of his fans.
“I’m happy to be here, racing with my team and contributing to our success,” Day continues. “I don’t need my own glory. I’m more than happy to work my arse off for my teammates and just to hear a thank you from them at the end of the day is all the reward I need.”
At age 35, Day can look back on a cycling career that has been built on hard graft. Growing up in suburban Brisbane, Day’s parents were not fussed about him riding a bike, but he loved the freedom so he rebelled. His passion for cycling would eventually win his parents over but there has been times that Day’s love for the bike was not reciprocated.
Success in the 1999 Tattersall’s Cup in Victoria would lead Day to a start in the Sun Tour, moving away from home and to a Melbourne base. He calls it his “first big decision.” Riding along Beach Road introduced Day to what remains a surrogate family. “They became my family just because of the support they gave me,” Day says.
He won the 2000 National Road Series but it would be the first time that the winner was not offered a spot with the Australian Institute of Sport program. Day then travelled the well-worn path to the Italian amateur scene. Contracts were on offer at the end of the 2001 season, but would fall over with financial instability. A mate, fellow Australian Kristjan Snorrasson, was unable to take his spot on Portuguese category 2 squad Matesica – Abóboda due to injury, so he offered it to Day.
“It was 600 euros a month for five months and that was my first professional contract,” explains Day. “I lived in a hotel and I had to pack up and move my things to the basement every time we went to a race.
“I think back to those times and the shit that you do to make it. I see the younger guys now and, sometimes I think it’s good – the development pathway is so different. But they miss out on the resilience thing. So many of them don’t even know another language. When you’re in Europe, you’ve got to figure it out, at some point you’re going to need it. I found myself out of my comfort zone quite a lot but… now shit’s easy,” he laughs.
In 2003, Day defeated Michael Rogers to win the Australian individual time trial title. The victory didn’t open the doors that Day had hoped, so he returned to Portugal for another season before landing a ride with Belgian division 1 squad Mr Bookmaker.com – Palmans in 2004.
In 2006, Day took home a silver medal from the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne, runner up to Nathan O’Neill in the individual time trial. That moment would finally end any jibes from Day’s mother that he should consider ‘getting a real job,’ but it wasn’t until Day landed in America with Navigators in 2007 that his career really began to take shape, taking out the overall win at the Tour de Beauce.
The following season, riding with the Toyota United squad, Day was solid. He would also break Andy Hampsten’s 21-year-old record of 26:33 in the Vail Pass Hill Climb which had been set during the Coors Classic. Day shattered Hampsten’s benchmark time by 45 seconds.
“Andy Hampsten was an amazing cyclist,” says Day. “For him to have done those times on the equipment that they had back then was phenomenal.”
In 2011, when Day’s record was broken by just half a second by Christian Vandevelde, the Australian reacted with sadness. “Cycling is a sport of ‘if onlys’,” he says. “Cyclists whinge. It happens and it’s in the nature of such a hard sport.”
Toyota United would come to an end in 2008 and Day was forced to ask himself some tough questions.
“We had a good team, we had a good budget and I had a good salary,” he explains. “I finished the year with third in the Sun Tour; it wasn’t a bad year and then I had nothing. I didn’t know what to do. I had a mortgage… I had all these obligations. What do you do if you don’t have a pay packet to pay for these obligations? I didn’t want to be in that situation anymore and cycling, one of the biggest negatives about it is that instability.”
Day set about creating his business, DayByDay Coaching which he now runs with former teammate Chris Baldwin. For a naturally curious mind, Day, who has taught himself four languages, coaching was a natural fit.
“I feel pretty blessed to have had the opportunity to realise that my passion is preparation of an athlete because it’s what I did for 15 years for myself,” he says. “I love the science, the training process – everything’s that involved with that. Whether it’s going to a wind tunnel, seeing a physiotherapist, doing mental training or just going out and riding – that holistic thing was something that I loved. That was a dawning moment. It was like ‘well this is easy. This is what I should just keep doing.’”
2009 was the first of two seasons with Fly V Australia, the Australian squad taking the US by storm. His second year with the team was even better than the first, with overall victories in San Dimas Stage Race, Redlands, and his second GC win at the Tour de Beauce.
“The way we raced together, we raced with a lot of emotion, aggression and passion and we had such a successful year,” Day says with pride. “I really believe it was the camaraderie we had amongst the riders, we laid it on the line for everybody and everything fell into place well for us that year.”
Day prefers to remember the staggering highs of the 2010 season, rather than the push for the team to go WorldTour that ended with a December 11 email from management informing riders and staff that not even a Professional Continental licence would be possible. The dramatic reversal of fortunes shattered Day, as it did many others within the team. For some time, Day would actually refuse to speak of the subject at all and shut down. Day suffered depression.
“No one really knows about this apart from my wife but, straight after that whole collapse thing I was in a funk,” he explains. “It was my life. I invested so much into that program and I really wanted to see the success. When it fell to pieces, it was heartbreaking. Yeah it was the European dream but the whole process, the whole journey that we were on together. We had such a great time racing together and it was a journey that we all believed in.
“When it all fell apart, and I didn’t realise it at the time, I ended up having depression and I was in a funk for ages and I just thought that I was in a bad mood…”
Day would be picked up by Kenda for the 2011 season, but he wasn’t quite himself.
“It was a big blow and I think one of the things that shortens somebody’s career in cycling, and in life as well, every time you have big setback like that, I think it really shortens your ability to fight back,” he says. “You have so many times that you can pick yourself up off the deck and be strong and do it, with aggression. Like, ‘f**k them, I’m going to prove my point.’ And each time that happens it’s not quite as intense as the time before. And for me, it took me a long time to get over that one.”
A call and a contract from UnitedHealthcare in 2012 changed that and Day rediscovered his mojo. The team allowed Day to be the best version of himself, a true leader on the road.
In the days leading up to the 2014 USA Pro Challenge, the 35-year-old informed his teammates that it would the final race of his career. Having watched Jeff Louder bow out a week earlier at the Tour of Utah, Day found himself at ease with the decision and he began the Pro Challenge with quiet dignity.
UnitedHealthcare’s Kiel Reijnen would win the opening stage in Aspen, and Day, not wanting any fuss around himself, was happy to leave his teammate with the spotlight. By Stage 6, the Vail Time Trial on much the same course where he once held the record, awareness that Day was about to close out his career had grown. Leaving the starthouse, he received raucous applause and cheers usually reserved for the Americans within the race. The support propelled him to the hot seat until old rival Michael Rogers blasted his way through the course. The realisation that it was all coming to an end, started to hit Day.
“Today was more emotional than I thought I would be,” he explained that evening. “I had a few tears after the finish there and I didn’t expect that. It doesn’t make me feel like it’s the wrong decision, it makes me realise that this was a good journey.
“F**k it hurts,” he continues. “That time trial is not easy but doing that last kilometre and having the crowd there supporting you. I had friends in the crowd that I hadn’t seen in a couple of years. The amount of support that I’ve gotten today, even from fellow professionals, I’m really humbled. I didn’t expect that. I’m lost for words.”
Day, having spent so long in the US, is treated like one of their own. The Boulder resident admits that it’s now his home and has no immediate plans to head back to Australia. Yet he remains fiercely patriotic.
“One hundred per cent. I’ll always be Australian. I get away with swearing more when I have that Australian accent,” he laughs.
More tears would flow with the race’s end on Sunday. However, Day, is content with his decision, pleased that he has something to go on to. Soon, he’ll hit the road for some face time with the athletes he coaches.
“It will be hard work still, but maybe not so physically painful.
“When you’re fit and you feel strong it’s one of the best feelings in the world to be involved in a race and be competitive. It’s not so much racing for myself anymore but it’s helping the team out and seeing that success.
“It’s a feeling that’s really hard to explain and really hard to replicate. It’s just such a joyous moment that you share with a bunch of really good buddies. I’ll definitely miss that about it.”
About the author
Jane Aubrey is the former editor of Cyclingnews Australia and is currently the Chief Communications Officer at Drapac Professional Cycling. You can follow Jane at Twitter here.