When the UniSA-Australia national team was revealed for next week’s Tour Down Under, it was something of a surprise to see that Ben Dyball’s name wasn’t on the list. The 27-year-old climber has had a terrific start to the year, finishing third in the Nationals time trial before putting in a strong ride in the road race a few days later.
It’s not the first time Dyball’s been overlooked in his cycling career; a career that has been defined by a handful of impressive results but also by a fair amount of disappointment. Freelance journalist Jamie Finch-Penninger caught up with Ben Dyball to learn more about his up-and-down career and what lies ahead in 2017.
“Challenging” might be one word to describe the career of Ben Dyball. Throw in “promising”, “disappointing”, “frustrating” and “unjust” as well and you’re probably getting closer to the mark.
Just after spraying the champagne alongside Rohan Dennis and Luke Durbridge at the Australian Nationals time trial last week, Dyball was asked by the press what he needed to do to secure a professional contract. The New South Welshman is skinny at the best of times but slimmed down for the Nationals he had an almost gaunt appearance that highlighted the despairing look he gave as he answered.
“I really don’t know,” he said. “I think a lot of it is luck but at this stage I just don’t know.”
So why hasn’t Dyball’s path ever taken him to a professional squad? He is generally regarded as the best domestic climber in Australia and has been for a few years. He’s also a consistently strong time triallist, highlighted by his impressive third place in last week’s Nationals TT.
Part of the problem may stem from Dyball’s entry into the sport.
Coming from mountain biking into road cycling in 2009, 19-year-old Dyball quickly began amassing results.
“Back then I was even smaller than I am now, really lean and light,” he said. “I was always pretty good at climbing but if a climb was at the end of a hard race I’d be ruined before I got to it. If it was just the climb I’d normally go pretty well so I was able to see what I could do in those sort of races.
“I didn’t really have much support at that stage — just a few people around me, my friends and family, knew that I could climb pretty well and never gave up on me. But I was never offered any support from NSWIS (New South Wales Institute of Sport) or anything like that. The first team to offer any support was Virgin Blue.”
Learning to train
Training was ad hoc for the youngster from the western Sydney suburb of Blacktown — he hadn’t had the grounding in managing training load and nutrition that many get within the setup of the state institutes. It was essentially a process of trial-and-error.
“Yeah it definitely would have helped [being with NSWIS] because a lot of what I was doing at that stage was me guessing what I needed to do,” Dyball said. “And I always had to pay my own way and work a job.”
Training continues to be a lone process for Dyball to this day — he trains himself and has stopped working to give himself the best chance of finally securing a professional contract.
“I haven’t worked for the last two months. This is the first time I haven’t, with the idea being to really give it a proper go,” Dyball said. “Just focusing on my training, it’s probably been the most I’ve ever trained and as you can see, I’ve improved quite a bit from six months ago.
“I went back and looked at all my training data and worked out what’s the best for me. It seems to be working pretty well, but even now I’m not 100% confident that I know what I’m doing.”
What some riders struggle with is not having anyone monitoring them and a few can slack off when left to their own devices. If anything, Dyball went in the other direction, at times overtraining to the detriment of his performance.
“That used to be a problem,” he admits. “Times I shouldn’t be training I’d still train hard and hurt myself and that was probably why I was a bit inconsistent when I was younger.”
Issues of inconsistency
Two things get brought up when you talk to people in Australian cycling about why Dyball hasn’t secured a professional contract: inconsistency and poor bike-handling skills.
“I definitely was a bit inconsistent when I started riding on the road, but that had a lot to do with how light I was,” he said. “When I look back I probably had an eating disorder then — I was about 4-5 kilograms lighter than what I am now, on the knife’s edge all the time and often getting sick.
“No one could tell me what I needed to do to fix that; I had to figure it out for myself.”
Looking at Dyball now, it’s hard to imagine him weighing much less.
“I was always conscious of what I was eating and worried about my weight even though I didn’t have to … as I was a lot lighter than everyone else,” he said “I was ok day-to-day, but riding a bike for hundreds of kilometres was tough. I’ve changed my diet now and I don’t get sick anymore. Looking back, I wasn’t very healthy.
“I weigh about 59 kilograms now at 182 centimetres so I was 4-5 kilograms lighter than that.”
As for criticisms of his bike handling, Dyball believes these are unwarranted.
“The bike handling thing … you do one bad thing and you get a reputation for it and then those people tell others,” he said. “My bike handling has always been good — I was a mountain bike rider and I’ve never had any real problems with that.”
A rising star
In the U23 ranks and in the Australian National Road Series (NRS), Dyball’s star began to rise in 2010. He was sixth in the U23 road race at the Nationals and had a number of strong results in the NRS.
“Early on in that year after Nationals I was second in the Tour of Mersey Valley,” he said. “I was pretty close to beating [Luke] Durbridge there, it was just the time trial that let me down.
“The next race, the Tour of Canberra, I won the first stage and the overall and people began to realise how good I was. I went to race in Italy and got a bit lost there, but I came back to win the U23 road race [in 2011].”
Going missing in Europe is a somewhat consistent theme throughout Dyball’s career, but feelings of isolation and inadequacy are far from uncommon for young Australians racing in Europe.
“In Italy, I got told everything I was doing was wrong and it was a bit hard mentally to cope with that, particularly as I couldn’t understand everything,” Dyball said. “A lot of the races I didn’t get any respect; a lot of the Italians thought I was a ‘terrible Australian’. It was really hard.
“After I won the Nationals race I was supposed to be going back to Italy with a team, but I ended up getting a spot in the Australian national team instead. I started off getting better and better but then crashes and illness ruined the rest of the year.
“I was promised the Tour de l’Avenir [ed. the premier U23 event for climbers] at the start of the year but by that stage I’d had two crashes and I wasn’t going very well so that was the end of the season there. That was my last year as an Under 23 so it was a bit bad timing for me that I didn’t get another chance.”
Four years with Australia’s best domestic team
In 2012 the now-senior Dyball got a spot on the Genesys Wealth Advisors team, now known as IsoWhey Sports-SwissWellness, a squad that has helped many riders make it to the pro ranks.
“I saw what Nathan Haas and Steele von Hoff had done the previous year so I thought that it was my best option.,” Dyball said. “Andrew [Christie-Johnston, sports director and co-owner] was supportive and he organised an Italian team for me to go to for part of the year. I wasn’t always going fantastic during that year, but Andrew always had faith and gave me opportunities.
“Unless you’re getting really big results at that age, people aren’t really looking at you. I lost a bit of motivation then — no one is talking about you and that makes it harder.”
After 2012 there were a few lean years; years with Genesys/Huon Genesys/Avanti where Dyball’s battles with health and injury gave further weight to concerns about his inconsistency. It got to the point in 2015 — his fourth and final with the Avanti setup — where he was on the verge of giving up the sport altogether.
“I’ve always thought cycling was a thing I’ve loved and it’s the only thing I’ve ever known,” Dyball said. “I’ve always watched the pro races and wanted to be there. I knew that I had the talent with some big results, I just needed to work on my consistency.
“I knew I hadn’t reached my full potential and seen what I could do. I had a few injury problems and I was almost ready to stop riding at the end of 2015. But I got through the injuries, after seeing my fifth or sixth physio, and had my diet sorted out so I thought I’d give it one last crack.”
The Dynamo debacle and beyond
Ahead of the 2016 season, Dyball secured a contract with a new Continental team that was beginning in Europe. Dynamo Pro Cycling would be based in France, registered in Ireland and with Welsh owners and sponsors. If you think that’s sounds like a recipe for disaster, you would be right.
Dynamo Pro Cycling collapsed before the 2016 season, leaving Dyball and fellow Australian hopeful Ben Hill without a ride just before the start of next season.
“Yeah, that was hard to cope with,” Dyball admits. “Luckily, straight after that a French agent got in touch and said he could get me a spot on an amateur team and they’d cover most costs, I’d just have to pay for food and stuff. That gave me the next lot of motivation to keep going after the Dynamo debacle.
“It was a really good experience, they were really supportive, a lot better than the Italian teams I’ve been with and it made it a lot more enjoyable to race my bike. That’s when I got that enjoyment of cycling back that I’d missed for a few years.
“I won this race, it’s one of the harder amateur races called the Tour de Chablis, near the border of Switzerland and the hilliest race I did. I came second in the last two stages and won the overall by a minute.”
Dyball seemed to have rediscovered his mojo in 2016 and when he returned to Australia for the NRS, he had a significant impact. He was prominent when attacking from a bit too far out in the National Capital Tour. And then he confirmed he was the country’s best domestic climber with a superb ride to win the queen stage and the overall at the Tour of Tasmania (see video below).
“I knew if I was on a good day there weren’t many that can stay with me on a climb like Poatina,” Dyball said of the Tour of Tasmania. “So I went into that day knowing what I had to do and that if I did that I would win the stage. I was extremely confident that day and knew what I had to do.”
That win wasn’t just evidence that Dyball had rediscovered his ‘mojo’ but that he’d finally been able to overcome a lot of issues that had tripped him up throughout his career. And Dyball has got the 2017 season off to a similarly impressive start, taking third in the Nationals time trial, after being fourth and fifth in previous editions.
“I knew, on a good day, I should be able to get onto the podium. But it was a really strong field there,” Dyball said. “I still can’t quite believe I was able to beat some of those guys; it’s a bit of a dream.”
A few days later, in the Nationals road race, Dyball bridged a 1’40 gap to the early breakaway, then, despite his solo effort, hung on with all the late attacks to finish with the front group in 13th.
“I’ve raced around there so many times and watched the break ride away from me a few of those times,” Dyball said. “I knew I was in good form and I didn’t want to waste that opportunity. I decided to gamble a bit and I was pretty close in the end. I would have hated to watch the break go away and win the day again and not be there.
“I was obviously going there to try and get on the podium. It was a hard day, so to still be there with the front group was quite an achievement. The guys that were there … they’re obviously the best in Australia so you have to be happy with that.”
The year ahead
Looking ahead to 2017, Dyball has a contract with St. George Continental team, who race predominantly in Asia. However, the first big goal is the Jayco Herald Sun Tour.
“They seem pretty happy to help me achieve whatever I can. They’ve said they hope it’s just a temporary thing for me [being with St. George] so I’m just going to do my best and see what happens,” Dyball said. “Brett Dutton, who runs it all, is really enthusiastic about cycling and is doing a lot to help me, so it’s been great so far.
“I’ll be aiming for the Herald Sun Tour — the course suits me and there will be Chris Froome and Esteban Chaves there so if I can do something there hopefully that will lead to something. I’m aiming for both the hilltop finish stages and I think I can go for the overall.
“I’ll aim for the Falls Creek stage and see what happens after that.”
He’s coming into some of the best form and results of his career but it was far from an easy path to get where he is today. For that, Ben Dyball thanks his family.
“A lot of it is help from my family around me, not giving up on me and always being supportive,” he said. “Even if you don’t believe in yourself, if you have people around you who believe in you that gives you that bit of faith.”
All that’s needed now is for a big team to show some faith in the 27-year-old from Blacktown.
About the author
Jamie Finch-Penninger is a freelance cycling journalist who covers men’s and women’s domestic and international bike racing. He also runs the BrakeDown Podcast which focuses on the Australian cycling scene.