In January of this year Aussie racer Ben Dyball was ready to call it quits. After many years of ups and downs, of near-breakthroughs and disappointments, the enigmatic New South Welshman was resigned to the fact that his time in the sport was up. But then things took a turn.
Aaron S. Lee caught up with Dyball to talk about the now-29-year-old’s impressive start to 2018 and what might lie ahead.
It has been a palmarés-building start to 2018 for Ben Dyball with three general classification podiums to his name already. That’s a remarkable feat for the former mountain biker given that his season nearly never happened at all.
After struggling to find success in late 2017 as a stagiaire for French-registered Pro Continental team Delko-Marseille Provence KTM, Dyball joined Australian Continental team St. George for the start of 2018.
“I was on the edge of stopping racing,” Dyball told CyclingTips. “The team said they were doing the Tour of Indonesia (UCI 2.1) at the end of January, and I basically came to the conclusion if I didn’t feel good sensations there I would perhaps call it quits.
“I felt surprisingly good for what little training I had done,” he continued, referring to his sixth-place result on the last stage to move him into eighth on final GC. “I hadn’t felt good in such a long time — probably May of last year while I was racing with a French amateur team, AC Bisontine.
“I went there in March and was already going quite well and just sort of went gradually downhill from there. After May, I thought there was something not right and [it] turned out there was.”
Dyball was later diagnosed with chronic fatigue and would require six weeks off the bike to recover and “feel normal” again.
Ups and downs
The former Dynamo Cover Pro Cycling Team acquisition, who was left scrambling for a squad when the team collapsed prior to the 2016 season, had hoped 2017 would finally be his breakout year after a bronze medal finish in the Australian individual time trial championships and 12th in the road race. He backed up with a second in the ITT and 11th on the road at the Oceania Championships two months later.
He’d started 2017 in fine form, but then the wheels came off.
“I started 2017 off quite well with Nationals and everything,” Dyball explained. “It was a long year with a lot of travelling and I underestimated how much time I actually needed to recover. By the time I figured out I needed time off it was already too late.
“I just learned from that, that everybody needs time to recover,” he continued. “You are better off being fresh because once you go over that line there’s no coming back.”
Although Dyball found himself suffering both physically and mentally from exhaustion, that did not detour the 2013 Tour of Japan stage winner from accepting an apprentice role at Delko.
“I couldn’t let that opportunity go, so I had to try my best,” said Dyball, who found himself racing heavily in Europe and Asia with Delko. “It was a good experience to race with some of the top French teams. It was really hard because I wasn’t in the best of health, but it was still good to experience those races.”
Given his form at the time, Dyball retrospectively admits the writing was on the wall concerning his future with the French pro team.
“I just needed more time to recover and by the time I thought I’d be all right, I quickly realised that I wasn’t OK,” he explained. “Delko said from the start that if I didn’t get results I wouldn’t get a contract, so it was either not race and not get a contract or keep racing and maybe get a contract.
“It was a lot more stressful knowing you have to perform,” continued Dyball, whose highest result with Delko came at the Tour of Fuzhou (UCI 2.1) in November with an 11th-place stage finish and 21st on general classification. “It was not good for morale, especially when I was already down.”
Having started the 2017 season with St. George — prior to his stint with Delko — Dyball cautiously returned to familiar surroundings in 2018 to start the new season — a move that has since successfully paid off in the short term for both he and St. George.
“When I got the Delko stagiaire, I was hoping I would get a ride for this year,” he admitted. “I was disappointed when they didn’t offer me a contact, but I feel like I’ve found myself again and I’ve sort of regained my enjoyment and love of the sport.”
After a solid performance in Indonesia, Dyball found himself on the podium with a stellar second-place finish atop the gruelling Cameron Highlands mountain stage at Le Tour de Langkawi. Dyball would hang on within earshot of the top step to finish third overall and fourth in the mountains classification.
— Shimano Australia Cycling (@ShimanoOZ) March 26, 2018
A fortnight later he went two steps better by winning the overall at the six-stage Tour of Thailand (2.1), first donning the leader’s jersey after a stage 3 solo victory. Two months later, Dyball wrapped up the first half of his season with second overall at Tour de Kumano (2.2) in Japan.
Not only has Dyball found what he considers his “best form” to date, the former Canberra Tour and Tour of Tasmania winner’s about-face in form has infectiously fed his teammates with both experience and motivation.
“Ben is obviously a massive talent who has done a serious amount of racing, so it’s definitely motivating to ride with someone of his capabilities,” said St. George teammate and fellow Australian Jay Dutton. “Personally, I’ve found him to be really insightful with training advice, but I think the whole team has been pretty impressed to see just how disciplined he is with his whole approach to racing — clearly it pays off.”
Dyball says he is healthier and happier than he has been in a long time.
“I’m happy where I am, just enjoying racing at my best again. After last year I was not going so well and worried I would never get back to my best form,” he said. “I’m really happy I’ve been able to get that back.
“I noticed the happier you are the better you go. [It] just makes everything easier,” Dyball continued. “It makes such a big difference. I’ve been on teams where riders didn’t seem to want to be at the race, whereas on this team everyone wants to race — and race hard — and give it everything for each other, not just for themselves.
“Everyone is happy no matter who wins on the team.”
— World Cycling Stats (@wcstats) April 3, 2018
The future is now
Dyball and company are not the only ones to take notice of his resurgence. Andrew Christie-Johnston, Dyball’s sports director for four years with Australian Continental team Genesys Wealth Advisors-turned-Avanti Racing (now Bennelong SwissWellness), has kept a close eye on Dyball since his 2015 departure due to budget restraints.
“I am aware of Ben’s great start to the season in 2018 and no I’m not surprised one bit by it,” Christie-Johnston told Cycling Tips. “I think Ben is a classy climber and he has always shown this over many years.
“I don’t think Ben has really changed a lot to be honest. The only thing that will have changed is that every year he gains more experience and that accounts [for] a lot when you are at the business end of bike races.”
Dyball is one of many riders to have honed his craft under the ‘ACJ’ learning tree. Others include WorldTour riders Richie Porte, Nathan Haas, Chris Hamilton, Ben O’Connor, Will Clarke, Patrick Bevin, Jack Haig, Steele von Hoff, Nathan Earle, Campbell Flakemore and Brenton Jones. Dyball would still love to ascend to the WorldTour, but it’s a goal he is realistic toward given his age.
“I don’t think too much about the future,” claimed Dyball. “I picked up the bike at 13 and did a little on the track before focusing on mountain bikes. I missed out on the under-19 worlds selection and that’s when I swapped to the road. So I didn’t start riding seriously until 21.
“I would like to have a full year at Pro Conti or above, but I know it’s a bit hard at my age.”
With most WorldTour teams preferring to invest in youth, and opting to only sign 30-year-old riders from other WorldTour or Pro Conti teams, the odds of advancement are stacked against Dyball. But it’s not totally out of the question, according to Christie-Johnston.
“I do think Ben can still make it to the highest level, but via a Pro Conti team. This is the pathway he will likely need to take,” explained Christie-Johnston. “His results speak for themselves and his numbers back up his great talent. I personally would love to see him make it.”
Dutton believes Dyball’s talent exceeds the Continental level he’s racing at and he could easily find success on a professional roster.
“As much as we would all like him to stay, realistically we know Ben genuinely has the ability to be a consistent performer in some of the biggest races in the world,” said Dutton. “So it’s really just a matter of getting that opportunity to show the professional teams just how talented he really is.
“I feel like it’s also been kind of refreshing for all of us that we have a clear objective in particular races now, which has only been made possible by having an established GC leader like Ben.
“We’ve proven this year that we can really target certain objectives as a team, and I think the strength and confidence we’ve displayed has genuinely assisted Ben in being able to deliver so many decent performances.”
As for Dyball, he feels the future is now and he says he is just happy to be enjoying the moment.
“I was just aiming to get some results this year, so to win a race and get podiums on the other two were better than my expectations,” he said. “I’m really happy with my team, happy with life and I’ve actually found better form than I’ve ever had before, so I’m very glad I didn’t stop.
“It proves you should never give up on yourself.”