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Ben Thomson is not, in any conventional sense, a normal guy. He operates at a different speed and a different intensity to most other people, with laser focus that shifts from one project to the next. He has fingers in many pies. Many of those pies are hot and messy.
Case in point: in the last month, he has jumped 30 feet across a railroad, continued his planning for a tilt at the world paced bicycle land speed record, and announced that he’s giving away his bike shop for free.
In early 2018, Ben Thomson made an audacious announcement. He was, he said, going for a land speed record on a bike, with the attempt to coincide with the 2019 edition of Speed Week held on Lake Gairdner, a blindingly white salt lake deep in the scorched heart of South Australia.
The mark then was 268 km/h, set by a Dutchman called Fred Rompelberg in 1995. Ben had the right combination of mild insanity and brutish horsepower to believe he could do better. “I don’t want to be lying on my deathbed thinking I wish I’d had a crack at the land speed record,” he told me. He was aiming for 300km/h but his stretch goal, he said, was 333km/h – “because it’s half of 666”, and because he wanted to put it out of reach. Now it was just a matter of building a bike and finding a car to tow him up to a speed that he could push that massive gear.
Early signs were promising – he’d found a driver that had agreed to drive the tow car, and Ben and a fabricator in Melbourne’s east worked to develop the frame of a bicycle that could be piloted faster than a Cessna.
Ben ran me through the calculations of gear inches and power output and cadence, a Beautiful Mind sequence of numbers that I lost grasp of, other than the single abiding impression that all three of those numbers were very high. The other impression was this: if he drifted out of the eye-of-the-storm slipstream of the tow-car, he would get walloped by 300km/h+ of sudden wind, go sliding across a salt flat and make a rather permanent mess.
I’ve known Ben for about 10 years. We used to work at the same chain of bike shops, sharing shifts from time to time in a franchised branch halfway to Frankston. It wasn’t a good period of my life, and I suspect it was tough for Ben too, though you wouldn’t have guessed it. I’d just finished a degree that was getting me precisely zero jobs, and Ben was going through a rough divorce and custody battle for his son. And the shop, in my memory of it, was always cold, always windy, and seemed to be crumbling around us. I don’t think I did a great job of concealing how unremittingly bleak I found it all. Ben, on the other hand, was a daily beam of sweary sunshine.
I finally left the bike shop life, but every so often, we’d bump into one another at parties, write ourselves off, and talk shit about bikes. No matter how long it’d been, I could always pick things back up where I left off with Ben.
A few years ago, he opened a small bike shop at the base of the Dandenongs and hired another friend of mine to work alongside him. I made a few trips out to see them over the years. Because he was a mechanic I could trust – one of the best I know – I’d get him to build up special bikes, or re-lace wheels. Sometimes, I’d stop by just to stop by, because you get a peripheral glow from hanging out with someone that lives with that kind of fierce verve. When I heard about the land speed record attempt, I thought: Perfect, that is so Ben.
His shop, Ben the Bike Tech, is in a small strip of shops on Burwood Highway, not far from the base of the Thousand Steps. The mechanic normally hides down the back of any bike shop, but Ben doesn’t really carry any stock, and he’s the star of this particular show, so the workshop’s up front.
It is a very Ben space – guitars hanging on the walls, music blasting out of the speakers, rusty corrugated iron decor, 1950s fridge full of VB, a wall of expensive tools and a poster of Frank Zappa taking a dump. I recorded our chat on my phone because I thought it might lay some groundwork for a feature I wanted to write about Ben’s record attempt. His mind seemed to float somewhere ahead of the conversation like a kite in the breeze. We’d get a private plane to Lake Gairdner to avoid the 10-hour drive into the desert from Adelaide; his manager, another bike shop alum, wanted to get Red Bull on board; he’d train on RAAF runways.
I got home and listened back to the recording and I could barely make it out above the background roar of death metal, and the only notes I took in my notebook were “find Fred Rompelberg crash video – YouTube”.
In September 2018, on Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats, Denise Mueller-Korenek smashed Rompelberg’s mark by 27 km/h, setting a new world record of 296km/h. Meanwhile, Ben had slipped a disc, then he’d had a couple of heavy crashes on his BMX, and then the car had fallen through. Although I hadn’t checked in on him for a while, I figured the attempt was probably off for now.
Sure enough, during Speed Week, Ben was in Adelaide, not en route to Lake Gairdner but watching Slayer and Behemoth at the Adelaide Entertainment Centre. “Fuck bikes right now,” he wrote.
Ben Thomson lives at a different pace. On the one hand, he’s the doting dad of a cat called Raymond and three young kids, in a loving relationship with his “very forgiving” wife, Rosi. On the other hand, he has an infectious urge to keep moving. His life, it seems, floats forever in suspension between these two extremes, and the fact that he’s able to reconcile them at all is testament to his force of will.
I don’t talk to Ben as often as I’d like, and get updates mostly through social media. Sometimes, he’s guiding back-country mountain biking tours through Nepal’s Upper Mustang, as he’s doing next May, on trails that have never before seen a bike. At other points he’s recording a grass-roots MTB and BMX podcast, or hosting YouTube shows. Ten weeks ago, he was riding gravity enduro in Bali. Last month he was in Whistler shredding trails and jumping the legendary Pemberton Railway Gap for Patrol, a brand he’s representing in Australia. “I want to show my kids that cool shit is possible,” he told me.
On his return from Canada, he posted that he was “super busy … and [didn’t] have time to run a bike shop” along with all the other ventures. “So long story short, free bike shop to anyone that’s interested! Pay the rent, use all equipment. Easy as that.” He also told me that the Land Speed Record is still on – “my gear’s all sorted … it’s just a case of sorting out the vehicle and testing.”
To the right-hand side of the door of the bike shop he’s giving away, there’s a small chalkboard that Ben writes little mottos on. The last few times I’ve been to visit, it’s said “your ego is not your amigo”, “check yo bullshit @ the door” and “bomb it til ya vomit”.
It’s strange to think that he’s giving away the shop that carries his name, that someone else may inscribe that chalkboard with their own mantras. But there’s something so uncompromisingly generous and spontaneous about it that, goddammit, it’s on brand for Ben. “I’ve had a few messages, but people are suspicious when you’re giving something away for free. But the only catch I have is a massive pay-it-forward thing. There has to be a young kid who loves bikes that just wants a start,” he told me.
Here’s the thing: you can’t keep up with Ben Thomson and what he’s going to do next, whether that’s in a conversation or travelling on a bike in the slipstream of a supercar at a third the speed of sound. He sidesteps fear and embraces lust for life. He is unfiltered, and unapologetically himself. The guy is an open book of pages written in a language most people can’t read.