Berden relaxes and lets his guard down. © Andrew Yee
In the spirit of holiday giving, we wanted to offer our readers a sneak peek at what’s between the pages of our latest issue of Cyclocross Magazine, Issue 19. This piece looks at Belgian racer Ben Berden, one of the few who has spent his last two seasons racing almost entirely in the US, focusing on big races like the USGP series, most recently, the USGP in Bend, Oregon. Chris Bagg, one of our in-depth profile writers (see Issue 8 for his feature on Katie Compton, or more recently, Issue 18 for his Ryan Trebon piece), spent some time with Berden and came back with quite a few stories – some good, some bad, all very real. Bagg’s feature delves into Berden’s stories and struggles over his long and occasionally controversial career as a bike racer, and looks at how he got to where he is today.
Flying into Denver International Airport presents the traveler with a series of contrasts. To the east stretch miles of square farmland, weirdly uniform in their patchwork of greens and browns. To the west stands the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, also apparently uniform in its jagged skyline, but concealing a geography unconquered by men. At the intersection of these X and Y axes lies Boulder, Colorado, playground of endurance athletes, small patch of liberal ideology in the state’s more conservative garden, and seasonal home of Ben Berden, Belgian and professional cyclocrosser by trade.
Berden, 37, appeared on the American cyclocross circuit in 2011, joining a wash of European racers who came to the U.S. to practice traveling for the Louisville World Championships in 2013. Most of them, such as Lars Van Der Haar and Rob Peeters, stayed for CrossVegas or the first two rounds of the USGP in Sun Prairie before beating a retreat to the Czech Republic for the opening races of the World Cup. A few others (Gabby Day, Helen Wyman, Ian Field) stayed stateside for longer stretches, scoring points at the many UCI races available here early in the season. Berden remained for the whole year, crisscrossing the country in search of prize money instead of UCI points (“I had to win to have any money on my team last year, so I raced a lot”), and adding a new color to the already quirky U.S. cyclocross cast of characters. Berden was instantly recognizable on course last year, sporting a jagged teal-and-black, heavy-metal themed skinskuit emblazoned with a forebodingly Euro “Ops-Ale/Stoemper” announcement across its chest. If that weren’t enough, Berden’s tattoos cover his body; the visible ones decorate his arms and legs like loud arm and leg warmers. But next to the wisecracking Jeremy Powers, the gigantic Ryan Trebon, and the outspoken Tim Johnson, Berden fit right in.
Unveiling the Raleigh – Clement colors during a fourth place ride at the 2012 Raleigh Midsummer Night Cyclocross Race in Park City. © Andrew Yee
“I’ve always loved American culture,” he tells me. “I like the classic cars, I like motorcycles. I like movies like Pulp Fiction. In Europe you don’t see tattoos on cyclists, but here, it’s like, ‘no problem.’” Berden used to drive a Chevy El Camino in Belgium, which must have turned heads given that continent’s mania for pint-size vehicles, and has owned “five or six” motorcycles in sequence, before he had children and ran out of time to ride them. Before races, Berden warms up to Metallica’s “Master of Puppets.” “I call it ‘angry music for old men,’” he jokes.
And, at 37, Berden is old for a professional cyclist. He’s been racing at the highest level in the world for almost 20 years, starting his first elite race when he was 19, at the Belgian National Championships in January of 1995. “I grew up riding BMX bikes,” he says, “and I raced them a little when I was a teenager. Then I rode the mountain bike, but you had to be 18 to race mountain bikes, so I started racing ’cross when I was fifteen. You can make some good money riding bikes over there, so I turned professional when I was 19.” Despite riding in their ranks, Berden wasn’t starstruck by the elites. “I respected Paul Herijgers, who won worlds in Koksijde, because I didn’t follow the earlier generations of cyclists. I liked riding my bike, but I wasn’t obsessed with cycling.”
Like what you read so far? To see the rest of the article in Issue 19 of our print mag, make sure you’re subscribed to Cyclocross Magazine (subscribe digitally to receive Issue 19, or order it in the archive section of our subscription page).
Check our Issue 19 page for the full Table of Contents to see what else is in store, and stay tuned for more sneak peeks!