In the second instalment of our off-season series focusing on young British multi-disciplinarians, we spoke to 22-year-old Ben Turner. Currently with TRINITY Racing, Turner recently announced a move to the INEOS Grenadiers, where he will join up with former TRINITY teammate and fellow cyclocrosser Tom Pidcock.
Turner is one of The British Continental’s riders of the season. He began the year with a strong finish to his cyclocross season, coming in 9th in the under-23 world cyclocross championships in January. Switching to the road in May, he wasted little time in putting together an excellent run of results, opening his account with a top 15 at the Circuit de Wallonie, 7th overall at the Tour d’Eure-et-Loir, and three top tens and a day in the maglia rosa at the Baby Giro. A horror crash at the Tour de l’Avenir caused multiple fractures to the left side of his face and a broken nose, but he recovered strongly enough to end the year with second place at the National Road Championships under-23 time trial.
It’s all for the road really, that’s the big goal
Ben spoke to us about his move to INEOS, his hopes for the future, and his views on why combining cross and road is such a successful formula.
Let’s start with the INEOS news – it came as a surprise to many, but you must have been sitting on the news for a while.
Yeah obviously it’s a big thing for me personally to move to the WorldTour and especially do it with the biggest team, it’s a privilege.
After the Giro I was in talks, so maybe since July really. There were a few offers but INEOS was obviously the main one and we went with them so it was quite a nice process really.
So you had more offers on the table, but INEOS was the most logical fit for you?
Yeah I think, being British, you can’t turn it down, it’s obviously the one that stands out the most.
And you must have had lots of good feedback?
Yeah everyone has been congratulating me, it’s been really good yeah.
Where are you at the moment?
Doncaster, in South Yorkshire.
What’s on the agenda for the rest of this year, have you got cross races lined up?
After [the] National Road [Championships] I had two weeks off. Obviously I had a big crash; but that’s not real rest, that’s just recovering, so it’s more of an enforced rest. So we took a real break for two weeks and then just started on the bike on Monday. So just endurance now and then build up. I start ‘cross on 4th December in Belgium.
So you’ve got a full ‘cross programme planned after that?
Yeah, twelve races into the worlds and roll from that into the classics.
So, you’re going to the USA, selection permitting?
Hopefully. It will be nice, I’ve never been so it will be good if I can.
You had a good ‘cross season last season, with a top 10 in the under-23s at the worlds.
Yeah, to be fair it wasn’t really what I wanted last year in the worlds because I had a big crash the week before and fractured a bone in my hand but, oh well, it was what it was.
So, you’re hoping to achieve higher than that this year, depending on how your season goes and your recovery?
I mean, it’s all for the road really, that’s the big goal, not ‘cross, but it feeds really well into it. I think nowadays you can see the top riders do it and I think there’s a lot of research that shows if you’ve done ‘cross your whole life that your body struggles then to miss it out, it misses that intensity and that work in the winter, so I suppose it’s just about finding the balance really. Hopefully we’ll build on it a bit and we’ll be at the sharp end of the races but we’ll see.
It’s a long time, winter, if you’re just plugging away doing the miles and the efforts
I’m really intrigued by the interplay between the two disciplines. Do you find riding ‘cross gives you an edge on the road?
It’s a long time, winter, if you’re just plugging away doing the miles and the efforts. If you do it correctly [it can work]; if you overdo it, it’s really bad. Obviously, you’re just too fatigued and you’re in the box and you can’t really do it properly. But I think how I’ve designed the season hopefully it will be beneficial. I think it will be.
Obviously, we just use the races as the intensity instead of doing it in training. You know, we just do the hours in the week and then the intensity is from the races. It’s a bit difficult for ‘cross because you’re putting in the hours in the week which is, I suppose, a hindrance, maybe, to the ‘cross, but in the long run it’s pretty good, yeah.
There are a lot of riders doing well by combining disciplines, developing a wider variation of skills within their skillset. Do you think that’s the way the sport is heading in general?
I think for the ‘cross it’s because of Wout [van Aert] and Tom [Pidcock], that’s really the reason, people want a part of that success. And after it’s been proven for a few years now that you can do it then everyone wants it. They’re less scared of doing ‘cross to perform on the road if that makes sense. In the past I know, like, Stybar, he transferred completely because he thought he couldn’t combine, whereas now maybe he wished he could do both.
I think if you just try and flog yourself all year it’s just going to get out of control but if you do it in a way with structure and planning it can work out really well
Is it because you can do more physically?
You have to do it in a smart way; I think if you just try and flog yourself all year it’s just going to get out of control but if you do it in a way with structure and planning it can work out really well, it’s been proven it can.
So you end up with multiple smaller peaks rather than building to one big peak?
With the ‘cross it works well because it’s in winter, but the guys that do mountain biking like Tom and Mathieu [van der Poel], sometimes it’s a struggle because you go from doing one type of effort on a different kind of discipline and it’s sometimes difficult to do both, I guess, but I think ‘cross is nice because it’s winter and you can do your intensity in the race.
That’s more fun, right?
In terms of your future, next season, you move from TRINITY to INEOS. It seemed to work out well for Tom, and is something that INEOS are looking to do, add that diversity to their roster. Have you spoken with them about how that’s going to work? Are they building a ‘cross team or just using those skills to diversify in classics?
I don’t know about building a ‘cross team! I’ll be doing it and Tom is obviously so I guess it’s around Tom really. They did it with the mountain biking, now they’re doing it with the ‘cross. For him it works and is beneficial and I’m close with Tom, we’re really good friends, and it works well that we can do it together.
It will be good for you to be teammates again.
Definitely. I know Tom appreciates me being with him in the ‘cross so it will be really good.
INEOS are throwing their weight behind young British talent and maybe doing something a little bit different to what we’ve been used to seeing from them in recent years. Have they talked to you about that at all, where do you see yourself fitting in there, in the set-up as it is now?
Yeah, they are obviously trying to invest in young talent. I think every team’s trying to do that, like pretty much every team wants to buy new young talent, it’s a change in the sport, that you can be younger at a higher level, now maybe with the training and all that.
It looks positive from an outside perspective the way they are going. Young Brits with strong one-day abilities, such as Ben Tulett, Tom, Ethan Hayter, and yourself.
Yeah, I think they changed how they raced last year as well, they were really good in the classics, obviously with Tom, and there were a number of riders in the team that were fantastic, so I think they are trying to improve in the classics, although they don’t really need to that much as they’ve already won quite a lot. I think it’ll be a good year for them next year.
I’m more of a classics kind of rider so I’ll just fit into a good role there and hopefully develop as a rider as well
What are your goals for 2022, what are your priorities on the road?
I’m more of a classics kind of rider so I’ll just fit into a good role there and hopefully develop as a rider as well; that’s really important, you know, it’s a long plan, not a short one, and when you’re first year in the WorldTour you have to learn a lot. I’m sure that will be the aim for the year, but hopefully we’ll have some good performances.
Taking a look back, how did you get to where you are now in cycling? What came first in terms of disciplines, and did you always have road in mind as your eventual aim?
When I was a junior, out of the two disciplines I was better at ‘cross. I was at Corendon-Circus [now Alpecin-Fenix] which was Mathieu van der Poel’s team. I was there for three years, and that was more aimed at ‘cross, and then we came over. Maybe because I was at Corendon, which was a higher-level team, when I came to TRINITY it was maybe seen as a step down, but it was a long term plan with Andrew McQuaid and TRINITY Management to come up then to the WorldTour.
It started to develop really well and I started to get better, I was on the podium at the world championships and World Cups and winning races at under-23 level so it kind of came up and up.
But yeah I think I’d always be better on the road because of my size, I’m a bit bigger so I thought I’d transition quite well. I had a good year at under-23 level this year, apart from the crash obviously, and it’s worked out quite well.
So you lived in Europe with Corendon and then relocated to come to TRINITY?
Yeah, most of the time I was in Belgium, about three years. I moved to Belgium with the family when I was 17 and then moved to a team house.
It’s a biased opinion but I think it’s the best development team there is
TRINITY seems like a really positive outfit in terms of what they’re trying to achieve.
It’s a biased opinion but I think it’s the best development team there is. There are obviously the higher-level ones like DSM, Jumbo-Visma, FDJ; all the ones which are WorldTour feeder teams, but TRINITY is probably the only one where through the management you have the option to go to wherever suits you best, like Ben Healy has gone to EF, for example. It’s really, really good.
What do you see as your own personal strengths, in terms of your riding ability?
I have quite good power over quite a long time so naturally I think time trialling is quite good for me, but it’s quite difficult because I’m so big to get aero and stay there so that’s probably the downfall for me there, I’ve struggled with that quite a lot. Then from ‘cross obviously the explosivity comes in quite useful. I suppose you’re naturally trying to find your role in cycling as a sport, like, as in where you will fit in well, but I guess you don’t know that until you’re at a higher level, but yeah I guess classics, time trialling, that kind of stuff.
Not climbing massive mountains then?
No! I think I climb quite well for my size but I’m not 50 kilos and flying up a mountain so…!
It does seem as though there are a growing number of riders who can do TT, sprints, punchy climbs and so on, which is making the one-day field seem really competitive. Do you see that as a growing trend?
Yeah I think so, well, you see this year with Wout and his size and he’s winning on Mont Ventoux in the Tour and you can’t do that if you can’t climb well. I mean he’s a super talent so it’s a bit different maybe, but it shows you can do everything and like you say there’s people coming through now who can do a bit of everything which is kind of exciting. I think the sport in general is just getting higher and higher and higher, there’s new things to know and new technology so it’s always getting better.
Improvements in training, fitness, and nutrition, probably add to it too?
Yeah it all combines quite well, all the nutrition and training, it all just boosts everything to that high level and racing at that high level it just keeps building and building and that’s how it’s getting better I guess. But it’s new, like, if you look at the best riders in the world, they’re all young aren’t they, really, like Bernal, Pogačar, Tom, Wout, Mathieu they’re all young riders, not 30+ and that’s pretty exciting for the younger guys I guess.
I think they’re training at a higher level at a younger age, they’re getting better quicker and I think now with modern science they can sustain it
Riders seem able to reach a higher level much more quickly – it will be interesting to see if they can maintain that. It seems some of the older guys are struggling to keep up.
I think they’re training at a higher level at a younger age, they’re getting better quicker and I think now with modern science they can sustain it. It’s also about motivation, but all the best riders are extremely motivated aren’t they. Obviously, the best riders in the world, all these super talents, it sometimes seems that they’re on another level to everyone else and that’s down to talent, but they all work extremely hard.
Is there a danger that you will burn out, continuing with both disciplines; will you naturally shift to just riding on the road?
Possibly just move out to road on its own but for the moment I think it’s really good to do the ‘cross, I think that’s really important. If you change too much, if I just went now ‘right I’m just doing road, 100%’ and now I take a month break and then we build up the traditional way it’s quite a big change to the body. Maybe it could pay off a lot and maybe it won’t, but you get really a big benefit from the intensity of the ‘cross. And it’s one hour maximum; I think that’s what helps guys these days, you know, when it’s really fast at the end of a classic, that they can go and be on the limit for an hour when it’s really on.
It’s quite hard to get that extreme high level of intensity in the winter, you can’t really replicate that and at the end of the day you’re all bike racers aren’t you, and you want to race. I know for me personally it’s quite hard to not race for a few months, it would be a long winter otherwise.
Elite’s different, you can’t make a mistake; if you make a mistake, you’re gone.
How do you find the difference when you’re racing in the elite cross to doing under-23 races? Is there more pressure?
There was more pressure when I was at under-23 because you’re just expected to be at the front and expected to win so it’s different when you’re with the elite. Before it was always just about seeing it as a performance and trying to get the best out of that rather than the result because obviously with the gridding you’re starting further back so you have to analyse it differently. But this year hopefully we’ll be at the pointy end, like I said. It will be a bit different but we’ll see. Elite’s different, you can’t make a mistake; if you make a mistake, you’re gone.
It’s the same on the road because if you’re one of the better under-23s on the road in an under-23 race you can get yourself out of a bit of trouble just using your sheer power; you know if it’s a crosswind and it splits you can just go across whereas you can’t make a mistake like that in a classic.
When you first went into cycling as a kid did you do much road racing, or did you come through cross, or even any track?
I did do track but I was terrible. Well, I wasn’t terrible but I didn’t enjoy it, just for me, it was just going round in circles and I didn’t enjoy that. I did BMX at a high level until I was 13, but I kept breaking bones. My Dad had a road background, so he put me in ‘cross and then we did road, and then ‘cross and road, but I was better at the ‘cross so I naturally steered more that way.
I think it’s the best sport to get into, well in my opinion, it’s the best one for younger kids because it’s safer as well so that’s really important, it’s a good atmosphere, and it’s only an hour
‘Cross is a better fit for younger riders than long road races, potentially?
Yeah, I think it’s the best sport to get into, well in my opinion, it’s the best one for younger kids because it’s safer as well so that’s really important, it’s a good atmosphere, and it’s only an hour. Sometimes it’s difficult when it’s three hours or something, when you’re young.
And it’s fun, it’s something that can draw kids in, ride around in the mud, who doesn’t want to do that.
Exactly and being off-road there’s a bit more to it, isn’t there, a bit more skill and I think as a kid to get the skills is the most important thing really.
Bike handling comes first and the tactical stuff that you learn when you’re doing road you can pick that up as you go along.
Yeah, power comes with time and just with the body and training over the years but you can’t teach someone how to go round a corner, it doesn’t just come naturally.
What are your early seasons goals on the road, do you have your schedule yet?
That’s a good question – I don’t know, is the short answer. Like I said I guess a little bit of everything because I’ll be new and just trying to find where I fit but don’t know exactly yet.
Do you get to request races that you’d like to do, or is it out of your hands?
I don’t think it’s completely out of your hands but the team knows what kind of rider you are and where you’ll fit, and I guess the coaches naturally know you’ll want to ride these races but whether or not you will be able to in the first year is different.
You’ll fit in and just go for it no matter what you’re doing.
Yeah, I mean it’s all bike racing isn’t it, it’s all good, can’t complain.
Ben begins his cyclocross season this Saturday in Boom.
Featured photo: Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com. 2021 UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships – Ostend, Belgium – Ben Turner of Great Britain during training.