An interview with Ben Kersten, October 20, 2005
With the Kilo now cut from the 2008 Olympic track cycling programme, Sydney rider Ben Kersten is exploring the avenues of endurance track riding. After being an innocent party caught in the crossfire of the Mark French affair before last year's Olympics, Kersten set himself the task of becoming the country's best 1km TT specialist, taking great form into this year's world championships in Los Angeles. Things didn't go according to plan in LA, and with the IOC and UCI deciding his favourite event couldn't be accommodated at the 2008 games in Beijing, the 24-year-old from Kiama, on the NSW south coast had to rearrange his racing and training. Cyclingnews' Les Clarke caught up with Kersten as he prepares for next month's Sydney Thousand track carnival.
It wasn't going to be easy changing from sprint events to an endurance programme, but under the guidance of NSW Institute of Sport head coach Gary Sutton, Kersten is more determined than ever to put the last couple of years behind him and become one of Australia's best endurance riders. Having moved from the AIS track cycling headquarters in Adelaide to Sydney after the 2003 world's, Kersten is now in better shape physically and mentally, saying "I wasn't really happing in Adelaide. I wasn't really getting along with people, and my results reflected this. It was a good move coming up here to Sydney. I'm a lot more relaxed and it's working well."
Obviously disappointed with the decision to scrap the Kilo, Kersten has set about reinventing himself into an endurance rider, with a programme more oriented towards riding longer distances. "I've now got more of an endurance programme, and I race a lot more, which is different to down in Adelaide. I use the racing as training and in Adelaide you don't really get to do that," said Kersten. "Pretty much everything is different here in Sydney, and it's working well. There are different doctors and sports scientists, and I'm doing a mix of longer and shorter stuff for training."
This year also saw Kersten ride more on the road, a big change from in previous years within the AIS programme. "I feel better all round. I'm more versatile - I can now go and ride a scratch and do it well, but my sprinting is still really good," he said. "I can do a 10.5 sprint then go and do a scratch race; I'm feeling really fit and my recovery is much better." Kersten's good form is due to his varied programme and the flexibility in terms of his relationship with coach Gary Sutton. "If I need to do things here in Sydney - go to an appointment, or a wedding, or something like that - I can adjust my schedule accordingly so I don't have to miss out on doing normal things. Down in Adelaide, you couldn't do that. That keeps me relaxed and when I do train, I train really hard. He [Sutton] knows that and that's why he lets me do the things I need to do."
Kersten believes that the programme in Adelaide wraps riders in cotton wool, and they could possibly allow for a little more flexibility, saying, "maybe riders could train in their home towns for a month or two to get away and mix it up a little." This would require more coaches - but riders could touch base with life outside the AIS and relax a little mentally. At the moment, Kersten doesn't receive the funding AIS riders receive, but believes this isn't a bad thing. Coach Gary Sutton agrees, saying, "He's paid the price financially, but people have helped him out there, and Ben has taken more responsiblity for things himself." And it shows - Kersten's more sure of himself and confident that he has the ability to get things done.
At the same time last year, Kersten was coming back from the disappointment of the Olympic debacle with great form heading into the track season - how does he see himself at the same point this year? "The difference this year is that I've had good form earlier. I've been training earlier in the year, consistently, and even after a couple of weeks break I can still perform really well. Last night, for example, we were training behind the motorbike; last year I wouldn't be able to race the distance of a scratch race, but last night I was giving the motorbike the hurry up by the time we'd run the distance - that's a good sign. I've got the form, but I don't feel burnt out at all. We're four months up on last year."
He's quick to point out, however, that this arrangement works best with only one rider, saying, "If I need to adjust things with Gary, we can do it - but if there was another rider involved it couldn't work. I do miss riding with other fast riders, because it pushes you but with this type of programme you get more choice." So coming into the track season, Kersten feels like he's just starting, when in fact he's actually clocked more miles than ever before, and despite his last effort being in March (for world's) he believes that when the training steps up to focus on the racing season, everything should go smoothly.
Next year's Commonwealth Games is Kersten's big target this season, and he's hoping to ride the Kilo, Keirin and Scratch races, and believes his new programme will allow him to change races much easier. "I'll be able to put a lot of effort into one race, then change over and still be right for the other races because of the variation in my training. I'm not just doing heavy sprints anymore, but more complete training." He'll need to put a lot of that effort into beating the challenge of Great Britain riders Chris Hoy and Jason Queally, and he knows it. "[Chris] Hoy is such a champion - he always seems to be in form and he's so consistent. [Jason] Queally is a great rider too, but he's not as consistent as Hoy. They're both great riders and the competition will be strong."
But first there's the Sydney Thousand track carnival in Sydney on November 27, where Kersten will be looking to test his legs in competition. It will be a chance to see how his new training regimen has affected his on-track performance at a high level, racing against riders such as Ryan Bayley, Rene Wolff and Matthias John. Event organiser John Scott guarantees the event will be "huge" and will be a good hitout for Kersten at the start of what will be a busy track season.
Looking further ahead to the 2008 Olympics, Kersten has his eyes set on riding the team pursuit, and believes the 4km distance shouldn't pose a problem if he maintains this type of programme focussed on developing his all-round track ability. "We'll make the final decision after the Commonwealth Games, but the team pursuit looks likely. If I'm good enough, I should be racing it, and I'm confident of making the switch successfully." This is something Sutton believes is possible, and isn't phased by those that may say Kersten isn't the right man for the job, saying, "if he's good enough, he deserves to be there. I believe he has enough endurance to do it, and you have to stand up and be counted - you can't take any notice of what people say." And when you do things a little bit differently, you have to learn to do that.