Ben Healy was almost out of options at the end of 2018 after being let go by the British Cycling mountain bike academy but the Irishman persevered and fought his way onto Team Wiggins and Trinity Racing.
Since then, he has gone from strength to strength and, after two impressive years in U23 ranks, has been offered a contract in the WorldTour with EF Education-Nippo.
The 21-year-old all-rounder sat down with Cyclingnews to talk about coming through the ranks, taking set-backs in his stride and a bright future at Jonathan Vaughters’ American team.
Cyclingnews: First and foremost, how did you get into cycling?
Ben Healy: It was through my dad. He just took me down to the local outdoor track one day in Halesowen. He never really forced it on me but he took me along to some of the Sunday sessions and it just went from there. I enjoyed it and always wanted to keep going back. I was probably five years old and carried on with that by trying to qualify for national omniums but I was never very good at it. I quickly moved on from the track and actually got into mountain biking through my dad again. I started racing XC and then always used road alongside that. It wasn’t until I was a junior that I started to really focus on the road and leave mountain biking behind.
CN: As a junior on the road you had some great results in France and Italy. How did you make that transition to racing abroad?
BH: It was by pure chance really. When I was 16, I was dropped by the mountain bike academy at British Cycling and wasn’t sure where I was going to go next. On the mountain bike side, there wasn’t much support to get you out abroad and I needed to make that change to the road. So, either I was going to get on the academy or I had to move across to the road. I did that, and by chance, I had a friend going to the Zappi junior team. I sent my CV over, not really knowing the race calendar that they had but I got a place and from there it took me to my first international races. Good things come out of disappointment sometimes.
CN: You were born in the UK but you’ve been Irish champion in the road race and time trial in the last couple of years. Where does the Irish heritage arise from?
BH: It’s all from my dad’s side. He wasn’t born there but his grandparents and brothers and sisters were from Cork, and they moved over from Ireland in the 1970s for work-related reasons. I felt it was a nice move for me and, if I’m completely honest, at first it was for the opportunities, but the family connection was there, and I do really feel like a part of Ireland now. That side of the family is proud of what I’ve done, too - they all are obviously. I go back now and then, but not that often with racing.
CN: How did you land a place on the Wiggins team in 2019?
BH: My first year as a junior was pretty good, I guess, and then my second year wasn’t great. I was struggling for teams, and mid-way through the year, I got a half-decent result at the Internationale Juniorendriedaagse with a stage win and top-10 overall. As soon as I did that, I updated the CV, got it out there, and made contact with as many development teams as I could. Obviously, Wiggins was one of them but I was being declined by everyone else. I got to Worlds, the last race of the season, and I was thinking ‘what am I doing here?’ I still didn’t have any offers but Jamie Barlow, who is ex-Trinity now, was scouting for Wiggins there. We got chatting but he couldn’t guarantee me a place. It was only a couple of weeks after Worlds when he said the team could give me the opportunity. I was pretty lucky to get onto there.
CN: Did you have a plan of what you were going to do if you hadn’t found a place in 2019?
BH: I really don’t know to be honest. I definitely would have kept on riding, so I wouldn’t have just packed it in because even if had got that chance I would have still had some opportunities. I just wouldn’t have been on a top development team. At the same team I was doing my exams, there wasn’t much racing and I still had to fight my way through in a way. It wasn’t just like I arrived on a big team and all of a sudden I was at these big races. Nothing was made easy for me. So even if I didn’t get a place on Wiggins I still think that I would have found a way.
CN: Was there a big breakout moment for you? Was it when you won the stage in the Tour de l’Avenir or some of the results that you had previously?
BH: The first time that I realised that I had the legs to compete with the top Under 23 riders was at Gent-Wevelgem at the start of the year in 2019. I think I was 11th but I had made the split. It wasn’t just from pure luck. I had ridden across to the front and then I was racing against these guys. In the final, I was just too aggressive and used my legs too early, but it was a good learning experience for me. I realised I was one of the strongest and that I can compete. That was one of my first U23 races and it did a lot for my confidence because I was able to tell myself that I could get only get better over the next couple of years. The stage at l'Avenir backed all of that up.
CN: Last year was tough with the lack of racing due to COVID but you still picked up a number of results, winning a stage at Ronde de l’Isard and taking the national titles in road and the time trial.
BH: I made the most of a bad situation, but it was still disappointing as I would have liked to have done a full year. Even this year we didn’t get a full season, but I’ve gone into every race wanting to make the most of everything. I really went into each race wanting to get the best out of myself and learn as much as possible.
CN: How did the move to EF Education-Nippo come about?
BH: It started after Ronde de l’Isard last year. I could have made the choice then to possibly move up. My agent Andrew McQuaid asked me what I wanted to do and I chose to say at U23 for another season. I first knew that EF were interested in me just before the Baby Giro and then after the race, I won a stage, put in a good showing, and they started to talk to us. I sat down with Andrew and I had some pretty good options in terms of where I could go. EF really stood out to me. I signed with them really because they wanted me so bad. They were interested in me before the Baby Giro and before the results I had that and that was really important for me.
CN: Why did you decide to stay U23 for another season in 2021?
BH: Last year wasn’t a full year and I don’t think I’d proved enough to even myself. I just don’t think that I was ready to step up to that WorldTour level. I’d spent the Baby Giro working for Tom [Pidcock] and I wasn’t sole leader on the team. I knew that I’d get that opportunity this year. I didn’t want to rush through things and I was confident that I would make it. It meant I could spend the year enjoying racing without the pressure, learn how to lead a team, and I feel that it was an important step in my development.
CN: What sort of role will you have at EF and how excited are you about joining the team?
BH: It’s pretty cool, and they’re definitely one of the faces of the peloton so I’m really excited to be going there. One of the reasons that I signed for them is because they’re really keen on developing me as a rider and sticking me into some big races as well. Hopefully, if I perform in them then I’ll get further opportunities. They’ve really got a good plan for me. I don’t have an exact calendar but when I spoke to them they mentioned the possibility of doing one of the bigger one-week races, which would be good.
CN: Some people haven’t had a chance to see you race over the last two years. What sort of rider are you in terms of your results and where you want to progress?
BH: I think that I’m a bit of an all-rounder, to be honest. I’m definitely one of the lighter guys but for the Classics it’s hard to say because I’ve had that opportunity taken away from me for the last couple of years. When I have raced them, I’ve done pretty well, though, as I feel like I can navigate a bunch pretty well and half the battle with the Classics is just that. I do enjoy them. Whether I’m a Classics rider, I’m not quite sure, but where I’ve excelled is in the medium mountain days and maybe in the future I’ll turn into a bit of a GC rider because I quite like a TT as well. I’m still finding out exactly where I will fit but I know my strengths and weaknesses.
CN: Obviously there are some big names retiring this season with Dan Martin and Nicolas Roche hanging up their wheels. Those are big shoes to fill for Irish riders and you’re part of that next generation coming through. How does it feel, not to be measured against those guys, but to be part of that new wave
BH: It’s cool. The spotlight is on me now. It’s a bit disappointing that I’m not going to race with those guys but I know them a bit and I hope I’ve learned from them. I feel ready to do my best and represent Ireland to the best of my ability.
CN: Outside of cycling, what are you into?
BH: Cycling just takes up so much of my time and energy but I do like to switch off when I can. Nothing too exciting, just a bit of socializing with my friends, and I like going on walks. I just got a new puppy and have been looking after him a bit while I’ve been at home. He’s boisterous and likes to run around a lot.
CN: Where are you basing yourself next year?
BH: That’s the next step that I need to make. I’m planning on moving to Girona. It just makes sense; the service course is there, it’s good for training and the heat. I’ll live with Tom Gloag and and we’re moving out there together. I get on well with him.
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Daniel Benson is the Editor in Chief at both Cyclingnews.com and BikePerfect.com. Based in the UK, he has worked within cycling for almost 15 years, and he joined the Cyclingnews team in 2008 as the site's first UK-based Managing Editor. In that time, he has reported on over a dozen editions of the Tour de France, several World Championships, the Tour Down Under, Spring Classics, and the London 2012 Olympic Games. With the help of the excellent editorial team, he runs the coverage on Cyclingnews and has interviewed leading figures in the sport including UCI Presidents and Tour de France winners.
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