When Ben Zwiehoff lines up for Strade Bianche on Saturday, his experience as a mountain biker may come in handy. While the white dirt roads of Tuscany can intimidate riders who are used to pavement, Zwiehoff knows the feeling of a bike drifting under him, albeit with knobby tires.
The former professional mountain biker is making his WorldTour road racing debut this year on the Bora-Hansgrohe team. Instead of racing around technical Word Cup cross-country courses, the German will now serve as a domestique during mountainous road races.
Zwiehoff began mountain biking as a child and signed his first professional contract in 2015. Most recently, he rode for Team Centurion Vaude, a long-running German mountain bike team. In 2019, his best result on the World Cup was 23rd place, close to the front of the race.
For 2020, Zwiehoff’s ultimate goal was to race cross-country at the Tokyo Olympic Games. He indeed qualified for the race, but by the time the Olympics were rescheduled because of COVID-19, he was already slated to join Bora-Hansgrohe.
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The idea to switch over to road racing was brought up by Zwiehoff’s coach a few years ago.
“I'm quite a light rider and really strong on the long uphills,” Zwiehoff told Bikeperfect, which suits him better for road racing rather than World Cup XCO races.
Modern World Cup XCO race courses require riders to have big, punchy engines since the climbs rarely last longer than a few minutes. Zwiehoff’s ability to ride a fast tempo on long climbs is more in line with road racing, where the climbs can last for more than an hour.
Usually, riders start their road racing careers on the lower level, Pro Continental teams, but Zwiehoff said this wouldn’t be possible since those teams don’t pay enough. If he wanted to be able to pay his bills, he would need to find a spot on the WorldTour.
Luckily, Zwiehoff connected with Andreas Stauff, an agent who is also the host of the German cycling podcast Besenwagen. Stauff asked around the peloton and came back to Zwiehoff with the possibility of riding for Bora.
“I really didn't believe that it would happen actually,” Zwiehoff said.
The original plan was for Zwiehoff to race MTB at the Tokyo Olympics, and then ride as a stagiaire for Bora. When the pandemic derailed the season, Zwiehoff negotiated a one-year contract with the German WorldTour team.
Zwiehoff is one of many riders who have started their careers on the dirt and then switched to road racing. Perhaps most famously, Cadel Evans switched to road racing and then went on to win the Tour de France. Sepp Kuss, the American climber on Team Jumbo Visma, got his start in mountain biking before serving as Primož Roglič’s super-domestique at the Tour last year. And of course, Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert got their starts in cyclo-cross.
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Zwiehoff has only competed in one WorldTour race so far, recently riding in the UAE Tour, but he anticipates that his bike handling skills that he learned on the mountain bike will transfer over well on the road.
“If there's like a tricky or dangerous situation in the peloton, I feel that maybe I’m a little bit better than usual road cyclists at bike handling, which is I think normal because I started cycling on the bike as a small child,” he said.
At the UAE Tour, Zwiehoff learned how quickly the situation on the road can change. On the flat stage one, which was expected to be a sprint stage, strong desert winds split the peloton and created echelons. Despite the windy start to the race, Zwiehoff said he got more comfortable in the peloton over the course of the weeklong race and even put in a dig at the front on the stage five climb.
“For me, it was super crazy on the first day to ride beside [Tadej] Pogačar, ride beside like [Adam] Yates and people like that, because I never saw them before, only watch them racing on television,” he said.
Even though he was riding head-to-head with some of the best climbers in the world, Zwiehoff found that there were moments of calm in the peloton throughout the race and that compared to mountain bike racing, road races can be much more relaxed at certain points.
Mountain bike races are short, so there’s a sprint from the start line and racers ride at threshold for up to an hour and a half. At road races, the starts aren’t so chaotic, and there can be long stretches where the peloton rides at an endurance or tempo pace.
“In a cross-country World Cup everybody is super nervous, everybody's fighting for every meter,” he said. In the WorldTour race there are some parts where it gets a little bit easier and where you can maybe relax a little bit and have a chat with some other guys.”
Training rides are drastically different too. A mountain bike training ride might be shorter, with more intensity throughout the ride. For road training rides, Zwiehoff will ride for four hours and then start doing intervals in the fifth hour. This is because the most intense parts of road races come at the end of long days, fighting for position and then riding in the finale.
This year, Zwiehoff’s personal ambitions are limited as he tries to prove to the team that he is a rider that can help his teammates on long climbing races.
“First of all, I'm trying to become a top domestique for my team captains on the mountain,” he said. “That's what I will do mostly.”
Zwiehoff’s goal to race the Tokyo mountain bike race didn’t work out, but he’s not dismissing the idea of riding the Olympic road race in the future.
“The Olympic Games were always a dream of mine, and I think the Olympic games on the road will depend a lot on the course,” he said. If you imagine, if it's like a super flat course, I mean, Paris 2024 definitely will make no sense to send me there. But if there are some climbs or if it’s a really really hard race, why not?”