Going Pro: A grassroot athlete's season recap of rising in the ranks
By Ben Senkerik, MTBer
The 2014 season is finally over. Well, I shouldn't say "finally" because that makes it sound like I'm ecstatic that it is over. I'm happy it's done only because it is time to start thinking ahead to the 2015 season, to start making goals and dreaming of the success to come.
The 2014 season was a pretty amazing season for me. If I had to describe it in one word I'd have to say "breakout", and it all started back in December 2013. December through March consisted of a lot of time inside on my CycleOps Fluid2, riding up to 4 hours per session inside. This was because doing a 4-hour ride, outside, in February, just couldn't happen in the Wisconsin polar vortex. There was also a lot of weight lifting and the occasional run.
Once March came, the weather started to warm up and I got back on the roads preparing for the first race of the year: Bonelli Park Pro XCT. I went out to California for one week to compete in the Bonelli Park and Fontana Pro XCT (cross country tour) races as a part of Team Extreme, run by the bike shop Extreme Ski and Bike out of Thiensville, WI. At this point, I was still a cat 1, so I was thrown in the U23 cat 1 field. I ended up with a 5th place and 4th place respectively. This is not what I was hoping for, but being that it was only March, I knew I had 4 months until I needed to be fast – so being a little flat now wasn't a bad thing.
Fast forward to July at Bear Creek Resort, Pennsylvania for CX Nationals. This was the big race of the year. I was out for blood because of unfortunate luck in 2013. I felt this race was my chance to get a win – and prove to myself that I was able to throw down with the best of the best.
The weekend started off with a 5th place in the cat 1 short track race. Seeing how short track isn't my thing, this was a huge surprise. This gave me a major confidence boost going into the super rocky, technical and mentally demanding cross country (XC) race. Having raced this course last year, I knew what to expect and I wanted to lead it from the front.
From the gun, I wanted to make a statement. I was second into the first single track and the lead was slowing down, so I made my move to first and drilled it. After about half a lap we made it to the top of the ski hill where there was a group of four. We turned downhill and I tried to ride fast, yet cautiously so I wouldn't flat. Going into lap 2 I had a small gap on 3rd and a 10-minute gap on 4th (yes, I am not over-exaggerating - 10 minutes).
And then the first flat hit. It took me a while to get in a tube, but I eventually got going again. On the decent, I was riding hard when the tube blew, which was like a shot to the heart. I realized, right then and there, I was done and my dreams of winning a national championship were over. This was probably my toughest race because of how crushing it was to lose when I wanted to win so badly. After a couple days of being in the dumps, I refocused my energy towards the end of the season for Collegiate Nationals.
Jump 5000 feet elevation in October at Beech Mountain, North Carolina for Collegiate Nationals where I raced for Ripon College. The weekend started off with short track, where I ended up in 10th. Tenth was ok, but I wasn't happy since I wanted to get another podium before ending my collegiate career. Going into the cross-country race I wasn't sure how I would do, so I went out with no game plan and just rode my bike.
After almost two hours of racing I entered the last lap, where I was sitting 7th. I could see 5th and 6th, only a minute ahead of me. This is when I put my head down, and drove hard - really hard. I knew if I didn't punch it at the beginning of the lap, I would have no chance of catching up. I hit the start climb with a new-found hope and used that to drive myself into 5th place. I hit the final decent and rolled through the finish with a minute gap over 6th. I had finally done it, another podium at Nationals.
The next day our team ended up taking 4th in the team relay. This was one of my best weekends of racing. It is always nice to walk away from Nationals with two podium finishes.
Iceman was only a short month later, which was by far my favorite mountain bike race of the year. I loved this race mainly because the weekend was jam-packed with fun. The weekend kicks off at packet pick up, where all the vendors have their products out, and this year the Trek Factory team riders were out signing autographs. This was nice to see, but at the same time scary because seeing Dan McConnell sitting there made me quiver. I knew the race was going to be fast, but with the second best rider in the World there, it was going to be extra fast. Plus, I was competing in the Pro race because I had just recently gotten my Pro upgrade.
On race day the sky opened up. With a morning full of rain, sleet and snow, this was going to be one epic race. My plan of attack was to go out hard, get up front and stay ahead of my two buddies, David Flaten and Jason Blodgett, who are also killer fast. After the first 20 minutes, I found myself in a group with David, Dan McConnell, and 3-4 other top Pro riders. In the pack, I was sitting on Dan's wheel for the majority of the first half of the race. At one point he slowed to check out his gears and I gave him a little push to pick it up and stay in front of me. I knew how strong he was and I didn't want to pull him around.
Dan then proceeded to drop the hammer into a single-track section. I was keeping up with him just fine until we hit an open road section where he punched it again, and dropped me. Now one hour in, I had one hour to go. I put it in TT mode and rode hard. In the last 20 minutes, I caught two racers with only 4 kilometers to go. I used my last match to get up a small kicker and opened up a 15 second gap pretty quickly. From there I kept it up-right and managed 14th overall in the Pro field!
Now it is time to refocus for the 2015 season, which starts at Cyclocross Nationals in Austin, Texas. Then I will be heading back to California to race the Bonelli and Fontana races against Nino Schurter, and other top international pros. Thanks for reading, and here is to an excellent off-season dreaming of the success to come.
Ben Senkerik is a senior at Ripon College where he will soon be graduating with a degree in Business Management with a focus in Marketing and Non Profit. He races mountain bikes professionally for Team Extreme and is highly competitive as a category 1 cyclocross racer. Every now and again he will test his luck on the road but loves to shred the dirt. He lives in Wauwatosa, WI, and spends his summers training and traveling trying to become the next top pro, along with working for the bike shop, Extreme Ski and Bike, which is located in Mequon, WI. You can check him out on Twitter @bsenkerik and Instagram @senkyben