From learning to read again to racing Wout van Aert: Ben Frederick's journey to the top of cyclo-cross

The American suffered a traumatic brain injury in 2016, but has refound his love for cycling and has ridden some elite CX races this winter

Ben Frederick
(Image credit: Bastien Gason)

Seven years ago, things were going swimmingly for Ben Frederick. The then 25-year-old had just ridden to his best finish at the USA cyclo-cross National Championships, 12th, and he was on his way to fulfilling his dream of riding CX at an elite level, qualifying for World Cups and heading to the World Championships.

An innocuous crash on a training ride heading into the 2016 season changed all that; he hit his head in exactly the wrong place, suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI), and was forced to put not just his career, but his whole life on hold.

Fast forward to the present day, and Frederick is finally where he always wanted to be, racing some of the biggest races of his discipline, lining up on the same grid as Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel. Having gone the long way round to get here, he is enjoying it in a way that he never would have before, cherishing his moments in front of huge Belgian crowds, and seeking to raise awareness of both TBIs and mental health.

Speaking to Cycling Weekly before he headed home from his brief sojourn in the wet, cold and dark wilds of northern Europe in winter, the American explains that his recovery was not just "me trying to be a cyclist again, it was finding how to be a human being again".

"I had to let cycling go, I didn't get on the bike for a year and a half because it was too scary," he says. "I had to learn to drive, I had to learn to read, I was basically stuck in a dark room trying to recover for six months. Through that process, and having let go of the sport, I was able to come back to it with a completely different motivation, just to have fun. Nothing was riding on the result, training was training, and there was so much lower pressure."

With that new found motivation, everything is different: "This is my chance to see these races with a fresh perspective. I can go and be a tourist, who gets to drive the F1 car. I trained my ass off, I'm as fit as I've ever been, and yet I'm here with the goal of taking it all in and riding with my eyes wide open."

Ben Frederick

(Image credit: Bastien Gason)

He is not just in Belgium on some kind of jolly, however, these are the hardest races he has ever done. Finishing 28th at the X2O Trofee Herentals might be his highest result, but that is surely impressive considering this is a man who had to learn everything again.

"These are the hardest races I've ever done, so why not race them back, to back, to back?" the 33-year-old jokes.

"Each one of these races I'm doing I've watched online for years, so it's a super awesome experience to line up and try these races," he says. "The physical toll is a lot. Just getting around some of these courses is hard, not to mention racing them. What I'm doing out there is a different sport to what the guys at the front are doing, they're at a completely different level.

"I got a nice little tap from Quinton Hermans when I got a better start than him at Herentals and he came through me at a million miles an hour, and instead of being mad I was like 'well that was pretty cool'. I had a bit of an opportunity to race these guys in America, but this is a completely different playing field.

"I get to ride up and down the start/finish line and see Wout, Mathieu and Tom [Pidcock], and it's pretty cool to be on the same start grid as those guys, knowing that I will very quickly get out of the shot on TV unless I do a somersault. It's like going out at Wembley or any other sportsball analogy."

He is racing partly in support of his own foundation, Small Monsters, which aims to destigmatise TBIs and mental health, while also raising money for those affected by TBIs, like he so severely was.

On his issues with anxiety and depression, Frederick says "I think the TBI just turned up the volume". 

"In the context, mental health issues can come up physiologically," he continues. "The makeup of your brain changes. That's not talked about enough. Beyond that, your sense of self completely shifts, and that's enough for anyone to feel anxiety or depression. I don't think the small monsters go away, but it's ok to have things to work on."

Ben Frederick

(Image credit: Tyler Nutter)

It is fascinating to see someone with a new perspective on life at the elite level of cycling, and his enthusiasm for the sport and for his situation is infectious. 

Frederick owed his place in Europe partly due to a bursary from the Flandrien Hotel in Brakel, which supports loads of different athletes with different stories; the American enjoyed his time there, and the camaraderie that came with it.

He has a full-time job, running customer service for a retail store, so his time in Europe has to dovetail with that. Unlike Van Aert or Van der Poel, there are no proper off days.

"Making the World Cup team was a goal/inevitability beforehand, but now I just wanted to give back to the community that helped me back on my feet," he explains. "People with brain injuries have to live a new normal."

As for the racing in Belgium, at races like the GP Sven Nys and Herentals, it is a brand new experience, very different to his history of riding 'cross in the US.

"No matter where you start in the field, all the way until you get pulled, there's a race, you're racing someone," he explains. "It's your own little bubble of noise and excitement, and it's a different race to the people four minutes ahead of you are doing."

"People will walk up to little old me and ask for pictures and autographs. The first night in Diegem was insane. I've found that the fans here really enjoy someone who interacts with them, and that it doesn't happen very often, because everyone is very focused on the race."

It is refreshing to find someone who is so into the idea of cycling as entertainment, that's what cyclo-cross is really. Frederick is just enjoying himself.

"How cool, how cool," that's what he is thinking when he's on the start line. All power to him.

Frederick was helped in his journey by the Flandrien Hotel, which provides a Scholarship Program for riders who do not “fit” into traditional team structures due to factors such as age or lack of UCI Points (which you can only get by racing), in an aim to to boost diversity and inclusion in the sport.

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Adam Becket
Senior news and features writer

Adam is Cycling Weekly’s senior news and feature writer – his greatest love is road racing but as long as he is cycling on tarmac, he's happy. Before joining Cycling Weekly he spent two years writing for Procycling, where he interviewed riders and wrote about racing, speaking to people as varied as Demi Vollering to Philippe Gilbert. Before cycling took over his professional life, he covered ecclesiastical matters at the world’s largest Anglican newspaper and politics at Business Insider. Don't ask how that is related to cycling.