‘I’ve only ever asked for opportunities to race’ - Ben Healy's resilient rise to the top

Inside the Irishman's turbulent journey from being blindsided as a junior to challenging Tadej Pogačar for victory

Ben Healy is a racer, pure and simple. He self-identifies as an “unconventional rider”, as someone who dreams big and who isn’t intimidated by his more decorated or experienced competitors. He’d rather come last having tried to do something in a race than finish mid-pack without having really taken any risks. He is not a rider there to simply make up the numbers. For Healy, it’s all or nothing.

“Sometimes it backfires on me,” he says. “It meant I was a bit inconsistent when I was in the under-23 and junior ranks, it made people question what I could do.”

A glance at Healy’s ProCyclingStats page from this season tells one side to the story of the Irishman’s career. It paints the picture of yet another young, cycling supertalent who can win Grand Tour stages in his second year as a professional rider and finish on the podium in the Ardennes Classics in a style that makes it look easy. What it fails to represent, though, is the journey Healy has been on to get to this point.

His story is one of setbacks and determination, of self-belief and unwavering determination in abundance. For Healy, it has not been as easy as pinning a race number on and discovering he has the talent to win big in this tough sport, but instead a rollercoaster ride with plenty of bumps on the tracks. We start talking about the very beginning.

Read more: ‘It’s hard to wrap my head around’ - Derek Gee on his breakthrough Giro, bird-watching, and the next chapter

“I started doing it because of my Dad,” Healy says. “He's always been a pretty keen cyclist and took me down the local track in Halesowen when I was a kid. I just loved doing it and always went back.”

Despite his love for it, Healy, by his own admission, was always “dreadful” at track cycling and began to spend more time mountain biking as he moved through the youth ranks. He found his way onto what was then known as the British Cycling Olympic Development Academy (ODA) for mountain biking but was dropped from the programme when he became a junior. This fuelled a transition back over to the road racing scene.

“When I got kicked off the ODA, GB were unresponsive. They didn’t tell me why or what I needed to do differently which was my first aggravation with them. In my first year junior I was riding pretty decent on the road but I never got a look in for selection for races with GB,” Healy explains.

It was this frustration that led the 22-year-old to switch his allegiance to Ireland where he believed he could get more opportunities to race. “I was pretty proud to switch across and declare for Ireland. I do have family in Ireland and that was the right decision at the time, they gave me some amazing opportunities and I definitely wouldn’t be where I am now without it.

“It's not like I don't have any Irish connection. I'm so proud to represent Ireland and maybe I didn't grow up in Ireland, but it's still something I'm proud of. Hopefully I can pay them back in results now as well because when I moved across they really accepted me with open arms and just viewed me as any other Irish rider.”

Healy talks about the 2019 edition Tour l’Avenir, one of the most prestigious U23 races in the world, as a crucial turning point in his career. At the start of that season, however, the EF Education-EasyPost rider had struggled to find an international under-23 team to take him on board at all.

“It was only Team Wiggins that picked me up at the last minute. It was Andrew McQuaid who ran that team and the Irish connection helped and he gave me a chance,” Healy explains. “It felt like even though I was getting good results, nobody was really interested in me for some reason.”

True to his grit and perseverance, later that year, Healy took victory on stage five of the 2019 Tour l’Avenir to Saint-Julien-Chapteuil, becoming the youngest ever stage winner in the race’s history. If the road to the WorldTour hadn’t been clear before, Healy admits that day in l’Avenir opened up a number of doors for him. 

“Everything changed, like all the people that I’d asked for rides from before came knocking. People started to look at me for WorldTour rides as well. But I thought I was too young then, I wanted to do more in the U23 category and really develop fully into a rider,” Healy says.

It wasn’t until almost three years later that Healy moved to the WorldTour level, opting to spend some time racing with Trinity Racing before making the leap up. When he did, it was EF Education-EasyPost that won the bid for the Irish rider’s signature. He joined the American team on just a two-year contract at the start of the 2022 season.

“I felt confident I'd be able to get opportunities with that team and that's all I ever really asked for, just to have opportunities in races, not being tied to a leader and racing the way I like to race,” he explains.

It’s fair to say that Healy got a huge number of race opportunities in his first year with EF Education-EasyPost – perhaps more than even he bargained for. He explains that he raced so much in 2022 due to the team’s battle against being relegated to the ProTeam level – a fate they narrowly avoided in the end.

“People asked me why I’ve improved so much this season and I think it’s because last year a lot changed for me. I moved to Girona and up to a WorldTour team and all of these things made me a little bit unsettled,” Healy explains. “Last year we just raced like crazy in the second half of the year too, there was no real structure to the team but now everything is changing and the team is being proactive in trying to improve so it’s becoming a nicer environment as well.”

Healy is modest and to say he has simply ‘improved’ this season is a catastrophic understatement for his fast and sudden rise to the very top of the sport. He says he felt like a different rider compared to the year before on the team’s January training camp and that gave him an inkling that there were good things to come in 2023.

“I knew it was going to be a good year but to what extent, I don't think I could have ever predicted,” he explains. “I never really expected to be as competitive as I was in the Ardennes and the Giro d'Italia this year. At the start of the season I set out with a goal of a Giro stage win, but I still felt like I was reaching for that goal a little bit. I knew I’d worked hard, but I didn’t think it would pay off like this.”

Even having ambitions as lofty as a Grand Tour stage win as a rider who had never even attempted a three-week race before is a testament to Healy’s character. Throughout the Ardennes Classics (where he secured second place in both Brabantse Pijl and Amstel Gold Race and fourth in Liège-Bastogne-Liège) and the Giro d’Italia (where he took victory on stage eight), Healy raced with honest, brave attacks and an energetic zeal. He was true to his word and continued to race in his own attacking style, proving to people that it is possible to win races that way.

“I've now shown that the way I race can create those results, but I’ve always believed in the way that I raced. I had a few difficult moments but ultimately I always enjoy racing my bike,” Healy says. “When I won that stage of the Giro d’Italia, I knew how I liked to race and I knew the profile of the course was hard. I hoped someone would come with me but I was solo and I wanted to commit to the move and I knew it was a 50km time trial to the finish. I had good legs and it worked out in the end.”

Healy boils it down with refreshing simplicity, but there is no denying the hard work and thought that went into his Giro stage win. The Irish rider wore a long sleeve aero skin suit for optimal gains and had thought about the best way to make his set-up as efficient as possible.

“It is something I'm always thinking about. Racing is so fast now I feel like if you've got a choice of an aero something over anything else, that’s going to be where the advantage is. Just to get into that break I'm pretty sure we averaged like 48kph for the first hour and a half. Wearing my skinsuit probably saved me like 20 watts over that duration of effort, then that's a difference in the final,” Healy explains.

Despite his success this season, the 22-year-old rider is still aware he has aspects of his performance that he could still improve on. While his attacking mentality has paid dividends on some occasions, it has also been his downfall in moments where it may have been better to conserve energy.

“At Brabantse Pijl when I finished second I was just getting a bit excited. I was at the front of a race with amazing legs and just racing almost stupidly,” he says. “It's actually something I've got to learn, to try and settle down to the race and really give it one good go to get away, rather than all these little attacks that don't go anywhere. That's just part of racing. I think the more times I’m in that sort of situation the more I can learn.”

Healy’s attacking hasn’t always made him a popular rider in the peloton, either. On stage 19 of the Giro d’Italia, videos of Healy attacking alongside Thibaut Pinot for points in the mountains classification went viral on social media. As the breakaway had already been established in the stage, general classification teams such as the Ineos Grenadiers became frustrated with the continual attacks from Healy which were forcing them to ride hard on the front of the peloton early in the stage.

“I was really annoying Ineos and it was Rohan Dennis from Jumbo who was laughing. He was happy I was doing it because he wanted Ineos to keep having to chase me and Pinot so Ineos were worn out later in the race,” Healy says. “As I was coming back, he said, ‘yeah go on, do it again, do it again.’ I didn’t make too many friends that day.

“I’m never afraid to race. If there’s something to fight for, I'm always going to fight for it. I will go about it in the way that I think is best for me. That's what I was doing that day as well, not letting Ineos or Pinot ruffle me and going with the plan we had at the start of the day.”

With the stage win at the Giro d’Italia under his belt, Healy has spent the last few weeks recovering from the race which he admits he was “pretty f*cked” by the end. His key goals for the rest of the season come in the form of the World Championships and Il Lombardia – the types of races Healy can see himself excelling in as his career progresses.

“I’d love to win the Worlds at one point in my career. It feels much more realistic than winning the Tour de France to me,” he says.

Representing Ireland at the World Championships will mean riding for a national team that is much smaller than some of its competitors, both in budget and in the pool of riders to choose from for the team. Healy admits that competing against some of the bigger, stronger national outfits might be a challenge in Glasgow in just under two months time.

“I go well off a really hard race and a race where fatigue really plays a factor and obviously being with Ireland, we’re not the strongest team in the world, so it's pretty difficult to make the race hard,” Healy says. “I just have to rely that those big teams actually make the race hard themselves and make for a really attritional race. Once you get to the final then I can race how I want to race. I just have to hope that the race is run in a way that suits me.”

He may not be part of the biggest national team and he may have to race smart in order to get himself in the winning position, but if there’s one thing that Healy’s career so far proves, it’s that there is no stopping him, even in the face of adversity. His enthusiasm for racing and self-belief has got him this far, and he doesn’t have plans of slowing down anytime soon. 

Above all, Ben Healy’s road to success is one that should serve as a reminder to never give up on your dreams, even if the setbacks keep coming. He may have taken an unconventional path to the top after being overlooked by many, but it’s fair to say that Healy has, with his performances, forced people to take notice, and he won’t be underestimated again.

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