THE RINGMASTER

The Specialized Racing Mountain team is comprised of many moving parts. Fortunately, Benno Willeit, Team Manager and adept handler of extremely talented cats is there to orchestrate it all. Discover how he ended up Ringmaster to this troupe of world-class performers.

Roll up, roll up! Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, children of allllll ages. Ready your thirsty eyes for the magnificent spectacle you are about to witness. Prepare to experience moments of sheer disbelief as you view the most outrageous displays of awe-inspiring strength and courage. Steel your lungs to hoot and holler wildly as fearless bicycle tamers perform great feats of daring on the sides of rugged mountains. Gasp in delight and amazement as agile daredevils hurl themselves down the most treacherous descents, sure to make you soil your undergarments just a little bit. Roll up, roll up! Welcome to the Fastest Show on Earth.

If you’ve ever witnessed a circus roll into town, you’ll know that it’s a game of logistical Tetris. A convoy of trucks stuffed with performers, equipment, and supplies arrives at the edge of town, searching for that sweet spot to erect the Big Top and set up camp, all the while ensuring the monkeys aren’t parked too close to the lions. As an audience, we never see the strings being pulled to make this happen, nor the person pulling them. We happily pay no attention to the man behind the curtain because the show is so good. The performances, sublime. For Benno Willeit, the Specialized Racing (Mountain) Team Manager, orchestrating the arrival of the team to an event can sometimes feel like rolling a circus to town. But in his case, the lion tamers, trapeze artists, acrobats, and clowns just happen to be world-class cross country and downhill athletes. The equipment, high-performance S-Works products. And Benno? Well, he’s just the man behind the curtain. The ultimate Ringmaster to the Fastest Show on Earth.

Benno is a textbook definition of what it means to work your way to the top. His first job in mountain bike racing, thirteen years ago, was to drive the truck and pitch in with wrenching on Christoph Sauser’s then team, Siemens-Cannondale. He readily confesses that at that time, he knew absolutely nothing about how to fix a bike and describes the experience as ‘like being dropped into a cold river’—a shock to the system and a swim-or-be-swept-away situation.

“I didn’t even know how to take the pedals off,” he says, a fact made all the more impressive when you learn that just three years later, when he and Sauser joined the Specialized Racing team, he was by then Christoph’s personal mechanic.

“I also didn’t speak any English when I started, which made it even harder. But I always said, ‘it’s just a bike’. Somebody designed it and it’s made by humans, so you just need to figure it out. You have to put in the effort.”

“Actually,” he adds, pondering just how he made the transition from a know-nothing driver to the only mechanic Sauser trusted with his bike, “now that I think about it, it’s more passion than effort.”

I DIDN’T EVEN KNOW HOW TO TAKE THE PEDALS OFF.

— Benno Willeit

Passion. It’s a word that comes up a lot with Benno, and not just his passion for racing and motivating the riders to perform at their best. Like a true ringmaster—a conduit for facilitating experience— he’s also a valuable link between the team and the Specialized engineers responsible for the very products they ride.

“With the format, courses, and conditions changing every year,” he says, “you always want to be ahead of the competition. You don’t want to give them an inch. Sometimes that means tweaking something or developing something completely new, and I need to make sure that the engineers understand that we need to have that kind of equipment to stay at the top. So I’ll follow up with them, and as soon as they have prototypes, we’ll do some testing and give feedback again. It’s always together, trying to find the best product for what we do. The whole package with Specialized is just overwhelming and it’s so cool to work for a company like that, where everybody you work with or you talk to, shares the same passion.”

The convoy formed by the Specialized Mountain Team as they head to races is a spectacle to behold. In Europe, it typically consists of two sprinters, two minivans, and one large and eye-catching team truck. When it rolls out of headquarters in Holzkirchen, Germany, it’s ‘all-aboard’ for athletes, mechanics, soigneurs, bikes, equipment, food, and all the items needed to keep a team performing—and relaxing—at a World Cup. Once parked and unloaded at the event, tents and canopies pop up to form what could be described as a mini team village, complete with a lounge area and large TV where athletes and staff can kick back and relax during down time at a race.

Mechanics tend to the fleet of bikes, fine-tuning everything from Annika Langvad’s Era and Kate Courtney’s Fate, to Jaroslav Kulhavy’s Epic and Aaron Gwin’s season-crushing Demo, to ensure they’re dialed and race ready. The atmosphere is calmly professional, while still being light and jovial—an air often credited to Benno’s unflappable demeanor.

“The incredible thing that Benno does,” says Ned “The Lung” Overend, “is help create an environment where athletes can relax and focus on their performance. He’s kind of selfless in the way he puts the athletes first, because it can be very stressful for them and they often put a lot of pressure on themselves. Feeling relaxed is so important—it makes a big difference.”

“He’s also very versatile,” adds Gavin Noble, Global Sports Marketing Director, “and his personality is such that he’s always happy and positive. Everyone knows and trusts him, and everyone has that respect for him.”

With the team’s success—and this season has been incredibly successful with Aaron Gwin clinching the World Cup overall in downhill, stellar performances in cross country with Annika Langvad winning her first World Cup, and another Cape Epic wins for Sauser and Kulhavy just to name a few—comes the desire to stay at that high level.

It’s not just athletes who want to win.

“We push each other all the time to do better,” says Benno, talking about the staff that supports the athletes. “To be at that level at all means things are going smoothly, so the mechanics are under pressure, too.” He pauses and chuckles, adding, “I mean we still give John Hall (Gwin’s mechanic) shit about the chain that Aaron broke in Leogang. We make sure that everybody is on top of things, but we always also keep it fun.”

This movable feast of athletic prowess doesn’t just magically appear at races. In fact, planning for the following season and determining what and who is going where and when, starts well before the current season is even close to being done. Brace yourself for a logistics whirlwind as Benno shares a brief glimpse into how it all comes together.

“As soon as the event calendar arrives from the UCI [typically in July], the planning starts. I already know when the Cape Epic is in 2016, I know where the first World Cup is going to be, and the Olympics, so right away you have to start with the equipment because we need to pre-order all the stuff. Dylan van der Merwe handles all our team equipment, and he needs to know where everything has to be sent, so as soon as I know, he knows. So I say to Dylan, ‘Ok, we need to get stuff to the Cape Epic, so please send two hundred tires down there for the beginning of the season’ and then there’ll be the World Cup in Cairns, and it’s the same process. So stuff like that.”

Of course, everyone needs somewhere to sleep; so booking also has to happen straight away if you want to get a good spot for the team. There’s a little more wiggle room with rider and staff travel logistics, particularly since contracts with S-Racing are typically not finalized until December, so flights will be organized at the beginning of the season. Benno proudly explains how he’s become quite good at working out the perfect time to fly in to an event so as to leave enough time for riders to adapt to time changes and not be tired when it comes to race day.

Even after the team is on the ground, riders picked up from airports, and bikes dialed and ready, the insanity is not over. There’s dinners to be organized, room allocations to me made, schedules worked out, like how to get everyone to the same place, driving the right vehicles, with the right bikes, and on and on it goes.

“You know,” he says, “sometimes I think talking about it is more of a headache than actually just doing it.”

NUNCA ESTÁS SOLO, SIEMPRE HAY ALGUIEN A QUIEN PREGUNTAR. YO NO TENGO MIEDO A PREGUNTAR, PORQUE NUNCA PUEDES SABERLO TODO.

Se dice que una de las mayores virtudes que tiene Benno es el equilibrio, la habilidad de mantener a distintas personalidades conviviendo en el mismo sitio con harmonía haciendo malabares con piezas de puzle. Con casi 20 miembros en el equipo, dependiendo del evento (once ciclistas y los asistentes), el papel de Benno es solucionar cualquier problema que surja.

“Es difícil manejar a todas estas personas con distintas personalidades”, dice Gavin Noble. “El equipo es único ya que somos los únicos que tenemos equipo de DH y XC. Por ello, puedes tener a un lado de la mesa a Kate Courtney y a Lea Davison haciendo una pelea de gallos mientras que al otro lado de la mesa está Troy Brosnan jugando a un juego en móvil. Tienes a mecánicos, masajistas, atletas jóvenes, y los más veteranos, todos sentados alrededor de la misma mesa, y Benno es el que lo mantiene todo en equilibrio. Sabe hablar inglés, alemán e italiano perfectamente”.

“Creo que el secreto es que no puedes mantener a un equipo tú solo” dice Benno. “Simplemente, no va a funcionar. No puede ser que sea la decisión sólo de un ciclista o de un miembro de staff, ¿verdad?. Tienes que encontrar el equilibrio entre satisfacer a alguien haciendo a otra persona estar en descontento. Es un compromiso. Tienes que ver que quiere el atleta, que quiere el miembro de staff y buscar una solución para que los dos estén satisfechos”.

“También hay normas” dice Benno, “un ciclista no puede pretender dejar su bici a las 5 de la tarde a los mecánicos y esperar que a las 7 del día siguiente esté a punto. No funciona así. Pero para estos casos soy abierto. No es el ejército, es más como una gran familia. Lo bueno de una familia es que puedes hacer las cosas mal sin que el resto de la familia te lo reproche. Por eso que estoy yo aquí.

“También se trata de saber motivar individualmente a los ciclistas, para que vayan logrando sus objetivos . Se trata de celebrar victorias y saber lidiar con las derrotas, incluso cuando esas derrotas han sido por circunstancias ajenas a la carrera”.

“Ha habido años en los que las cosas no han ido tan bien. Por ejemplo con lo que pasó con Burry.” Dice Benno, hablando del atropello que acabó con la vida del sudafricano del equipo, Burry Stander, en enero del 2013.

“Desde los mecánicos hasta los masajistas, hasta yo como el mánager del equipo, intentamos hacer la vida del ciclista lo más fácil posible para que sólo se concentre en entrenar y competir. Los otros miembros del equipo se convierten en tus hermanos y hermanas . Sufres, ríes, pasas por buenos y malos momentos junto a ellos. Lo que le pasó a Burry, no quieres que le pase a nadie de tu familia, equipo y en general a nadie. Pero tienes que afrontarlo. Ya no se puede hacer nada al respecto, así que por le menos vamos a hacer que esté orgulloso de nosotros, no le olvidamos. Vamos a intentar volver a estar felices porque no queda otra”.

No hay duda de que un buen equipo de staff es importante, liderado por un manager respetado y efectivo. Crear calma cuando hay tensión, disolver el drama para crear tranquilidad y hacer que el equipo funcione lo mejor posible. Este ambiente llega hasta el límite de saber quien se lleva mejor con quien, algo clave a la hora de asignar compañeros de habitación.

“No puedes poner a cualquiera en una habitación” dice Benno. “Puedes tomar varias opciones para juntarles pero la próxima vez debes compartirla con otra persona, para relacionarte con todos los miembros del equipo. No sé si habrá alguna fórmula mágica para ser el mánager perfecto. Pero honestamente, no sé lo que estoy haciendo ni la mitad del tiempo”, dice riéndose.

Eso sí, Benno reconoce que tiene que delegar parte de su trabajo entre otros miembros del equipo. Más aún desde que tomó las riendas del equipo de DH este año también. Por eso, confía en personas como Claire Rushworth para organizar vuelos y hoteles, o Kandice Buys para organizar aspectos del equipo de XC.

“Como jefe mánager que soy, tengo que revisarlo todo, para asegurarme de que todo el mundo sepa lo que tiene que hacer. Quien tiene que hacer qué, quien tiene que ir a las zonas de avituallamiento, a las técnicas o quien tiene que estar con los ciclistas”.

Recientemente Christoph Sauser ha pasado a ser algo más que un ciclista profesional, ya que también ejerce de entrenador del equipo de XC.

“Ahora es una pieza clave para nosotros”, dice Benno, “tiene mucha más experiencia que los demás y les enseña cosas nuevas, a los jóvenes a mejorar rápidamente y a cometer menos errores“. ” Así que no soy yo solo el que hace cosas. Nunca estás solo, siempre hay alguien a quien preguntar. Yo no tengo miedo a preguntar, porque nunca puedes saberlo todo”.

Puede que sea por su experiencia que no para de crecer o por sus ganas de hacerlo bien. O puede que Benno Williet ya naciese con las cualidades para ser el director del circo que es el mejor y más rápido equipo de competición del mundillo de las carreras de mountain bike.

¡Pasen y vean, pasen y vean! Bienvenidos al show más rápido del mundo.