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 dialled 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 win 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 tyres 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 finalised until December, so flights will be organised 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 dialled and ready, the insanity is not over. There’s dinners to be organised, 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.”

IT’S ALWAYS A TEAM OF PEOPLE. YOU’RE NEVER ALONE—THERE ARE ALWAYS PEOPLE YOU CAN ASK. AND I’M NOT SCARED OF ASKING, BECAUSE YOU CAN’T KNOW EVERYTHING, YOU KNOW?

It’s said that one of Benno’s greatest skills is balance—the ability to keep different personalities existing in the same space harmoniously while also juggling all the moving pieces of the puzzle. With up to 20 people on the team, depending on the event (eleven riders across multiple disciplines with the remaining number support staff), Benno’s role becomes one of people wrangler and problem solver.

“It’s hard to balance all of those personalities,” says Gavin Noble. “It’s a unique team in that we’re the only team to have both downhill and cross country athletes. So you might have Kate Courtney and Lea Davison at one end of the dinner table having a rap battle, while at the other end Troy Brosnan’s playing games on his phone. You’ve got mechanics and soigneurs, young riders and really experienced ones sitting all together, and he’s balancing it all. He speaks Italian, he speaks German, and he speaks English really well. It’s really something.”

“I think the secret is that you can’t run the team your way,” says Benno. ���That’s just not gonna’ work. It can’t be just your way and it can’t be just the rider’s way, right? You have to find the fine balance between upsetting somebody and making someone very happy. It’s a compromise. You look out for what the rider needs, what the staff needs, and you have to somehow wiggle it together and make it work for everybody.

“There are some rules of course,” he explains. “Like a rider can’t think that it’s OK to drop their bike off at 5 o’clock in the evening and expect it to be ready the next morning at 7 o’clock. It doesn’t work like that. But I’m very open with it. It’s not like an army, it’s more like a family, you know. And in a family the nice thing is that you can give each other shit without being mad at each other. And that’s what I try to have in the team.”

It’s also about managing the performance expectations of individual athletes throughout the season; of motivating them to push themselves. It’s celebrating wins, and dealing with the losses, even when those losses might not have anything to do with a race.

“There have been years where things were not so good, especially with what happened with Burry,” says Benno, talking about the training accident that claimed the life of popular teammate and cross country rider, Burry Stander, at the start of 2013.

“You know, everybody from the mechanics to the soigneurs, and me as a team manager—all you try to do is to make the rider’s life as easy as possible by having everything as organised as you can. Riders on your team become like your brother or your sister. You suffer with them, you laugh with them, and go through ups and downs, so it’s very emotional as well. What happened to Burry; you don’t wish anything like that on your family, or a team, not to anyone. But you also have to face it again. You need to be there for the riders again, and so you’re like, OK, I can’t change anything. So let’s at least make sure we make him proud, we don’t forget about him. Let’s keep going ahead and be happy again, because it’s the only way.”

There is no denying the importance of a good support staff, led by an effective and respected manager. They can create calm where there is panic, defuse drama and disarm stress to keep a team functioning at its best. This juggle to create an atmosphere of harmony extends as far as being able to recognise which personalities complement each other, a key instinct when it comes to something as simple as assigning roommates.

“It’s not everybody you can put in a room together,” says Benno. “You can try different combinations but next time they might have to share with someone else, so you have to be able to feel the vibe in the team as well, and then act on it. I don’t know if there’s like a specific formula to being good at this, or being a team manager,” he says. “To be honest, I don’t even know what I’m doing half of the time!” [laughs loudly]

While that’s highly unlikely, Benno will be the first to admit he’s not doing it all himself, particularly since he took on the role of managing the downhill team as well this season. For this reason, he leans heavily on people like Claire Rushworth for flights and accommodation, and Kandice Buys for some of the organisational aspects of the cross country team.

“As overall Team Manager, I still have to oversee it all, just to make sure everybody knows what’s going on. Who needs to do what, who’s going where for feed zones and tech zones at a race, who’s with the athletes and things like that.”

More recently, Christoph Sauser has been transitioning from his role as a professional rider to be more of a rider/coach for the cross country athletes.

“He’s very important now for us,” says Benno, “because he has so much experience and can show them lines, and help the youngsters to grow fast, to grow better, to make fewer mistakes. So it’s not just me doing everything,” he says. “It’s always a team of people. You’re never alone— there are always people you can ask. And I’m not scared of asking, because you can’t know everything, you know?”

Maybe it’s his background in construction? Maybe it’s his relentlessly cheerful and calming demeanor? Or maybe Benno Willeit is just a born Ringmaster of bike racing circus troupes that just happen to be the fastest team in the world right now.

Roll up, roll up. Welcome to the Fastest Show on Earth.