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Road Racing

Payson McElveen on Ben Sonntag: “He was the model endurance athlete”

Payson McElveen writes about the life and tragic death of his friend and competitor, Ben Sonntag, who was killed by a driver earlier this month.

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On March 6 Ben Sonntag was killed by a driver while training outside of his home in Durango, Colorado. The news sent shockwaves through the U.S. cycling community, and it hit the community in Durango especially hard. Durango resident Payson McElveen was a friend, training partner, and competitor to Sonntag, and wrote a personal column about the loss. On Saturday, March 14, Durango held a memorial for Sonntag. 

Rotem Ishay called me early in the morning, and the news just didn’t really register at that point. Even the rest of the morning as everyone in the community kind of checked in with everyone else, I don’t think it was really sticking for some. It was just like, “what do you mean we’re not going to see Ben Sonntag on the first Tuesday night group ride next week?”

When I called my dad and shared the news is when it really hit. He lost it, and that set me off. I know how much he worries about this exact scenario. Ben and Ben’s dad were at a race together in Greece just last week, sharing the sort of thing my dad and I do regularly. Ben stayed with my folks down in Austin for a bit one winter, and I know he was one of the favorite guests they ever had.

Ben brought so much positivity and steadiness to any community he was in. Despite keeping a lower profile than some, what he brought to the Durango community was huge — Ben took up a lot of space in a quiet, respectful kind of way.

Some things I appreciated most about Ben: He was a quieter, more private guy, who didn’t need a whole bunch of external validation. He loved his cats Karen and Hansie, making nice dinners at home, practicing his latte art, and dedicating himself to his craft with a level of focus unusual even amongst his peers.

In many ways, I think he was the model endurance athlete: modest, but an absolute killer competitively. I think he was one of the best “closers” I’ve ever seen. It didn’t really matter where you were on the race course in relation to him. If the race wasn’t over, you weren’t safe. Ben had this way of getting faster as races progressed, and if he happened to be behind you, you just knew he was coming.

And if you’d been fortunate enough to be having a good race and ahead of him for some it, he’d always give a word of encouragement as he blew past you. I never decided whether I liked that, or hated it! In the pro ranks, you don’t get many competitors cheering you on as they attack the crap out of you.

Earlier on, Ben didn’t have much of a sprint. But he recognized that, and worked really hard on it. In the past few years, he made it a strength — if you went the line with him, your chances were not good. Earlier on, he also wasn’t the fastest descender, but he hired a skills coach, worked on it for a couple of winters, and then that wasn’t a weakness, either. He was so dedicated to his craft, and even in his late thirties just seemed to be getting better every year.

Photo: Dave McElwaine

Another thing I’d like to say is how much I’m hurting for his girlfriend, Sarah. Anyone that’s been a high level endurance athlete, or the partner of one, knows how hard it can be to sacrifice or compromise that time dedicated to the craft. As I said, Ben was about as dedicated as I’ve seen. In the last year or so though, we saw something different, due to Sarah. Ben put her before his career.

They rode together often. Her big dog and Ben’s two cats roamed around together, and they seemed such a happy little family. I think Ben was entering this new phase of life to an extent, while still getting to compete at a high level, and it just guts me to know it’s been cut off right as it seems it was really taking off.

The last thing I’d like to share is something that happened the other day amongst our peer group of pro cyclists here in town. I got out the door for a little spin, and pulled in to Bread bakery at the end. I haven’t been going there as much the last year for some reason, but Ben could be found there all the time, chatting with anyone and everyone in the community. It felt right to stop by.

A couple of our buddies were already there, and then in the span of about 10 minutes, a handful more pulled up. We hadn’t planned anything, it just happened. A group of eight of us or so just sat around and talked things over. Stephan Davoust mentioned how scared he was — he’d been headed out the door, stopped, and called his teammate Cole to join him, because he didn’t want to ride alone.

Ben Sonntag won La Ruta de los Conquistadores. Photo by Lead Adventure Media

I mentioned how I’d spent the entirety of my two hour ride looking over my shoulder. We talked about how riding “dangerous” trails is probably the safest part of the gig. How confusing, scary, and unfair that where Ben got hit was on the far-flung dirt roads that we’ve always felt are the safest. We talked a lot about how much we already miss him.

The night before I heard the news, one of the last things I did before going to sleep was catch up on Ben’s Strava. The race season is approaching, and inevitably you start thinking about how your competitors’ preseason training has gone. Earlier this week he’d done a ride where his title had said something to the effect of “feeling fresh and strong.”

The ride was a 100 miler, where he’d averaged 21.5 mph and almost 250 watts. The route had plenty of climbs, dirt etc. I’ve had days like that, and know that feeling where you have incredible endurance depth, and the diesel engine is just ripping. It’s that sort of validation ride that all the winter miles have paid off, and that you’re ready for the first big races of the year. I remember closing my computer and smiling, because I knew, yet again, like always, Ben was coming.

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.