Ben Zwiehoff and his pivot from Olympic MTB contender to Giro d’Italia climber
Mountain bike ace Zwiehoff turns full attention to career on the road: 'I'm a road cyclist now, not a mountain biker.'
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It doesn’t take Ben Zwiehoff long to explain why he traded top-level mountain bike racing for life on the road with Bora-Hansgrohe.
Standing in a bustling Neapolitan square ahead of stage 8 of the Giro d’Italia last week, the German climber gazed wide-eyed at the massed crowds and towering colonnades of the Piazza del Plebiscito.
“This business, how could you not love to be here?”
Zwiehoff traded a lifelong dream to race the mountain bike Olympics for Germany when he went all-in as a roadie last winter. Now in his second season with Bora-Hansgrohe and deep into his second grand tour, the 28-year-old isn’t looking back.
“Mountain biking was cool. I used to be pro for seven years. But lately I felt like I needed a change in my career and luckily [Bora boss] Ralph Denk gave me the opportunity to do that,” he told VeloNews.
“In the beginning making that switch was hard. But for now, I would say I’m a road cyclist now, not a mountain biker anymore.”
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Zwiehoff’s skinny limbs and hollow cheeks carry the character of a road climber far more than the typically muscle-bound frame of a mountain biker.
And it was Zwiehoff’s skills going uphill that earned him a career on the road after long years at the top of the cross country scene.
When Zwiehoff’s MTB training partners and agents noticed their athlete’s climbing creds on a training camp in Mallorca, a series of physiological test results soon found their way into team inboxes.
When home squad Bora came calling, Zwiehoff scrapped his lifelong dream to race the Olympics for Germany and hit the road with a two-year WorldTour contract starting in 2021.
Like Bora teammate and former ski mountaineer Anton Palzer, Jumbo-Visma’s mountain bike ace Milan Vader, or former rower Kristen Faulkner, Zwiehoff packed the physiological creds to gamble on his mid-career switch.
“I’m a climber for sure, on a good day I can stay among the best climbers for a long time. That was my strength on the trail too,” he said.
No mixed program … yet: ‘For now, I’m a road racer’
Zwiehoff doesn’t have the luxury of finding his road legs slowly in his second grand tour.
Roles positioning and protecting GC teammates Jai Hindley and Emanuel Buchmann bring a heavy burden as Bora hunts after a pink jersey at this year’s Giro.
“Sometimes I miss mountain biking a bit. Road racing can be so stressful, it can be hard to get on top of,” Zwiehoff said.
“Sometimes this big, big businesses, it feels not that familiar anymore. This is what I maybe miss somehow. But in the end this this whole circus is so nice. And this is a big chance to show what you can do.”
The high mountains of the Giro’s third week will see Zwiehoff and his big uphill engine called into action. Hindley and Buchmann both sit in the top-10 giving Bora-Hansgrohe the only one-two tandem at the top of the Giro GC.
“For now I’m happy with the domestique role I’ve got her at the Giro,” he said. “I also get some chances in smaller races for example at Tour of the Alps, I was pretty close to my first victory. In future, I would love to just see how far I can get, maybe winning stages out of breakaways can also be an option.”
Also read: Pidcock trades classics and stage races for MTB cross country
Cross-discipline dynamo Tom Pidcock took two huge victories at the Albstadt and Nove Mesto MTB World Cups while Zwiehoff shepherded his leaders around Hungary and Italy in the past weeks.
Fellow all-terrain ace Mathieu van der Poel won a stage and wore the Giro’s pink jersey, and has ambitions on the MTB world championships after a debut run through the Tour de France.
Zwiehoff’s mountain bike will stay stowed at the back of the store room however.
“Mountain biking and racing will always be a part of me, but I don’t have plans to go back yet,” he said.
“Maybe in the future I’ll consider mixing programs like them [Pidcock, Van der Poel], but not now. And I’d have to also talk with the team about what they want. But riding on the road makes you really really powerful so I’d love to see how I could manage on the cross country circus if I went back.”
Zwiehoff rode Cape Epic with Lennard Kamna last winter as he helped his teammate ease back into pro life after a long hiatus.
But purebred climber Zwiehoff was in no doubt as he readied himself for a fast and frantic stage through the madcap Neapolitan streets last week.
“For now, I’m a road racer, that’s it. Mountain bike can wait.”