Ben Jacques-Maynes of Team Bissell is a familiar face in the breakaways at any major stage race. During Tuesday’s stage of the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah, Jacques-Maynes rode the break for nearly 190 kilometers. The field caught him in sight of the final climb over North Ogden Divide, but Jacques-Maynes was not disappointed. He never really expected the breakaway to stay away. Just being there was good enough.
For a time last winter, Jacques-Maynes was not sure he would ever be there again. A broken collarbone turned into a severe bone infection that jeopardized his career and his long-term health. Jacques-Maynes fought a desperate battle against the infection in his body and the fears in his mind.
Bike racing is his passion, and once the worst of his illness was past, he was determined to return to his best level on the bike. “I just knew that I wasn’t done yet. I knew that I was in a real low place, but I knew this isn’t the end of me,” said Jacques-Maynes. “This isn’t the end of my story.”
Jacques-Maynes and his Bissell team play the hecklers at stage races like the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah. They instigate the day’s early breakaways with a metronomic regularity. Listen to race radio, and one of the first updates on any stage will almost certainly be that a Bissell rider has attacked the field and has a small gap. In a team of escape artists, Ben Jacques-Maynes and Jeremy Vennell nearly always find a way to break free from field’s bonds.
“That’s what we’re here for at these races. We want to fly the Bissell flag as high as we can all day, every day,” he said. The team has also come to Utah with ambitions for a high general classification finish for Chris Baldwin. But Jacques-Maynes was quick to say that the team would still do the hard work of attacking the race. “We’re still here to animate the race, and really make it a good race.”
Finding the right breakaway is more complicated than it sounds. On paper, it appears clinical. The big teams allow a group to go up the road. The reality is considerably more chaotic. “The situation is so fluid,” explained Jacques-Maynes. Riders are constantly jumping up the road, while the big teams with general classification ambitions shut down any break that grows too big or includes a dangerous rider for the overall.
For the would-be escapists, getting into the right break means committing to an all-out effort, while constantly calculating the chances of success. “You’ve got to be able to want to go, and to have the gumption,” said Jacques-Maynes. “But then, also, you can’t be stupid and waste your effort.” On Tuesday, Radio Shack-Nissan was determined to prevent a big breakaway from going. “If it’s eight or nine guys, you know, Radio Shack was killing moves that were that big.”
If Jacques-Maynes does not think the break will work, he sits up and tries again. During Tuesday’s stage, Jacques-Maynes and his team mate Jeremy Vennell each tried twice to get a move going. “You gotta get the right combination of guys,” said Jacques-Maynes. “You have to keep your head on the swivel. You’re looking at the guys, at who’s riding well, who’s up the road.”
On Tuesday, Jacques-Maynes found the right combination. The initial four-rider group was big enough to make tracks, but small enough to receive their passport to freedom from the big teams. William Clarke of Champion System came across to the group to make five.
“It was a really decent working group, especially when William Clarke came up and made a fifth guy,” said Jacques-Maynes. “The fastest breakaways are the ones where everyone’s pulling and there’s no weak leg.” On Tuesday, the break worked well together for much of the stage, despite climbs that punctuated the course. “We had it for the first four hours, then some guys’ wheels fell off.”
For Jacques-Maynes the successful breakaway meant flying his sponsor’s flag. This time it also won him the mountains jersey, much to his surprise. In the run-in to the first KOM, Jacques-Maynes took advantage of his rivals expectations. “I think they were looking at one another too much,” he said. “I surprised them on the first one.”
Jacques-Maynes also benefitted from the nature of the day’s climbs. Each one flattened at the summit. “Every single one of those sprints, I ended up in the eleven tooth at the top of the hill,” he said. “It was a full sprint.” Jacques-Maynes is not a rider for the bunch sprints, but he can out jump the climbers in the right terrain. “Looking back, I can definitely see how it suited me so well. It wasn’t some steep ramp like we’re going to have later on this week.”
Though he is a frequent flyer in the breakaways, Jacques-Maynes rarely expects to make it to the finish. Even with more than 11 minutes over the main field on Tuesday, Jacques-Maynes knew eventually it would all come back together. Indeed, he expected the break to get caught long before it did, especially when it became clear that all the major teams were contributing to the chase. The group still had a five minute gap late in the race, but Jacques-Maynes was not fooled. “Come on, I can do the math on it. Five minutes, 50 k. I know that math!”
Three riders against the combined might of the main field do not have much chance of success. “It doesn’t matter who motivated you are, you just can’t produce the power and your legs are pooping out on you,” he explained. A 211 kilometer stage under the blazing desert sun is a long day on the bike. “It’s why breakaways rarely work,” he said. “You have to be able to do something really special to be able to ride hard for five hours, and maintain the same pace that the guys with fresh legs are doing.”
Just as he weighs his options in the early kilometers of the race while he looks for the right breakaway, Jacques-Maynes is always calculating as the kilometers tick by. “I can read the writing on the wall,” he said. “You get to watch them, but I get to ride them. I’m doing the same analysis. I’m seeing who’s chasing, with how many guys, how fast is the time gap coming down versus how hard am I riding here, can I motivate these guys.” It’s a matter of measuring.
Cycling is a social game. The interaction among the riders is what makes cycling a compelling sport both to do and to watch. “If I wanted to do a full-out effort, I’d probably race on the track or mountain biking or something,” said Jacques-Maynes. “It’s the interacting. It’s the using guys, and working with them or racing against them, and how quickly the tables can turn. That’s what makes it fun and what keeps me coming back.”
Injuries have a way of shifting an athlete’s perspective. Some riders walk away from the sport, while others return with their passion for the sport intensified. Jacques-Maynes broke his collarbone last year. That relatively straightforward injury escalated into a months-long ordeal for the Bissell rider when he acquired a severe bone infection. “The level of infection that I had, it could have been life-threatening or really debilitating,” he said. “I was getting some bad prognoses, and being told to check in at the hospital constantly.”
To combat the infection, Jacques-Maynes received a heavy dose of antibiotics that required complete rest. As the infection ran its course, he was hospitalized several times. “I spent many afternoons and evenings in the ER to be check out,” he said. It was a nerve-wracking and exhausting time for Jacques-Maynes. “I was a mess physically, and I turned into an emotional mess.”
The long period of inactivity forced introversion. But as his health returned, Jacques-Maynes’ determination returned with it. “It really showed me that this is my passion, it’s what I’m built to do,” he said of cycling. He also did not want to end his career with an injury. “I don’t want to go out like this. I want to come back,” he said.
The long illness wiped out the normal winter training period for Jacques-Maynes. “I’m actually happy that it’s only taken a year,” he said. “It was a lot to come back from. It’s been hard work to get back.” He started his season late, and he is already looking forward to being able to prepare more thoroughly for next season. Last winter meant trying to recover his health. “I’m riding like this now, it would be nice to see how it feels to step it up even another level, and really have an even better season after that,” he said of his plans for the coming off-season.
But that is for the future. Here at the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah, Jacques-Maynes will be trying to make the break every day. It’s what he does, and what he was built to do. Back in the sport he loves, Jacques-Maynes is writing his story one pedalstroke at a time.