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Photo ©: Sirotti

An interview with Sarah Tillotson and Kelly Benjamin

A dynamic duo

Sarah Tillotson her way to a state title and second-place finish behind teammate Kelly Benjamin
Photo: © Mark Zalewski
Click for larger image

What do you get when you put a breakaway queen together with a fast-twitch wonder-woman on the same team?

One hell of a bad-ass machine, that's what! That's Athletes by Design duo Sarah Tillotson and Kelly Benjamin, who have scorched their way through the midwest regional calendar this year, and turned a few heads on the national scene, too. Trudy van der Straaten calls for a time-out with this dynamic duo.

Their backgrounds couldn't be more different. Twenty-six-year-old Sarah Tillotson calls herself a "non-athlete" who fell into bike racing after traveling in Europe and Costa Rica and working as a bike messenger in Chicago. After a few impromptu and very unofficial messenger races, Tillotson started regular road races in 2001.

Twenty-eight-year-old sprinter Kelly Benjamin, on the other hand, is a lifelong athlete who started swimming at age five, raced in the water right through college, then tried her hand at triathlon. Despite her strength in the water and being "pretty all right" on the bike, her knees couldn't handle the running and she switched to straight cycling in 2002.

Their stories start to converge at their early races. Unlike many talented riders, Tillotson didn't win her first race, instead crashing, chasing back on because she didn't know about the free lap rule, and finishing "dead last in the sprint." But the next time out, she escaped with another rider and lapped the field.

Benjamin soon found where her talents were concentrated, out-sprinting the cat 4 women's field in her first race and quickly moving up to cat 2.

Tillotson was the first to hook up with former pro Mike Farrell's Athletes By Design (ABD) team. Unlike Benjamin, she rode out her first season in cat 4, feeling that she should pay her dues and improve her bike handling. In cat 4? "That's what everyone says now, says Tillotson. "You're not going to learn that in any category 4 race. But at the time I also kind of felt like a bit of a menace too."

Benjamin, a firefighter by profession, came on board the ABD train this year after racing in 2002 for Blue River Bicycle Club, a small club in Kansas City. In her second year at ABD Tillotson was asked who else she wanted on the elite women's team, which was being expanded. She approached Heather Haviland who was interested but she was really, really insistent on Kelly Benjamin being a part of the program says Tillotson.

Despite having become an incredibly tight racing duo this season, then, Tillotson and Benjamin didn't really meet each other properly until the first team meeting right after last Christmas. Ironically, the person responsible for bringing them together is no longer with the team, Haviland leaving ABD mid-season to pursue a career as a professional duathlete.

A mutual understanding

The many faces
of Kelly Benjamin

Photos ©: John Musselman

Anyone who has watched Sarah Tillotson and Kelly Benjamin race can't help but notice how well they work together. In their first season as team-mates, the pair have pretty much dominated the midwest regional scene, notching up impressive results including second and third spots in the overall GC at Superweek and the Proctor Series.

That sort of synergetic team-work must surely require a lot of training together. But Tillotson is based in Chicago while Benjamin lives some 500-odd miles away in Kansas. It has to make for a difficult training schedule, or so you would think. Not so, according to Tillotson.

"First of all I don't think you have to train together to be able to race well together. I don't think that's a requirement. But for us, because we've been able to build a relationship and a lot of personal and working respect and understanding, I think it has worked well for us to train together," she says.

"Kelly, from the beginning put a lot more into this team than anybody else did. When I was down in Tuscon training in February and March she came down there and met me and raced with me there. When I was driving back to the midwest, I stopped in Kansas and stayed with her."

For the next month and a half, the two women made Kansas their base and trained together right up until the Nature Valley Grand Prix, after which they moved camp to Chicago. So apart from a few days here and there, they were essentially together the whole summer.

That means you have both been away from your families for months at a time ... that's got to be tough?

"You have no idea," Kelly replies, half-laughing. "I'm away from my husband and my house and my dog and responsibilities, and through this whole thing I also quit my full-time job that I've had for six years as a firefighter, so that put lots of stress on our finances. Its been a very tumultuous year for my marriage... but I have THE MOST supportive husband you will EVER meet." Kelly carries on at length about the man she describes as "the smartest man I ever met". So Professor Benjamin, if you're out there reading this, it's on record: you're going straight to heaven, it seems.

I'm starting to feel moist around the eyes and while I'm wondering if he has a single brother somewhere, I ask, "So is there a solution to this geographic problem for next year?."

"Well I don't know. Next year I am really hot to trot to go to Pennsylvania so I can race the track, so I might be living out there," says Benjamin. "I don't how its going to work out but Sarah's mobile, she's not really grounded at all. After this race she was going to come home to Kansas with me until October for another month. We were racing around there, so with her being so flexible - neither one of us has jobs."

Benjamin maintains the she could not have raced at her current level while working full-time. But bicycle racing is an expensive sport. If neither of you are working how do you manage to bear the costs, I ask.

"We're basically fully supported. We don't get paid but we really don't pay for anything," Benjamin says. Race entry fees, transportation, lodging and sundries are all financed by the club, from funds raised by the club's volunteers through fundraising programs such as the indoor time trial series that the ABD club hosts at the end of winter.

Mike the mentor

While it's obvious that both Tillotson and Benjamin are immensely gifted athletes, just having magic legs is only part of the story. They've both had to learn a lot about racing strategy and training effectively also. It's clear that both women feel they owe a lot of their success to their coach Mike Farrell. A former pro cyclist himself, Farrell managed several pro teams before starting the coaching program - Athletes by Design.

"Farrell's not the type of person to shove lessons and a list of things down your throat. He's really good - he gives us a day-by-day training schedule, every month he gives a calendar with specific things to do each day. He's always available to counsel and answer questions. This year I think he's been a lot closer, with Kelly living there with him," Tillotson says. "When she comes here she stays with him, so that sort of created this bond between the three of us. He calls quite frequently just to check up and it's more of a social thing too rather than just the bike racing," she says.

Tillotson says there's no 'typical week' in their training schedule, "It changes it all throughout the year. In January we're doing a million miles a day, every day, day after day. But in this part of the season it's a matter of maintenance. Actually we started doing some harder rides just to get ready for San Francisco, a lot of hill sprints. I always take Mondays totally off the bike. Tuesday is generally a speedwork day, hill sprints, something like that, longer rides Wednesday. We've been doing track racing on Thursday nights."

Secret to success

A wounded Sarah Tillotson watches by the roadside
Photo: © John Musselman
Click for larger image

One of the reasons Benjamin and Tillotson have been so successful this season is that their strengths are completely complementary. While Tillotson is a good all-rounder with a knack for solo breakaways, Benjamin is clearly a natural-born sprinter.

"I've been a sprinter my whole life," she says. "I've been tested at the Olympic Training Center and I have twice as much fast-twitch muscle fibre as a normal person. So there's no option for me really," laughs Benjamin.

However, the pair's preferences for particular types of races are very different. "I'm not a really great sprinter. So something where you get a time as opposed to like the race depending on your place... but I LOVE road races, I LOVE suffering," Tillotson says, as she sits there wincing with one arm in a sling. "That is definitely my goal in the cycling thing - to become a good stage racer. That's what I want."

Benjamin is the opposite, saying emphatically that she does not like stage races. "I'm not a good time trialist and in a lot of stage races the first day is a time trial so your place is set basically for the whole weekend after the time trial," she says. So what's her favourite then, criteriums?

"I like criteriums and road races. I like them both. My goals is more like winning the National Calendar points or the pro-cycling tour. I really want to take Downer's Grove, that's more my stuff," she says. When asked whether they were shooting for any particular races next year Tillotson replies, "Well, it all depends on the structure of the team. I would definitely like to do Redlands and Altoona next year."

Altoona, aka the International or the Tour de 'Toona is a seven-stage series held each summer in Altoona, Pennsylvania, and one of the biggest women's cycling events in the world.

"Yep, she's going to drag me to Altoona," Benjamin groans, before adding, "But you know that's the beauty of being on a team, I will go there and do it because maybe, on one day, I can help her move up one place in the GC, and then die."

So what's the scoop for next year?

In action at the Arlington Classic
Photo: © Mark Zalewski
Click for larger image

How can a pair of riders on a small team take on the likes of Diet Rite and Saturn (or whoever steps into Saturn's shoes) in 2004?

"You can't really have a strategy for something like that when there's just two or three of you," says Tillotson. "At the same time Kelly and I, for whatever physical strengths we have, we're still at the new end of things. Even if we had five women out there, well, it would help, definitely, but you still have to let the experience grow with your physical strength and I think we're both still learning. There's more than just the strength and the numbers, it's having the head for the race."

"If we had, say, three more really strong teammates, sure we would maybe wind up a little higher in bigger races but we would still probably be where we're at," Benjmain adds. "I had a chance to go at it one-on-one with Laura van Gilder and she's just better than me," she says, referring to the finish-line sprint in this year's Proctor Cycling Classic Road Race.

"Laura van Gilder dropped our butts," says Tillotson, laughing her head off now. I think about asking her for some of that Vicodin.

You ladies hiring?

"Definitely. Next year we're definitely going to expand the team. Sarah and I are both staying on ABD. We've gotten a lot of new sponsorship money. It depends on how much money they end up getting, but we are looking for two or three riders for next season," Benjamin says.

I ask whether they've started recruiting already or whether they've been approached by potential riders. Tillotson replies, "It's hard to say right now because we don't know what our budget is going to be and we don't really know who would be interested but I think the most important thing is that everybody who comes on board is at the same place as far as commitment, timewise."

"... and the thing is the ability has to be equal," Benjamin adds.

"Everybody will have their strengths and weakness, and their high points and their low points through the season, but when we show up to the line together we need to have everybody to be able to do their part," says Tillotson.

One such possible candidate is Kerry Cohen, a track racer originally from Perth, Australia, who rode for the team at Superweek this year and who both women describe as 'a great team worker' and 'unbelievable, awesome'. But in addition, the pair say, if the team budget can support, they are probably looking for one or two more riders. I ask if they are looking for any specific strengths, to which Benjamin replies, "I think need a climber, like a little 90lb true climber... the kind that can kill you in the mountains."

Looking ahead

I also asked the women about their long-term ambitions, whether there were any personal Holy Grails so to speak. With her predilection for hilly stage races, it's no surprise that Sarah Tillotson has her sights set on the European racing circuit, where as Benjamin states she has no desire to race in Europe, preferring instead to focus on the American racing scene and hopefully develop into a track rider.

"I definitely want to go to Trexlertown next summer... someday I would like to try to get on the national team for track," says Benjamin.

Despite the Lance Armstrong legendary achievement, cycling is a sport that has few financial rewards in the U.S. and is sadly overlooked by the media. For women's cycling, the situation is even more woeful.

"We both get really mad about you know the guys getting $5k for the whole field and we get say $500, or first place is $2k for the men and $150 for the women - I mean its not even a little imbalance, its huge," said Benjamin.

So what advice so they have for girls who are contemplating racing or who have just started out?

"I have one word that comes to mind, just like in bright neon in my head and it is patience," says Benjamin. "It just takes time - but I have none of it - I want it all and I want it now... and that has been my biggest challenge. It takes time to develop your mind and your body as a cyclist. You can't just come in and be as good as Laura van Gilder no matter who you are, no matter what kind of body you have. Muscles have memory and season after season they just get better and stronger."

Although they make it look effortless both girls say that the other big challenge they had to overcome this year was putting together a cohesive functional team. "Even as great as everything was, it takes a long time to learn how to ride together; even with us, we spent as much time training together as two people could," Benjamin says.

"And we liked each other a lot," adds Tillotson.

Any rivalry then? I asked, winking at them, to which Tillotson comes back with the quote of the day: "Of course its going to be there, I mean it's a bunch of egos on two wheels you know!"

Well, egos or no egos, if Tillotson and Benjamin continue along in the same way, if they can build their dream team of capable and committed riders to support them, I think it's pretty safe to say we'll be seeing them at the top of the podium for a long, long time.

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