The National Champ Who Survived a TBI, Found a Mission

Ben Frederick was on a path to pro bike racing until a fluke crash left him with a traumatic brain injury (TBI). Years of recovery followed, but in the end, he found renewed passion for riding and a mission to help others like him.

Ben Frederick cyclocross

Written by
Micah Ling

Published on

Posted in
Features

Photos by: Daghan Perker

Singlespeed Cyclocross National Champion Ben Frederick is finally doing what he loves. Not just on bikes — in life. The 33-year-old's success was hard fought, but in ways he never could have predicted when he first started racing. And, his success has extended beyond what you'll find on the results sheets.

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Frederick grew up in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and started riding the Mid-Atlantic Bicycle Racing Association events when he was 22. It came easy. He won the first road race he entered.

“I was like, this is cool — you can win money, and socks, and wine,” he said. Frederick kept racing, and kept winning. He liked the concentration and thrill that came especially with crit racing. Even though he had found cycling relatively late, he knew that he wanted to go pro. “Thanks to my mom and dad, I had some pretty good genetics. And I was able to go from Cat 5 to Cat 2 in a single season,” he added. 

Frederick then raced at the Cat 1 level for five years, and started dabbling in cyclocross. He loved it. He realized that in road racing you could come in 80th of 100 and it only meant that you missed one move in the last kilometer, but in cyclocross, output and reward were more in line.

Frederick made the switch to 'cross in 2015 and found his groove with a great season. He rode to 12th at Nationals. 

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Heading into the 2016 cyclocross season, Frederick felt he was building on a strong foundation. He had been training hard and was ready to step up. While out on a training ride, though, he took a hard fall. The kind of thing that feels unfair.

“It was equivalent to walking down the aisle of the grocery store and tripping on nothing — tripping on the floor,” he said. There’s no way to make sense of it. “I fell on this random bit of trail, and I hit my head in just the right way.” It was a perfectly imperfect event. 

"With so many other injuries, it's very apparent what’s wrong, and how to fix it. You can’t just put your brain on ice and not use it.” — Ben Frederick 

It took more than two years of acute recovery before Frederick regained any sort of normalcy due to his Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). One thing that he learned right away was that TBIs aren’t like other injuries in that you can’t see them.

“On the surface it doesn't look like anything's wrong. No visible scarring, you don't walk with a limp, you don’t carry crutches," Frederick said. "With so many other injuries, it's very apparent what’s wrong, and how to fix it. You can’t just put your brain on ice and not use it.” 

Even after the initial stages, the recovery process for Frederick was ongoing. Besides needing to relearn all kinds of skills, from reading to driving a car, he also started dealing with severe anxiety and depression that resulted in an eating disorder.

“I was just trying to find control in my uncontrolled life, to the point where I had to be hospitalized for five months," he said. "And it was very intensive. Like, inpatient-24-hour-supervision-locked-ward kind of thing.”

Frederick attended all kinds of classes to relearn how to nourish his body, and also take care of his mind. He once again became aware that so often we take physical injuries very seriously, but rarely talk or think much about mental health. We tuck those monsters away and pretend they’re not there. His time in intensive treatment was difficult, but it taught him how to take ownership of his struggles, and it made him better at introspection. 

“There’s something so amazing about bike racing, that puts you in the moment for 45-minutes, or an hour, where there is no thought other than what's right in front of you.” — Ben Frederick

For the first six months of his recovery, Frederick had written off bike riding entirely. For a while, it wasn’t worth the risk. But he did, eventually, come back. He thought about it a lot in recovery — about how in bike racing there are very few big wins, no matter your level. And so you have to celebrate the little wins. The times when things feel good, even if you aren’t breaking the tape. The times when you do one tiny thing right.

“[Recovery] wasn't without horrible days or weeks at a time. But it gave me skills that I wouldn't have been able to develop and a perspective on life that I wouldn't have had otherwise,” he said.

Frederick has come a long way in his recovery, though he knows it’s something from which he has no final graduation. He still has bad days, but not nearly as many, and not as severe as he used to. And racing bikes has helped, though he also now appreciates the other things in his life that make him complete, like a supportive partner and work that he cares about. Today, bike racing is something that he gets to do in his life, not something that consumes him entirely. And he likes it that way.

“There’s something so amazing about bike racing, that puts you in the moment for 45-minutes, or an hour, where there is no thought other than what's right in front of you,” he said

Last year, as part of his own recovery journey, Frederick decided to make his experience public. He created a mission — The Small Monsters Project — to raise money for the Love Your Brain Foundation. The idea is, we all have our own monsters — no matter who you are, you wrestle with little demons.

“But when you can start to acknowledge the monsters, you can kind of start learning to live with them," he said. "They don't go away, in my experience, but that doesn't mean you can't live with them. And it doesn't mean they have to control your life. You just learn to walk alongside them.”

Frederick dedicated his entire 2021 cyclocross season to his fundraising goal, and ended up raising over $20,000. He found support from Ritchey Bicycles — the bikes he’s been riding since the beginning — to raffle off a specially designed Small Monsters SwissCross frame. And Ornot created a special Small Monsters jersey. The frame was painted to denote the light (grey) and dark (black) associated with the struggles of mental illness. And purple accents representing healing and recovery. It was also covered with “small monsters,” designed by Alex Carlson.

"The 'small monsters' don't go away, in my experience, but that doesn't mean you can't live with them. And it doesn't mean they have to control your life. You just learn to walk alongside them.” — Ben Frederick

Beyond fundraising, Frederick found success of his own last year: “Starting in June, we were in the mindset of, the World Cup is in the U.S., let's go ahead and rip it — let's see what we can do.” And Frederick did rip it, becoming the Single Speed National Champion later in December.

“I was able to win a stripy shirt in the Singlespeed National Championship…but one of the coolest highlights was when I would go around a turn, or through a hard part of the course, and someone would be like, ‘Go Small Monsters,’ or, ‘Mental health matters,’ or, ‘It's okay to not be okay.’ That kind of really brought it home. It meant way more than someone yelling, ‘Go Ben Frederick,’” he added.

Ben Frederick National Champion

In order to achieve such accomplishments, Frederick relies heavily on his support system, which includes his coach, Grant Holicky. They’ve worked together for years, and one of the reasons it’s such a tight, successful relationship, is Holicky’s communication. Holicky and Frederick talk at length, sometimes for hours, about bikes and racing, but also about life. Holicky fully understands that even at the elite level, sometimes bikes are everything and sometimes they’re just not.

"Cycling is a passion for him now. It’s pure joy and excitement and rarely a burden.” — Grant Holicky

“I watch for changes in mood and levels of fatigue, but coaching Ben is easy as he is very in tune with his body and is very forthright with that information,” he said.

Holicky works closely with Frederick to make a plan, but they both know that enjoying the process is now one of the most important components. Holicky describes Frederick as riding and competing out of pure joy.

“I didn’t know him before the TBI, but he talks of feeling pressure and expectation [before]," Holicky added. "He’s still highly competitive now, and wants to perform at the highest level possible because he loves the sport. Ben is so giving with his time, knowledge and experience, and seems to thrive when helping others.

“He loves the sport of cycling and wants others to feel that love. Cycling is a passion for him now. It’s pure joy and excitement and rarely a burden.”

Frederick will be back this autumn to defend his title, and also to continue raising money and awareness for mental health.

“I have every intention of doing Small Monsters version two. We're gonna have another [Ornot] kit. And still working with Ritchey to figure out the best way to have the biggest impact,” he said.

His goal will be to replicate last year, though having people talking about mental health is the real win for Frederick:

“​​Equaling what we did last year would be awesome, but that wouldn't determine the success of the project at all. If one person emails me and is like, ‘Hey man, no one's ever spoken to me [about mental health] in a way that made sense, but this does,’ that would be huge.”

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