Friends, teammates, and competitors remember Ben Sonntag, who died on Wednesday while training outside of Durango, Colorado.
Ben Sonntag would text Sarah Alsgaard photographs of sunsets.
And photos of goats and sheep and whatever animals he saw during his training rides.
“I used to tell Ben that I wish I could bottle up his happiness and sell it, because it was tangible, and it was there every day,” Alsgaard told VeloNews. “He has the best sense of humor. He can make me laugh and put me at ease so naturally. I felt like myself with him from day one.”
Alsgaard and Sonntag were a couple in Durango, Colorado, the mountain town where Sonntag had relocated to in 2008 to pursue an education and a career as a professional cyclist. Like Sonntag’s other friends and family, Algaard is trying to process the tragic news that Sonntag was killed on Wednesday while training south of Durango. According to a police report, the driver of a pickup truck traveling south on County Road 105 struck Sonntag, who was traveling north. Sonntag died at the scene.
The news set shockwaves through the close-knit cycling community in Durango, and through the wider community throughout North America. VeloNews reached out to those who knew Sonntag to get their perspective on his life and tragic death. Those sources we spoke to told a similar story of a world-class athlete who carried himself like an everyday person; a private person who loved for his two cats Hansie and Karen; and a happy-go-lucky guy who had few, if any, bad days.
“Ben was passionate about the outdoors and riding, and he appreciated the small things in life,” Alsgaard said. “We’d revel in living the Durango lifestyle.”
“He was game for my dumb ideas”
A lifelong endurance athlete and former winter triathlon champion, Sonntag appeared on the Durango cycling scene in 2008 after he moved to the town to pursue a degree and race for the Fort Lewis College cycling team. He collected three individual national collegiate titles during his time at Fort Lewis College, and quickly became one of the strongest riders on the local group ride.
He became fast friends with Troy Wells, the former Under-23 cyclocross national champion. The two became regular training partners, and spent years training together on the roads and trails around Durango. Troy and his older brother Todd Wells gave Sonntag the nickname that followed him around town, “The German.”
“Besides Todd, I’ve done the most amount of training with the German because he was always game for whatever dumb idea I had for a ride,” Troy Wells said. “Whether it was 20 degrees with snow blowing across the road, or it was us trying to link together some trails that were barely connected, we’d go for it.”
On one occasion Wells and Sonntag followed a trail that gradually became thinner and thinner, only to find out they had followed a game trail into a ravine. Rather than go back to the road, they continued on their adventure and ended up walking through dense foliage for hours.
“We bushwhacked for like two-and-a-half hours on the side of a ravine. The amount of time that took us to do that we could have done our regular loop a handful of times,” Troy Wells said. “I think both of us were like, ‘do you want to turn around?’ Once you get on the trail you feel like you want to accomplish something epic.”
This happy, jovial guy
After he graduated, Sonntag pursued a career as a pro racer and scored top results, quickly becoming one of the fastest cross-country racers in the country. He became a stalwart on the National Mountain Bike Series and then Pro XC series, and won several rounds of the Epic Rides backcountry series as well.
In 2010 he scored his best international result by winning Costa Rica’s La Ruta de los Conquistadores stage race, an event known to dish out punishment.
Yet friends say Sonntag rarely promoted his results. Even Alsgaard had no idea that Sonntag was an international champion when they began dating.
“When I met him he told me he was into mountain biking,” Alsgaard said. “I had no idea the career he already had.”
Instead, Sonntag was known best for his goofy sense of humor, his German accent, and his consummate positive attitude. Even on the pro circuit, where egos and competitive spirits can drive rivalries, Sonntag seemed to transcend the competitive landscape.
“He was a good guy to a fault,” said Waldek Stepniowski, his director at the Clif Bar Pro Team. “Not one person was ever mad at Ben. He was truly one of the favorite bike riders I worked with.”
Todd and Troy Wells said Sonntag’s reputation as a positive personality made him popular within the Durango scene. Even after he scored his international results, Sonntag carried himself like a regular guy, not a champion. He would ride alongside pro riders as well as local weekend warriors. Whomever wanted to ride was always welcomed along.
“He transcended all of the cycling groups in town and everybody felt like they were a good friend of Ben’s,” Todd Wells said. “He wasn’t an elitist who would only ride with this person or that. If you were battling him on the weekend ride or the local club rider he’s going to be friends with you.
“The German is such a happy guy. He’s always smiling and always in good spirits,” Todd Wells said.
A shock to the community
Sonntag was struck while riding along a gravel road southwest of town, near the community of Marvel. Todd Wells said the dirt road makes up a well-known training loop that local pro riders often spin base miles along this time of year. Riders tackle the four-hour loop because of the lack of traffic along the route.
“The access roads are super busy but the road he was on is one of those remote pieces of dirt road,” Wells said. “I could list 1,000 roads around here where you’d get hit and that one isn’t a blip on the radar.”
According to a report in The Durango Herald, Sonntag was struck by a driver piloting a 1991 Ford Ranger along the route on Wednesday afternoon. Sonntag’s friends and family became concerned later that day when he did not arrive back from his ride. News broke on Thursday that Sonntag had been identified by the Colorado State Patrol, and the news quickly reached across the sport.
“He was one of the nicest, most generous, and genuine people I have had the pleasure of knowing,” wrote his former teammate Alex Grant on social media. “Anyone who has raced against him knows the feeling of seeing ‘The German’ over your shoulder, coming for you, near the end of a race. Nine times out of ten you were done, and he was going to come by you. Ben never gave up. If we can all take a little bit of that fight in to whatever we do, we will be doing alright.”
“We are crushed,” read a social media post by Fort Lewis College. “Ben was someone who imbued the cycling community with so much positivity and joy. He was one of our own and our thoughts are with his friends and family.”
“We’re all in shock over this and I can’t tell you how saddened I am — first and foremost for Ben and his immediate family — but also for the entire cycling community as we bear another unspeakable, senseless tragedy,” said Dave McLaughlin, general manager of the Clif Pro Cycling team. “As cyclists, we put our lives at risk every time we strike out on the road, but somehow we deem these risks acceptable as we practice our craft. Something like this brings that risk into focus and sheds a glaring light on the exposure we all have out there; exposure that increases daily with the proliferation of distractions from mobile phones and other devices. But this is what we do.”
“In many ways, I think he was the model endurance athlete: modest, but an absolute killer competitively,” wrote Payson McElveen. “I think he was one of the best ‘closers’ I’ve ever seen. It didn’t really matter where you were on the racecourse in relation to him: if the race wasn’t over, you weren’t safe. He 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.”
Many of these comments, tweets, and statements have reached Alsgaard, who said she was trying to remember her good moments with Sonntag, while also trying to grieve and mourn his loss. The two met more than a year ago in Durango after being connected by the online dating app Bumble; it was Sonntag and Alsgaard’s first time with online dating. They met at a local coffee shop and then went out and got pizza, Sonntag’s favorite meal.
“The next day he came over and brought me croissants and made me a cappuccino in his coffee maker,” Alsgaard said. “The rest is history.”