In what is a case of perfect timing, Ireland has secured the addition of its latest rider to cycling's top-tier WorldTour level one day after Nicolas Roche announced his retirement. The 2020 national road-race champion Ben Healy has been confirmed as joining the EF Education-Nippo team, and will make his debut with the squad in the new year.
Still just 21 years of age, Healy has shown clear signs of his potential in recent years. He took a stage win in the 2019 Tour de l'Avenir, the youth version of the Tour de France, and last season triumphed on a stage of the prestigious Ronde de l'Isard.
He also won the 2020 Irish national road-race and under-23 time-trial titles. This season he won the final stage of the Giro Ciclistico d’Italia in mid-June. The race is a youth version of the Giro d’Italia. Healy also finished second in the points classification and a fine 12th in the overall standings.
“Stepping up to this new level will be a new challenge and a new way to race,” said Healy in the team announcement on Monday. “I just want to learn everything and try to pick up as much as I can from these big names that I’ll be team-mates with. I’m very excited for it.
“When I started to talk with the team, it was clear the team had a plan for me. That meant so much to me. It wasn’t just, ‘Yeah, he’s got a few decent results, might as well just sign him’. There was thought behind where I’d fit into the team.”
Team chief executive Jonathan Vaughters explained why Healy is a good fit for the squad. "His skillset is he knows how to get in breaks that make it to the line, and he knows how to win out of those breaks once he's in them. There aren't that many guys that have that skill set. That's the skill that Ben's shown over and over again in the U23 races."
He also sees other roles for him. “I do see him in the light of a guy who can win races,” he continued. “That doesn’t mean there aren’t going to be periods where he has to work for other people. He has a good nose for how to win a race. That’s why we’re hiring him.”
The American squad has a good history with Irish riders. It was the first professional team of both Dan Martin and Ryan Mullen, who have both had strong careers in recent years.
Healy has been racing with the semi-pro Trinity Racing set-up this season. His promotion to the WorldTour comes at a perfect time, as both Roche and Martin will retire from the sport this month. Roche announced his retirement on Monday while his first cousin Martin will hang up his wheels after Saturday’s Il Lombardia Classic.
Previously racing under the Garmin-Sharp and Cannondale-Drapac names, the EF Education-Nippo team is one which has been regarded as one with a strong group unity and also a sense of fun. Healy said this was part of the attraction.
“I don’t want to be going to a team just doing my job. I don’t want to be riding around for a paycheck. I want to be a part of a team. I’d like to go and be on the bus and have a laugh with everyone. I see this within the team and that’s something that really appealed to me.”
It has also previously been regarded as being something of an underdog in races. Healy said he identifies with this.
“I feel like a lot of the time I’m a bit of an underdog going into a race. That’s just given me the hunger to carry on with it.”
He refers to the 2019 Tour de l’Avenir in 2019 as an example of this. “I didn’t even get a team. I managed to scrape my way on to the UCI Mondial team and I was going there for experience,” he said. “I managed to pull off a stage win. That feeling of ‘I’m really here to be competitive’ was such a nice feeling and having the title of being the youngest person ever to win a stage was pretty cool as well.”
He will focus on learning in 2022, but also is certain to attack when the opportunity arises. Undulating courses such as the medium mountain days in stage races will likely suit him perfectly, as well as lumpy one-day races.
“The 15 to 30 minute climbs, when it’s just a hard day out . . . I normally do pretty well when it’s really grim like that.”
With Roche and Martin retiring and Healy stepping up to cycling's top tier of teams, Ireland will have four WorldTour riders in 2022. Sam Bennett and Mullen will be part of the Bora-hansgrohe squad, Eddie Dunbar will remain with Ineos Grenadiers and Healy will be with EF Education-Nippo.