The Colorado State Patrol identified Durango professional mountain biker Benjamin Sonntag as the cyclist killed Wednesday after being hit by a driver in a pickup truck.
The incident occurred around 12:08 p.m. on County Road 105 west of Marvel in southwest La Plata County.
Sonntag, 39, a 2010 graduate of Fort Lewis College, was a prominent figure in the mountain bike community. Originally from Germany, Sonntag came to Durango and won multiple collegiate national championships for the FLC cycling program. He had continued to race professionally. Sonntag, who was sponsored by Team CLIF Bar, had most recently competed February in Greece and had returned to Durango to train for races beginning next week in California.
Sonntag is survived by his parents, Irmgard and Klaus; two brothers, Daniel and Patrick; and his girlfriend, Sarah Alsgaard. His parents will arrive in Durango from Germany on Monday.
Alsgaard and Sonntag’s friends became worried Wednesday night when they could not reach him by phone. Alsgaard went to Sonntag’s home and saw that his road bike was gone.
“He died doing what he loved,” Alsgaard said. “What impacted me most about Ben was his perspective on life. Everyone can agree he was a ray of sunshine and was so supportive. I’ve never seen anybody with such a passion for something like he had for biking and life. Ironically, we used to talk about how short life is and how he wanted to make the most of it.”
Sonntag was traveling north on County Road 105 on his Specialized Tarmac road bicycle when he was struck by a green 1991 Ford Ranger driven by 19-year-old Cordell Schneider of Durango. Schneider was taken to Mercy Regional Medical Center with minor injuries. No charges had been filed as of Thursday morning.
“The pickup truck traveled off the right side of the road, colliding with a fence, continued through a field, and then off an embankment before coming to rest on its right side in Cherry Creek,” the State Patrol said in a news release.
The agency declined to release further details pending the crash investigation.
Sonntag was pronounced dead on scene. State Patrol noted Sonntag was wearing a helmet.
“This is a massive loss,” said Durango’s Rotem Ishay, who was a teammate of Sonntag’s at FLC. “He’s been racing and representing Durango for close to 15 years now. We both came from another country to Durango because we wanted to accomplish a dream and chase our passion. He’s German, I’m Israeli, but our home is Durango.”
The Durango cycling community was especially stunned about the location of the crash.
“I’ve ridden that section of Cherry Creek road and that dirt road and haven’t seen any cars,” said Durango’s Todd Wells, a three-time mountain bike Olympian. “A busy ride, you would see maybe four or five cars. I can think of probably 1,000 places I’d guess someone would get hit riding a bike around here, and that wouldn’t even come into the circle of possibilities.”
It was Nordic skiing that first brought Sonntag to the U.S. in 2004. Born into a Nordic skiing family, he had won two elite world championships in winter triathlon, a sport that mixes cross-country skiing, mountain biking and running or snowshoeing. He had a scholarship for cross-country skiing at University of Alaska Anchorage, where he would compete for three years and earn All-American status three times and a second-place finish at the 2006 NCAA championships.
When he didn’t see a future for himself in Nordic skiing, Sonntag came to Durango to race bikes for FLC. He would win the collegiate cross-country mountain bike national title for FLC in 2007 and 2008 and added a short-track championship in 2008. He also placed second at nationals in cyclocross that year.
We really dont know what to say or where to begin about the loss of one of our own. You define what this program is about and why we do what we do. We and the rest of the community will miss you dearly. #zegerman https://t.co/JYXiGNfsIn— FLC Cycling (@FLCCYCLING) March 5, 2020
“He was a machine,” said FLC cycling director Dave Hagen. “He instantly integrated into the team because he was so likable and easy to get along with. Those Germans and their dry sense of humor, he was brilliant. There was never a bad day of Ben Sonntag; he was just that way.”
Known affectionately as “The German,” Sonntag’s friends called him committed and meticulous when it came to training. He regularly had to work his way back from major injuries, and Ishay described him as tough for overcoming injuries and continuing to race at an elite level.
“Not a lot of people know the things he had to deal with to keep his dream alive,” Ishay said. “He’s been an inspiration racing on one of the biggest teams in the U.S. and has shown all the young ones you can still do it in your late 30s and race at a high level and make a living out of it.”
One of Sonntag’s career highlights came in 2010 when he won the La Ruta de los Conquistadores in Costa Rica. He had big wins at the inaugural Grand Junction Off-Road in 2013 and finally got back on the top step of the podium of an Epic Rides series event in 2018 at the Carson City Off-Road in Nevada.
I've never worked with a kinder person than Ben Sonntag. I can't even express how sad his passing makes me. pic.twitter.com/cDnT9fNqFL— Bill Schieken | CXHAIRS Media (@CXHairs) March 5, 2020
“There was not a better guy to travel to races with and get to hangout with,” said Sonntag’s longtime teammate Troy Wells. “He would inspire everyone around him to enjoy life a little bit more. He loved living life to the fullest.”
Sonntag also was a favorite among cycling media, as his good nature extended to all facets of his life. Disbelief engulfed the entire cycling community beyond Durango on Thursday.
“That guy loved racing and training,” said mountain bike world champion and Durango cycling legend Ned Overend. “He loved riding his bike, and that came through. He had a real passion for it. Everyone knows he was so friendly and humble. To me, I remember how much he enjoyed what he was doing. We are fortunate in Durango to have a lot of people with great attitudes. It’s not the same everywhere. Durango has a culture, and Ben was a great example of it.”
I am so sad right now. Ben was one of the best, and my heart goes out to his family and friends and the whole Durango community. Be safe out there everyone. https://t.co/j0CKDKrwMT— Frederick Dreier (@freddreier) March 5, 2020
Sonntag met Durango’s Carmen Small, a professional road cyclist, in 2007. The two got married in 2011 before they divorced in 2018. Small, who is now a team director for Virtu Cycling in Europe, heard the news early Thursday morning in Italy. She will fly to Durango on Saturday.
“I loved him from the moment I met him. His infectious happiness was amazing,” Small said. “I think Ben had the most kind heart of anyone I have ever met. I’m shocked and devastated by the news. I always loved Ben and never stopped caring about him. He was a great friend and partner for me.”
Alsgaard and Sonntag met more than a year ago. Their passion for the mountains united them, Alsgaard said.
“One of the core things we did together was spend time in the high country,” she said. “He was such a phenomenal athlete but not just biking. If he would have pursued ultra-running, he would have kicked ass. He ran a 5-minute mile and was an incredible skier. Our time in the mountains I will cherish forever.”
Durango Herald staff writer Bret Hauff contributed to this report.
An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect year that Sonntag won the La Ruta de los Conquistadores.