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He began with “I was happy with the Vuelta,” and ended with silence, a soliloquy of a 2016 full of emotions — a season with extreme highs and lows. What has emerged on the other end, for American Ben King, is not merely a seasoned bike racer, but a person who has matured and learned about himself through a season of both disappointment and ecstasy, all rolled into one.
King describes his 2016 season as one of “building.” It began with a broken leg in January, peaked with a stage win and day in the leader’s jersey at the Amgen Tour of California in May, and finished strongly at the Vuelta a España, in September, where he rode in support of a pair of top-10 finishers.
Last week, the announcement of his future was confirmed — he joined the South African-based Dimension Data for Qhubeka team for the 2017 season after spending the last three years with the Cannondale program. New opportunities await for the blue-eyed blonde American.
“It’s not just a job to me,” King told CyclingTips. “I love it. I love racing, and I would never want to look back on my career with any regrets on moments or of missed opportunities because I was in a bad headspace or whatever that may be. I try to live in the moment and make the most of it and was really satisfied with the outcome both for myself and for the team.”
On a chilly January day in Charlottesville, Virginia, a tire slip over a patch of ice sent King not only to the ground, but also into surgery. He’d broken his fibula, with the beginning of the season set to start in mere weeks at the Tour de San Luis, in sunny Argentina.
Instead of sulking, King refocused, setting his sights on the biggest race of them all, the Tour de France, a race he’d started and finished in 2014.
“After the injury in January, I made the Tour de France my big objective and big motivator to put in the hard hours and try to recover quickly to build back up to where I was,” King said. “I was excited about how I had prepared in the early season in November and December in the build-up, but then that kind of got derailed and I got my face kicked in.”
King got his “face kicked in” during the spring, as he struggled to find his race legs, while his competitors were in peak form at races like Volta Ciclista a Catalunya and the Ardennes Classics. He did in fact finish the “snowpocalypse” Liege-Bastogne-Liege, he said, despite the results showing a DNF.
Though he struggled, King pushed through the races and the suffering, believing there was a light at the end of the tunnel.
“If you keep doing things the right way and you stay committed to a goal, then eventually things have got to fall into place, “ King said. “In cycling, there are so many things out of your control. You can do everything right and sometimes it just doesn’t work.
“It can turn around so quickly, and you have to take advantage of that opportunity. You just can’t lose heart, or start to let the negative experiences affect you. You just learn from them moving forward.”
A Grand Journey
In May, King took advantage of an opportunity that presented itself, riding into a breakaway on Stage 2 that stayed clear to the line. He out-sprinted Evan Huffman (Rally Cycling) to take the stage win and the leader’s jersey — adding to a closet full of jerseys that of the 2010 U.S. national champion, and the race leader at Critérium International, in 2015.
“To win that stage [in California] was really an unexpected blessing,” King said. “Things really have to fall into place to have that opportunity, and I had the legs to take advantage of it. It was definitely a career highlight, because it was unexpected.”
After California, King was the lightest he’d ever been and was breaking power records in training. But, as he said, “I’m not paid to train. I’m paid to race.”
A Tour de France selection was within his grasp, but after riding at the Criterium du Dauphiné in June, he learned it was not to be — he hadn’t made Cannondale-Drapac’s nine-man squad. It was not to be.
In the small Italian town of Lucca, which has become a second home to King since his WorldTour debut with RadioShack six years ago, King pondered the rest of his season.
He wouldn’t race again for nearly two months, and after avoiding the bike for a few days to reset physically and mentally, King sought out a way motivate himself once more. He had two races left to prove himself and sign a new contract — the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah, and the Vuelta. He wasn’t ready to leave Europe yet.
King, along with fellow Lucca resident and Tinkoff pro Jay McCarthy, packed a backpack with flip flops and a change of clothes and set off on around-trip adventure to Siena. The roughly 300km Italian adventure ignited the fire in King once more and after Utah, he began the Vuelta in fine form, having rebuilt his body for the second time in one season.
“A Grand Tour is a journey,” King said of the Vuelta, where he finished third on Stage 4, once again part of a daylong breakaway that survived until the finish line. “I’ve done three Grand Tours now, and each one has changed me as a person in some ways. Whether it’s readjusting my perspective on suffering, and how much suffering is possible and what your body is capable of, or whether it’s reaffirming mental strength and the lessons or mantras I have clung to for encouragement, motivation, and inspiration throughout my career.
“I’ve kind of harnessed those lessons and carry them forward into the future, whether that is in a bike race or everyday life,” he continued. “I think there’s a lot of crossover in the form of work ethic, determination, and mental fortitude, and learning to control anxiety — especially when I was uncertain of my future in the sport and I had to continue to do my job and sacrifice for my leaders without knowing whether I would be racing again in the WorldTour. That was an added challenge, and I was losing sleep over that”.
For King, the sleepless nights are over. He’s already well acquainted with his new team, as Dimension Data makes its European home in Lucca.
A New Beginning
While King has set upon a new beginning and new chapter in his racing career, his role with Dimension Data will also be another step in his evolution as a rider. After six seasons in the WorldTour, King will be expected to help mentor the team’s up-and-coming African riders, while also filling the role as super-domestique, or road captain, in races. He’ll also be reunited with former Garmin teammates Tyler Farrar, Nathan Haas, and Lachlan Morton.
“I think on so many levels there are many things to look forward to, whether that is training with the guys in Lucca, or helping some of the African guys adjust to the lifestyle and the style of racing, or working for Cavendish in some of the sprints, or [Steve] Cummings if he finds himself in contention for an overall, or whether it is racing for myself.” King said. “Their riders do get a lot of opportunities, and they race with guts. I really like their racing style, and it will be fun to be a part of that.
“I have shown in the last couple of years I can be dangerous when given too much leash in a breakaway. I have continued to improve every year, and I feel I still have a lot of potential in this sport to develop and every year. I have gotten stronger and stronger and I’m hoping at some point to have a breakout year when all the pieces fall into place and I can more consistently be in contention.”
The possibility that Dimension Data may be left out of the 2017 WorldTour doesn’t bother King and he’s instead focusing on getting a bit of rest before ramping up for 2017.
However, before that, King will head to Rosarito, Mexico, in November, on a charitable mission; as he has done for the past few seasons, he’ll work with former pro Guy East at Hope Sports to build homes for Mexican families who currently are without.
King’s dedication to giving back goes hand-in-hand with Dimension Data charitable mission with the non-profit Qhubeka organization, providing bicycles for African children to attend schools, and for adults to attend work. The charitable aspect is important to King, as he believes it helps him to grow as a person and understand life beyond the bubble of professional sport.
“When you’re totally immersed in cycling culture all the time, that can be all you see sometimes,” King said. “To take a step back and reevaluate your perspective, it’s really a slap in the face to see that and how much more there is in the world than racing a bike. Not only do you go down there and change people’s lives, but you leave that experience very much a changed person.
“I think we tend to identify ourselves as athletes , but eventually that is taken away from us,” he continued. “It only lasts so long. Our careers are limited, and up and down, and it’s important to have a grip on who you are outside of sport. I think it helps to build character and stamina and I think that even translates into your sporting career. It is really an honor to race with Qhubeka during the season. To race with that on our backs is a little bit of extra motivation to be a part of something bigger, something greater, something more important at the end of the day than who crosses the line first.”