A sense of life beyond cycling brought him off the beaten track to Mexico and Colombia over the winter. He began his season in Argentina, will spend most of his year based in Tuscany and aims to return to the Tour de France this July. But in 2015, all roads lead home to Virginia for Ben King.
September’s World Championships in Richmond are the first in the United States since Moreno Argentin’s triumph in Colorado Springs in 1986, and for King – who grew up in nearby Charlottesville – the event has particular resonance.
“I go to Richmond all the time. I have family living in Richmond. I was born in Richmond,” King told Cyclingnews. “It’s definitely close to home. Well, it is home.”
King has not raced at the Worlds since he was selected for Copenhagen at the end of his debut professional season in 2011 but the Cannondale-Garmin rider is hopeful of making the American selection this time around, particularly as the hosts are entitled to a full complement of nine riders.
“It’s still a long way away, I don’t even know if I have a spot on the team – there are a lot of strong American guys fighting for the spots,” he said. King’s willingness to perform a supporting role and his local knowledge might well tip the balance in his favour.
While a fully fit Taylor Phinney or rejuvenated Tyler Farrar could be contenders on the circuit, King recognises that the US squad will likely line up without one of the top echelon of favourites among their number. “I think the course favours a classics guy, like a [Tour of] Flanders rider, and the climbs after so many kilometres are going to be draining,” he said. “I’d just like to see an aggressive race, with the attacking starting from further out. It would suit the kind of team we’re going to be bringing.”
September in Richmond feels a long way off when winter is still only reluctantly turning to spring in Europe. King’s focus for the time being is on building on his solid first season with Garmin and earning selection for the Tour de France squad once again. He will ride Paris-Nice alongside Andrew Talansky next month and has the Ardennes Classics, Tour of California and Tour de Suisse pencilled in on his schedule in the build-up to July.
“I had a lot of opportunities last year. I found myself in a lot of breakaways and on multiple occasions I felt I was racing for the win. It had been a long time since I felt that feeling, it really puts a fire back in your gut,” said King. “Over the winter, I focused on my explosive power and even a mentality shift of just wanting to be able to close the deal and win.”
Indeed, King’s more focused calendar and greater freedom at Garmin stood in stark contrast to the three years he spent at RadioShack where, from the outside at least, his career seemed in danger of petering out. A cursory glance at his programme over those seasons shows a meagre diet of total race days, limited WorldTour outings and no Grand Tour appearance whatsoever.
“There was a lot more instability with my schedule, so I had to plan my training around that a bit, just try to stay at 95 percent all the time, so I was ready to do a job when it was required of me,” King said. “It was still a good experience but I don’t feel like I tapped into my full potential. Although there were a lot of experienced riders on that team, so as a first-year pro there was a lot I could learn from them.”
Repeatedly missing out on three-week tours, too, was a source of frustration for King, even if he had the presence of mind to put his travails in their proper perspective. “In the end, I was doing what I loved to do and I was being paid to do it. As long as I was racing I was happy,” he said.
“And I still got stronger every year. My power numbers in training confirmed that, so I still felt like I was making progress every year. I feel like I adopted a healthier, more balanced approach to the sport and to life in general to help deal with the fluctuations, ups and downs.”
Mexico and Colombia
In recent years, King has found an off-season refuge from the hyper-reality of the peloton by carrying out volunteer work in Mexico with the More Than Sport organisation established by the former triathlete Chris Lieto. In November, he was part of a delegation of athletes that travelled to build a house for a family in the town of Rosarito, near Tijuana.
“They try to put together trips for athletes that take them out of their comfort zone and do things that don’t have to do with their ultra-specialized lifestyles but gives them a broader perspective and world view. It’s a chance to refocus everything between seasons,” King said. “The first year I went I was really just expecting Lincoln logs or something but what I found was that actually some building skills were required. But the project manager divvies up tasks and teaches everyone what they need to know, and you just don’t put your hammer down from the time you arrive until the time you leave.
“It’s only four days of our lives but it really makes an eternal impact on the families who didn’t have a house and it also impacts those who come to serve. They often end up leaving with more than they came to give.”
King’s adventures in Latin America continued in January, when, for the second successive year, he spent a week training in Colombia as a guest of his teammate Janier Acevedo before beginning his season at the Tour de San Luis in Argentina.
“It works out great because it’s really hot in San Luis and obviously it was very cold in Virginia with the snow, so it was nice to get to Colombia and acclimate a little bit before the race,” he said of his stint near Rionegro, not far from Medellin. “You’ve got altitude and warm weather, and I enjoy the culture and the adventure of exploring a new place. There’s a huge cycling culture there too, with hundreds of riders on the road every day, so you feel very safe.”
The grandest adventure of King’s career to date, of course, was his maiden Tour de France last July. And arduous though the journey to Paris proved to be, like the best of adventures, it bears repeating.
“The short answer to ‘how was the Tour?’ is that it wasn’t fun because it was way too hard but it was one of the coolest things I’ve ever done, and I definitely want to go back.”