For first-time Tour de France competitors like Ben King, who will line up with Garmin-Sharp for the start in Leeds on Saturday, the time leading up to the race can be a mix of excitement and terror. But the 25-year-old from Virginia told Cyclingnews he's had a single-minded focus on the race since November, and he's confident in his preparation for stepping onto cycling's biggest stage.
King is currently in his fourth year at the World Tour level. He rode with the Trek-Livestrong Continental team for two seasons through 2010, winning both the U23 and US professional road race championships during his last season with the team. He signed with Radioshack in 2011, which became Radioshack-Nissan for the next two seasons, forging his way in the European peloton as a solid domestique.
Following the 2013 season, King signed a two-year deal with Garmin-Sharp that will take him through the end of 2015, and the move has paid off with his first Tour de France start.
The Garmin roster will be missing a few names that have featured prominently on its Tour de France squads for the past several years. David Millar, who has raced every Tour with Garmin since 2008, vented his frustrations publicly when he was cut from the roster following illness and a lackluster performance at the British national championships, where he dropped out of both the time trial and road race. For the 37-year-old, who has already announced that this will be his final season, losing the opportunity to start his 13th-and-final Tour in his home country was a crushing blow.
Tom Danielson admitted he hasn't been himself as of late when he announced on Twitter last week that he didn't made the team's final cut, and sprinter Tyler Farrar, a stage winner in 2011, didn't make the roster for the second consecutive year. Ryder Hesjedal, the 2012 Giro d'Italia winner and veteran of 13 Grand Tours, is not on Garmin's Tour de France squad for the first time in six years.
Instead, King will join Janier Acevedo, Jack Bauer, Alex Howes, Sebastian Langeveld, Ramunas Navardauskas, Tom-Jelte Slagter, Andrew Talansky and Johan Vansummeren for the start in Leeds. The average age of the team riders is 27, and only Vansummeren, 33, is older than 29. The race will be the first Grand Tour for King and Acevedo, and four of the Garmin riders will be competing in the Tour de France for the first time.
Team CEO Jonathan Vaughters said the squad had been picked around Talansky's general classification hopes following the 25-year-old's win last month at the Critérium du Dauphiné. Along with teammates Talansky and 26-year-old Howes, King is part of a new generation of US riders moving into the world's biggest races, and the Garmin roster as a whole appears to be a generational shift for the US WorldTour team as it approaches the end of its first decade.
Cyclingnews caught up with King as he travelled to Leeds from his home in Lucca, Italy, to ask him about Garmin's Tour team and his first Grand Départ.
Cyclingnews: Every young cyclist dreams of riding the Tour de France. You've been working toward this since you were a teenager. Has it sunk in yet?
King: It is a dream to race the Tour. I've always measured my progress by setting challenging but achievable goals and each year I've shown improvement. I have been aiming at a Grand Tour for the past three years and thought I would start with the Giro or Vuelta, but the Tour wasn't even on my radar until the directors sat me down in November and told me to make that my goal. Since then I've been focused with a single mind on building up for this. The faith team Garmin-Sharp has put in me is such an honor and so humbling. I'd say I'm speechless, but this interview will prove otherwise! There is so much going on in my head right now.
CN: What do you think this means for you personally, for your career and for your development as a rider?
King: People say that racing a Grand Tour changes you as a rider. It can take you to a new level. I don't know how it will affect my development or career. For now I'm focused on doing my job for the team, taking it day by day, and I'll have to wait and see how it affects my future.
CN: This will be your first Grand Tour after riding for WorldTour teams since 2011. What has been the difference this year that has lifted you into the Tour? Did the change of teams make the difference? Was that a consideration when you transferred to Garmin? The average age on Trek's Tour de France team is 32. Do you think you'd be going if you had stayed with that team?
King: As I said, Garmin has put a lot of faith in me and has scheduled a dream race program for me. The races I've done suit me and I always have clear objectives. I learned a lot from the older riders you mentioned on Trek. It's great to see Matthew Busche also earning a spot on their Tour team. I can't speculate on where I'd be if I were on a different team this year, but I have shown improvement and have raced with more confidence this season. I'm thankful to the staff and my teammates on Garmin-Sharp who've made it possible to step up, and I can't help feeling after just six months with them that it's just the beginning.
CN: Many of Garmin's veteran Grand Tour riders were left off the Tour de France squad. The average age of Garmin's Tour roster is 27, and this will be the first Tour start for you and three of your teammates. The team GC leader is only 25. Do you sense a generational change within the team?
King: In 2010 I raced along side Talansky and Alex Howes at the Tour de l'Avenir (the tour of the future) where Talansky placed second to Nairo Quintana. I remember our director there, Pat Jonker, driving us around France telling stories from the glory days, "one day you'll be racing over these climbs in the Tour." I also remember thinking, "yeah right, Pat." But it raised my adrenaline the way he talked about it.
Howes and I have pushed each other throughout our careers taking turns winning U23 nationals and we set the bar high for each other. Talansky lived in Lucca for the first years of my Euro career. We trained together and have become good friends. Even guys like Navardauskus and Slagter are familiar from racing the U23 circuit. It's surreal heading into the Tour de France as their teammates. There's certainly a youthful enthusiasm on the team but also a camaraderie within the team that will make it an even greater adventure.
CN: Have you spoken with management about what your role within the Tour de France squad will be? Will you get the green light for breakaways, or will the team be solely focused on the GC result for Talansky this year? What do you believe you bring to the Tour de France team?
King: I think it's no secret that we have a GC contender with Talansky. Maybe still an outsider but how could I not get behind that? To have somebody up on GC makes it possible to go extra deep every day. It gives the suffering a purpose beyond surviving. I'm excited to be a part of that. And, who knows? Maybe one stage that will involve getting up the road in a breakaway or maybe we'll be in a position to control the race. It's impossible to say now, but I'm all in for the team. Oh, I was also told that my "positive attitude can be an asset for the team when the going gets tough"... I hope I'm still smiling after 2 weeks!
CN: How much motivation will you get from riding for an American general classification contender on an American team?
King: As if I needed extra motivation! It's incredible. Like I said before, we are all friends on the team. I couldn't push harder for Talansky or Howes just because they are American than I could for Slagter or Acevedo. We all depend on each other. It's a team sport unlike any other. But there is a certain amount of pride associated with representing the USA on the grandest stage for cycling in the world and on an American team.
CN: This will be your first Grand Tour, is that a bit intimidating or are you hungry to tackle it? How is your confidence level?
King: I am excited, terrified, hungry, all of the above. I will look to my teammates and the directors for practical advice and support, and when the race starts focus on my job. Positive self talk does nothing for me once a race is underway. I know what I'm supposed to do and either do it or do not. Before a race my mind works over different scenarios and the appropriate responses. For example, if I'm supposed to go in the breakaway, I calculate which riders will be attacking, which teams to watch, and try to determine the atmosphere in the peloton to gauge how long it will take for the break to establish.
Wondering whether I can do what's asked of me only allows my nerves to get the better of me. The days leading in are the most nervous. The familiarity of pedaling always calms me down. I'm confident in my training. I'm the best that I can be. Of course, there is tremendous pressure, but my faith, family, friends, and team keep me level. It's great to be so excited about something so I will try to soak in everything.