In 2013, the Tour de France ended abruptly for Cannondale's Ted King, when he was struggling with a shoulder injury from a stage 1 crash, and was dropped from the team time trial and missed the time cut. This year, King is being given his second shot in the Grand Boucle, and is fully committed to his role in supporting Peter Sagan's bid for a third points classification victory.
The 30-year-old represents the unsung heroes that make up the vast majority of the peloton: the riders who spend their entire careers watching their teammates raise their arms in victory, be lauded on the podium, and grilled in post-race press conferences, while quietly celebrating their contribution to the result. Many never make the front page, but it was King's heart-wrenching exit from the Tour last year that stole headlines when he was disqualified from the race for missing the time cut by a mere seven seconds.
It all began on the opening stage, when the Orica-GreenEdge bus got wedged under the finish line banner, and the race officials scrambled to first find an alternate finish with 3km to go, and then, when the bus was finally extracted, return the finale to its original location.
"We were getting weird news on the radio, whether there was going to be a finish three kilometres shy of the actual finish or not," King recalled to Cyclingnews. "In the end it was unfolding to be a sprint stage and we were obviously there for Peter. It would have been awesome to put Peter in the yellow jersey.
"I was moving up on the left side of the peloton. There was a sidewalk that segued to a metal barrier and a rider in front of me clipped that and in the end took down three or four guys with him and I went straight over the top of them and just ploughed my shoulder straight into the ground."
He soldiered on for two more stages before lining up for the team time trial. He struggled from the start, unable to stand up and pull on the bars to accelerate, he lost contact in the first few kilometers and despite his best efforts, failed to make the time cut.
Though his emotions were raw as he watched the peloton start the fifth stage without him, the resilient New Englander rebounded quickly, thanks to his characteristically unselfish world view.
"The first day I wasn't racing, I was heartbroken," King said. "One moment I was racing the Tour de France then the next day I wasn't. Then I picked up a New York Times and it just showed civil war, people dying and people starving and nuclear weapons and I thought to myself, 'my problem is not racing a bike race in France'. Granted, it’s the pinnacle of my sport but in the grand scheme of things, it’s not the end of the world. So yeah, I’ve certainly got over the disappointment."
The pain was dulled somewhat by the presence of his close-knit family at the race, and a brief, impromptu French holiday, but his parents won't be at the race this year. "We’re in touch regularly so they'll be there, just not physically," he said. "You race for a variety of reasons and one of them is to make friends and family proud and knowing they will be watching certainly is a motivator."
King will be one of eight Americans in the Tour de France this year, most of whom represent the 'new generation', who turned pro well after the Lance Armstrong era.
"I think it’s incredible. We’re at the perfect cross section of the old guard and the new generation with me pretty much smack in the middle in terms of age," King said. "It’s awesome to see the talent that is materializing in American cycling. The success we ’re having. Tejay [van Garderen] and [Andrew] Talanksy are two of the best young professional cyclists on the planet. I’m proud to be part of US cycling and I’m happy to call all those guys friends."
The good domestique
Behind every great champion is an equally great team, and Sagan has certainly demonstrated that he is up to the task of finishing off the hard work of his squad. To be a helper for a rider like the Slovakian champion is a great honour for King.
"It’s a lot more rewarding to work for someone that has the success rate that Peter has. He’s fun on the bike, he’s fun off the bike, and he’s a one in a generation kind of guy. We’re not going to see anyone with his kind of talent for a very long time. I remember being very frustrated working against him and now these past four years, it’s been an honour and privilege racing for him."
Though Sagan has a reputation for shenanigans, like pulling wheelies, pinching podium girls, or even dying his beard green to match his points jersey in last year's Tour de France, King says he is serious when it counts.
"He’s professional in a tremendous sense. Yeah you see his antics on the bike and see the fun he brings to the bike but he is also tremendously serious. It can be both tangible and intangible. We’ll have pre-race and post-race meetings and we don't joke around in them. You have an agenda and a goal for the day so most certainly, he’s a professional bike rider."
The first order of business will be to put Sagan into the first leader's jersey of the race, and it will be a tricky proposition. The roads on the opening stage from Leeds to Harrogate in Yorkshire are narrow and peppered with steep climbs. With a good chance of rain, the first-day nerves and every team fighting for the maillot jaune, it will be a battle for survival as much as it will be for victory.
King plans to do reconnaissance of the opening stages with the team before Saturday, and hopes to avoid last year's disaster. But he acknowledges that there is no good way to take crashes out of bike races.
"I think you'll get rid of crashing as soon as you get rid of concussions in American football. It’s an inherent part of the sport. Everybody hates it but it’s there and it’s almost there to stay."
Perhaps, with his aborted Tour de France debut behind him, King will find his way around the inevitable crashes and be there to celebrate with the team on the Champs-Élysées on July 27.