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A look at the school, the races and the future of this unique 'sport'
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Best young rider, Ben King (RadioShack), was all smiles before the stage start.
American on the ups and downs of his first Grand Tour
The Tour de France neophyte often relies on the advice of more experienced hands as he looks to survive the rigours of La Grande Boucle, but sometimes, there's nothing quite like the reassurance of his peers.
Ben King is one of three debutants in Garmin-Sharp's Tour roster, alongside Alex Howes and Janier Acevedo, and through the two and a half weeks of the race to date, they have served as a useful gauge of one another's efforts.
"After the breakaway goes and it settles down for a little bit, I've found myself looking around at some of the younger guys like Nelson Oliveira - we were teammates on RadioShack - Alex [Howes] and Janier [Acevedo] and we're like: ‘Was that hard for you?' 'Ok, good, because that was hard for me,'" King told Cyclingnews.
"But it's nice to see even the best riders in the world suffering at this point. There are a lot of hollow eyes and sunken cheeks and faces. It's been a hard race up to this point but everyone is tired, not just me. I've been using that for my morale."
King lies 55th overall as the Tour enters its final four days, and while the Arc de Triomphe is almost discernible on the horizon, the American is loath to allow himself think too far ahead, not least because he was struck by a nagging illness on the race's entry into the Alps.
"The second week I was feeling better every day but then I came down with the same respiratory illness that's been just smashing half the guys in the peloton so I was really appreciative of the rest day," he said. "People think it's close to being done but we have a lot of mountains still to come."
The combination of mountain passes and accumulated fatigue have at least had the benefit of alleviating the level of attrition in the battle for positions in the peloton. King admitted that no amount of forewarning can prepare a rider for the pressures of the opening week of the Tour, but in Alps and Pyrenees, at least, risk-taking is more an option than an obligation.
"The first week was extremely stressful - crashes everywhere, absolute carnage on the road, so I was really happy to have come through that safely," he said. "I feel more comfortable in the mountains than I do on the flat because there is less stress in the mountains. The mountains ask the hard questions and you answer them with your legs, not with how insane you are at fighting in the bunch for position."
King and his Garmin-Sharp teammates began the Tour with the task of shepherding Andrew Talansky in his bid for the general classification, but he was another high-profile victim of the race's crash-strewn opening act, eventually abandoning after a courageous solo ride to Oyonnax on stage 11.
The young Garmin team was forced to revise its plans and change its mindset on the hoof, but even before that disappointment, King realised that surviving through the Tour's four Sundays would prove to be a test of mind as much as a test of legs.
"It's as mentally challenging to stay focused, to stay motivated, to stay driven as it is physically challenging because at this point, even your brain is short-circuiting a little bit," King said. "I find myself in the cloud sometimes in the stages and you just have to come back down into the moment, into the pain. You can't zone out, you can't lose focus, so mentally it's been challenging as well as physically."
In three years at RadioShack, King was never afforded the opportunity to ride a Grand Tour. Completing a three-week race is an important rite of passage for any professional and an achievement in itself, but at 25 years of age, King is aware, too, that it is essential to his further development.
"I've never done a grand tour before, so I've never put together so many consecutive race days and certainly not at this level," he said. "It's definitely eye-opening, definitely next level and I can see why people would say doing a grand tour does change your physique and your physical make-up so I hope to reap the benefits in the future."