Tour of California: King parlays escape into stage win and overall lead

27-year-old American in yellow after coming back from broken fibula

Slumped over his bike in the finishing straight, surrounded by reporters and photographers after having just won stage 2 of the Tour of California from an early breakaway, Cannondale Pro Cycling's Ben King had just one thing to say about his result.

"Oh. My. Gosh!" King exclaimed when Cyclingnews asked what the win meant to him following months of recovery from a broken fibula he suffered in a January training crash.

With the peloton bearing down on them, King outsprinted Rally Cycling's Evan Huffman in Santa Clarita after having spent most of the day in a four-rider breakaway that he and Huffman whittled down to just themselves in the final kilometres. It's King's first win since he took a stage and the overall lead at the 2015 Criterium International.

"Every result I've had in my career has come from a breakaway like this, where people just kind of underestimated the break and gave us a little too much time, like the stage at Criterium International last year when I snagged the yellow jersey," he said.

King seems to thrive as an escapee, and his team director says its because the 27-year-old American is in his element when his nose is in the wind and he's at the head of the race.

"A couple of years ago we asked him to go in the breakaway in Tirreno-Adriatico, and he just went directly," said Cannondale director Charly Wegelius. "In the peloton he struggles a little bit with these constant pace changes, but when he gets his head out in the road it's perfect for him."

Although any win is special for a team, when one of the riders who is normally a worker bee gets to throw his arms up at the finish, there's an increased satisfaction for everyone involved. King's win was even more deserving, Wegelius said, because of how hard he worked to come back from his injury.

"He was sitting on the turbo trainer for seven hours at a time at home," the team director said. "He worked very hard in the winter already before the accident, and he was super disappointed. But he really put in solid work to come back, and he was already racing in Catalunya, which is a pretty tight timeline.

"I think it's really nice for him, not just because of the accident but because of the type of rider that he is, that he gets his day. I think the whole group deserved it, and I'm really pleased for him."

King's opportunity to win came about because, like any good domestique, he was simply following team orders. He said he knew as much as a week ago that the team wanted him to fly the green argyle kit in a move during Monday's run from Pasadena to Santa Clarita. The route featured for categorised climbs and two final kickers with about 10km to go, providing the perfect playground for King's talents.

"I followed a lot of moves today at the beginning of the race," he said. "Finally the one that stuck was just four guys. So we're out there with 120km to go and four guys, it's kind of suicidal. You don't think you have much of a chance."

But the peloton underestimated King and his companions, letting the gap balloon over seven minutes before the panic alarms sounded and multiple teams threw riders into the chase. Finally, with about 30km remaining and the gap hovering around three minutes, BMC massed on the front to limit any time gaps King might have at the finish. The team pulled the gap down to eight seconds, but the sprinters were denied a second chance for a stage win.

"It was a little bit touch and go, to the point where I knew we had a chance," King said. "You just gotta be stubborn. If you start to think that you don't have a chance then you don't.

"Evan took a really, really hard pull over that last kicker with 10km to go, and I finished it off and came over the top. We actually pulled a few seconds out of the chase."

At that point King started thinking about the sprint and remembering mistakes he'd made in the past. He fought the instinct to jump early and let Huffman lead it out.

"I've been in this situation before and been a little too antsy in the finish and tried to attack before the finish because I didn't trust my sprint," he said. "I'll say this now, but I'm really glad Evan didn't know that with one K to go – I felt amazing all day – but then my legs started to cramp. So I was like, 'Oh boy.' I crossed the line with full cramps in both legs. I'm glad he didn't know that."

King now leads the general classification by eight seconds heading into the queen stage, which ends with the daunting climb up Gibraltar Road. Cannondale's designated leader for this race is Lawson Craddock, who recently finished ninth at Pais Vasco, and King said the team is still fully behind Craddock's GC efforts.

"This changes absolutely nothing for tomorrow," he said. "Lawson's our man. After my effort today, I'll be lucky to get to Gibraltar in one piece.

"That's a big deciding day for the overall classification, so it may end up that we keep the jersey on the team, it just changes shoulders and goes to Lawson, which is the best-case scenario. That's what we want.

"Obviously the yellow jersey comes with a lot of pressure, and some of these stages are petty wild and will be tough to control for any one team, but we have an incredible team here with a lot of guys who are fully committed to the team's objectives."

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