Victory in the Vuelta a España's tough first summit finish could not have been more timely both for Ben King and for the Dimension Data squad. King's win is the first since 2016 for the American and it is also the first for his team Dimension Data in the UCI WorldTour category this year.
The American's victory was taken in fine style, too, after he proved the strongest of a daylong breakaway and outpowered Astana Pro Team's Nikita Stalnov in a well-calculated late attack on the Sierra de Alfacar summit.
A spell in the overall race lead seemed like a real possibility for King for much of the stage, as the gap between the break rose to nearly 10 minutes with 60 kilometres to go and King was only 4:33 down on overall leader Michal Kwiatkowski (Team Sky) at the start of the day.
That was not to be, given Kwiatkowski stayed firmly in the lead group of favourites despite LottoNL-Jumbo's powerful accelerations shedding some of the GC contenders. But for King and Dimension Data, a victory on the Vuelta's first major summit finish remains their standout result of 2018 and a day to savour nonetheless.
"I didn't see it coming till the last kilometre, but I've been building all season towards this," King told reporters afterwards, after he blasted away from his most tenacious rival with a long, perfectly sustained sprint.
"I had to keep believing and keep believing, although for me personally, I'm still in shock."
King said he had set winning a Grand Tour stage as a goal for himself at the beginning of the year. "It's just something that I have to keep believing that I have the potential to do. It's really affirming. Myself and my wife have sacrificed so much to make this happen."
For Dimension Data, the victory in the Sierras de Alfacar is their first WorldTour win since the Tour de France's stage 20 last season, representing a much-needed success for a team that has, with multiple riders sick or injured, struggled to shine throughout this year. By this point in 2017, Dimension Data had 23 wins on the counter, this year they have had eight including King's Vuelta victory.
King said the team's overall goal is to ride for GC contender Louis Meintjes, but there is a certain degree of freedom to go for stage wins as well.
"It was part of the plan to be in the break. It was a big move with a lot of strong riders," he explained later. "We weren't going to be there just to be on TV.
"But it was on the limit of 'is this break big enough?', with nine riders in the break, but in the end, everything had to line up to work. Thanks to these guys [in the main bunch] for not chasing us down!" he joked.
Once the move had a 10-minute advantage, King realized that the break was going to stick but then another problem emerged - the quality of the opposition: "With some riders with real class and strength and experience in the breakaway, I wasn't really confident that I could the strongest, so I went for it early." King attacked almost at the foot of the final climb, with only Astana's Stalnov and Lotto's Jelle Wallays able to follow and "got a gap from the bottom, and I went into time trialling mode."
"With about 20 kilometres to go, I started to think about the overall because it was an option, too. But finally the main objective was the victory and Stalnov was willing to work with me more if I let him win the stage but really my main objective was the stage. When Pierre Rolland (Team EF Education First) began to close the gap behind me [and Stalnov] I just knew it levelled off a bit and had to go all out in the sprint and have the confidence I could do the last 200 metres."
"My stomach was churning with all the liquid I'd taken during the stage, I could feel cramps coming, I was empty. But I had it in my head that nothing was going to stop me in that last effort towards the finish line."
King simply qualified his first win in Europe in a Grand Tour as "enormous. I did win a stage in the [now defunct] Criterium International but nothing compares to winning in a Grand Tour. This was my objective all season and I've kept up my hopes all year, and keep having faith. There have been so many ups and downs this year."
In the Giro d'Italia, King said, the breakaways had universally failed to work out and he had been sick, "but you have to believe in yourself, try to put yourself in the best place to win. Nobody would have said that today's the day the breakaway would have worked out, but if you don't put yourself in a position to have a chance in an early breakaway, you never have a chance."
For the team, King said, "It's no secret it's been a difficult season, although we still believe in what we're doing, the atmosphere on the team has been great. We're motivated every day by the Qhubeka cause, raising awareness, and a victory like today's will help its work with the donation of bikes. It's an honour to race for such a noble cause and an extra motivation of us."
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Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. Apart from working for Cyclingnews.com, he is also the cycling correspondent for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.
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