The King stage that changed everything

American Ben King recalls his two stage wins at the Vuelta a Espana this season.

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Sometimes good things come to those who wait. Ben King’s faith in himself and in his ability paid off handsomely in the Vuelta a España. The Dimension Data rider delivered not one but two stage victories that all but salvaged the team’s otherwise lackluster and injury-plagued season.

Years of experience, doggedness, and persistence came to fruition for King, who took two impressive breakaway wins.

“It’s just a matter of putting yourself out there and keep doing it,” King told VeloNews. “It’s never easy to win out of a break.”

The sweet taste of grand tour success was a long time coming for the hard-working and easy-going King.

The Virginian made his grand tour debut in 2014 and has raced at least one every year since. In 2017, he was stricken so badly by a stomach flu at the start of the Vuelta that he “couldn’t walk up the stairs” and was forced to stop after two stages. Reinvigorated in 2018, he was hoping to get another shot at a grand tour stage win at the Giro d’Italia, but the race was so tightly controlled that a breakaway didn’t stick until the final week. The Vuelta was his best and last chance.

Here’s King in his own words recounting the breakthrough Vuelta victory:

Grand tour challenge: “Grand tours are the highest level of racing. You have to pick your day. You learn to read when a stage is suited for a breakaway. You speak with your directors. They usually know when it’s going to be a good chance that a break has a chance. That’s the style of racing that suits me best. I am not a pure sprinter and I am not going to win the GC. There are a lot of other guys in the peloton just like me. It’s never easy.”

Making his chances: “I looked at the profile of stage 4 and thought it was day for a breakaway. My directors agreed and said I should go for it. I jumped on the first move. It was a big move and Sky was not interested in the jersey, so we knew we would have a chance. Lotto was chasing hard and I wasn’t sure why. With 40km to go, it became obvious we were riding for the stage win.”

Tactical acumen: “I got that in my head that I was riding for the win. There were some riders in the break that I wasn’t sure how it was going to stack up. When we hit the bottom of the final climb to Alfacar, I went hard to create a smaller select group that would work together. Guys were sitting on and I wasn’t sure if they were bluffing. There were three of us, then we dropped Jelle [Wallays of Lotto-Soudal]. The Astana guy [Nikita Stalnov] didn’t want to work with me because he wanted the stage if I was going to take the lead. I wanted the stage as well. I had made it my goal in my career to win a grand tour stage. The leader’s jersey was secondary. Later it was obvious that I wasn’t going to take the jersey. Pierre [Rolland] was chasing us. I trusted my sprint and I wasn’t too concerned about Pierre because he had to go so hard to chase us down. With Pierre there, that forced Stalnov to lead out the sprint. I won pretty easily.”

Not settling for second: “I am getting a better feeling about reading the other guys around me. In the 2016 Vuelta [stage 4], I was in a similar situation and I got third in the stage. I didn’t want that to happen again. I didn’t want it to be another ‘so close but yet so far’ memory.”

Every day is a battle: “In this sport, you’re always riding as if it’s a job interview. You’re only as good as your last race. Look at what happened to the guys on Aqua Blue, Jelly Belly or UHC. I have really good friends on those teams and it’s really sad. All those guys work just as hard as I do. You put your whole life in one direction and make so many sacrifices. You move to a foreign country. You give up on other career choices. We’re always fighting for our jobs. We race because we love what we do. It feels so good to be racing for victory. We just want to race our bikes.”

Grand tour the ultimate test: “You’re able to test yourself more in a race against other people. It’s the whole culture of the peloton. It’s so competitive. You cannot train as hard as you race. You push your limits and really see what you’re made of. Getting through a grand tour, you feel like you’ve lived a lifetime of experiences in the course of a month. You come in fresh and then suffer so many ups and downs. The first time you finish it, you’re almost crippled and on your deathbed. After having a few grand tours in my legs, I’m getting more adapted to it. I’ve never done two grand tours in one season before. Just knowing what to expect helps you deal with the level of fatigue. When I finished the Giro this year I was completely destroyed. The stages were just ridiculously hard. I was worried I was going to be that guy who was dropped on the neutral start. I didn’t even know if that was going to be possible to race the Vuelta, let alone try to win a stage. But I recovered better than I expected and I was feeling strong.”

Sweet taste of success: “It is really something I wanted to achieve. I made winning a grand tour stage a kind of life goal, along with racing in the Olympics. It feels reaffirming. I put the work in. Also now that I am married, it means even more. My wife [Jenna] has made so many sacrifices and changes. She quit her job and moved to another country. This feels like a victory for both of us. I’ve seen a lot of subtle validations throughout the years. Living in a different country, it grows you as a human as well.”

Enjoying the win: “It was a great ambiance at the dinner table. We really needed that. We always believed in our potential and our possibilities and we always keep fighting at every race. It certainly wasn’t a secret that the season wasn’t going great for us. It’s a good victory for the team and for Qhubeka, which does such great work. We had a great dinner that night. We popped a bottle of champagne and celebrated the victory. Everyone was really wanting that victory and we could share it with everyone.”

Sharing the victory: “My dad interrupted a business meeting to watch the finish. He works for a company that sells air filters and he was in a meeting with a bunch of German clients. Everyone was so happy to see me win. The phone reception was really bad on the top of the mountain but I finally got a call into my wife and my family. I was floored by the messages of support and congratulations from social media and with e-mails and messages. It was pretty overwhelming, the support from everyone. It was very humbling.”
Sticking to what he knows best: “The GC? I’ve never thought about that. It’s not something I’ve ever entertained. Maybe in the shorter stage races and at my maximum potential with all the right conditions. I know that the GC in a grand tour is not within my capacities. Now that I’ve won, I am only more confident. It’s payback for all the hard work and sacrifice. And it’s confirmation that you can do it. Now I want to win more!”

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