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An interview with Ben King, January 12, 2008.
Stepping up the ranks
With up and coming young riders like Ben King, the future of cycling looks bright. After a successful final year in the junior ranks including two junior national titles, King is stepping up to join the Kelly Benefit Strategies / Medifast Pro Cycling Team. Cyclingnews' Sue George met with the 18 year-old at his parents' home in central Virginia during a school break.
Date of Birth: March 22, 1989
Residence: Blacksburg, Virginia
Hometown: North Garden, Virginia
Team: Kelly Benefit Strategies / Medifast Pro Cycling Team
Previous Teams: Hot Tubes
Started riding: 2003
Started racing: 2003
Like many other college freshmen, King enjoys spending time with his friends, being outside climbing, snowboarding, bow hunting and fishing, or playing the guitar, but in addition, he's also balancing his studies in the business school at Virginia Tech with the training and racing needed to compete with America's top pros.
With the New Year, King has made the move from the Hot Tubes junior development racing squad to the Kelly Benefit Strategies / Medifast Pro Cycling Team directed by Jonas Carney where he'll join team-mates including Andrew Bajadali, Alex Candelario, David Veilleux and Nick Waite.
King first caught the notice of Hot Tubes' director Tobias Stanton when he was just 16 and sitting in third place at the Fitchburg-Longsjo Classic in Massachusetts in 2005. He ended up racing for the squad in 2006 and 2007. "This kid climbs like an angel," said Stanton, "He's an extraordinarily good kid. He's humble, gritty, and tough. He's pleasant to be around."
"When he learns how to race, he'll be a monster. When he's smart, he's unbeatable," said Stanton.
"I spent the 2007 season trying to make it back on the Worlds team," said King who is from North Garden, Virginia, but resides in Blacksburg during the academic year. "Winning nationals was the only way to guarantee that. Nationals is one of the big races we get to do. I put a lot of pressure on myself to peak for that race. I trained specifically for that all season."
"I had good legs," said King. "When I showed up, I was coming down with a cold. I got down [mentally] before the time trial. I had done everything I could all season and almost didn't race. When I got to the halfway point, I heard that I had some time, so I just went harder and tried not to lose it."
Before the national road race, King and his team-mates had talked about keeping the race together and "not trying to go with anything or waste any energy until two laps to go." Things didn't go quite according to plan.
"There was a real steep long hill in the middle of the circuit and on the first lap, my team-mate Nick Bax went to the front and set a hard pace. Then Danny Summerhill pulled through and kept the pace high. I thought I was going to die. I turned around and the whole field was there - I was surprised."
Taylor Phinney jumped over the top of the climb, but the group stayed together. Then when the peloton slowed on the downhill, King launched "a sort of joking attack." With the help of some fog, he was soon out of sight and out of the minds of his chasers, with the exception of Carter Jones with whom he rode for a half lap before dropping him and going on to a solo win with more than a seven minute advantage.
"It was a surprise for me to win both titles," said King. "I knew more or less who to watch and who would be good. Obviously it matters when you peak because Taylor Phinney came back and won [Junior] Worlds."
A family affair
King's easygoing and mature manner makes it easy to forget his age and relative inexperience. He started riding and racing just four years ago around age 14. His introduction to the sport came through his dad, Mark, who still regularly rides and races.
"He's been my coach," said Ben about his father. "He does everything and makes sure I always have the best shot. He'd give me his bike in the middle of a race if I needed it."
King's first race started on an inauspicious note. "I got hit by a car before the first race. I was trying to warm up. I was turning around and a big cargo van broke through the closed off area. I broke my bike, but I still got on Dad's and did pretty well."
Whenever King has the chance, he still races with his dad and his uncle in local races and the three practice team tactics against their fellow racers. "It's really fun," said King smiling as he remembered past races. Little brother 12 year-old Jake is also starting to ride and may be the next addition to the King family of racers.
2007 was King's second summer with racing experience in Europe - where he has travelled as part of the US Junior National Team and the Hot Tubes team.
"I won a race in France this year the Compte de Pays Louis," said King. "That was a confidence booster for sure. Everything kind of clicked.
"Then later on that week I raced in the Flanders classic [junior version] and got fifth. I missed the early break and caught the guys who got dropped out of the break."
"The next day we went to Axle, which is known as the hardest junior World Cup. Last year only one American finished, and I crashed on the last day. It was miserable. This year, I went and attacked as many times as I could and ended up sort of forming a 10 man break that got two minutes."
His luck didn't hold out though. "I crashed out 10km from the finish. That was unfortunate because it ended up being the top 10 of the race. But it was still a confidence booster even though I don't have any results to show."
King was, however, the only American finisher in his first and only attempt racing the Paris-Roubaix race for juniors. "I crashed the day before and thought that I'd broken a bone in my hand. I got it taped up well before the race. I was on the fence about whether to even race. Finishing was a pretty awesome feeling especially after I got two bike changes - my derailleur fell off. I ended up finishing way back, but I finished."
He also fared well at the Tour de l'Abitibi in Canada despite a rough opening stage. "The first day was 400m sprints and I ended up snapping my chain right off the ramp and lost one and a half minutes on the first stage. Usually that race is won by seconds with time bonus sprints. "
However, he spent the rest of the race working for his team-mate Phinney and ended up off the front in a long break. Thanks to the solid performances of all, Phinney won the overall with King taking fifth and the entire team collecting the GC.
All in all, King was happy with his 2007 campaign abroad. "It was an improvement over the first year when I got a feel for what it was like to race at that level. It was a steep learning curve, but I then knew what to prepare for over the winter."
"It definitely paid off. Between Hot Tubes and the National team and having hardly any results in 2006 and this year, we had all total maybe 30 top ten UCI finishes in different races."
Racing in 2008
King's primary race responsibilities will be toward his new team, but he hopes to race a few collegiate races for Virginia Tech as they fit into his schedule. "We should have a really strong road [collegiate] team, so we'll make it fun." Plus the early collegiate season can be good for tuning up the legs.
"My schedule's set up pretty well right now for school," said King who will turn 19 in March. "I knock my classes out early in the morning and then can get rides in after that. It puts me to bed earlier than most college students."
In 2008, King said he's prepared "to do lots of work for the team as the new guy. I'll look forward to doing what I can and learning as much as I can. Jonas [Carney] will tell me when to be in top shape and will help me make goals."
It's too early to say what kind of rider King will be. "I'm more of an all-arounder that can't sprint very fast. I don't really like time trials, but I can do them," said King of his current abilities. "It'll probably change."
"Right now I'm having so much fun with it. I just want to keep having fun with it. In the next few years, I hope to continue learning as much as possible. No matter what level I end up getting to, I want to reach my potential." With his natural ability, family support and dedication to training, King seems on track to do just that.
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Images by Sue George / Cyclingnews