Two phone calls, just about twelve years apart, and two life-altering moments for Ben King, Rally Cycling’s final signing for 2021. And just as the roster is now complete, so too is a pretty incredible full circle.
“I still remember after winning junior nationals in 2007 and then getting the phone call from Jonas Carney in my dorm room at college.”
Carney was calling to offer King a ride on Kelly Benefit Strategies / Medifast, the first iteration of the team that became Rally Cycling.
“I had to decide if bike riding was the direction I wanted to take my life in. It really did change my path, that opportunity from Jonas.”
Carney himself remembers the first time around.
“When we first brought Ben to our program, he was just a kid. We hired him straight out of the junior ranks. It’s just incredible to think after so much time has passed he’s coming back to our team as a seasoned WorldTour professional. It’s really exciting to have Ben rejoin our team after such a long time.”
Instead of the typical college experience, King began what he called a “crazy whirlwind lifestyle.”
“I was at Virginia Tech, but I was gone every weekend, driving home Thursday night, skipping Friday classes to fly out to a race, and then getting back late on Monday in time for my evening lecture.
“I’d get back to campus and it felt hard to relate to my peers; they were all spending their weekends doing completely different stuff.”
Kelly Benefit Strategies / Medifast provided the springboard to something bigger. Trek-Livestrong came calling and a couple of seasons later, the WorldTour beckoned.
“That time at college taught me a lot about work ethic and about the drive it takes to succeed. After my first year, I moved onto the Trek-Livestrong team while finishing up my second year at university, but from there I knew I needed to choose.
“If I wanted to make it into the WorldTour I couldn’t have both. I needed to commit to a full European program and I couldn’t do that as a full-time student.”
King became US national road champion in 2010 after soloing for over 100 km to claim the title, adding a senior stars and stripes jersey to go with the one from his junior years. He placed eighth in the young rider classification at his debut Tour de France, with the white jersey won by Thibaut Pinot.
Across 10 years in the top echelon of the sport, King won stages of the Amgen Tour of California, the Criterium International, and of course, his barnstorming run at the 2018 Vuelta a España which garnered not one but two stage victories.
“Obviously the Vuelta is special to me and on paper, those are my best results, but I’d really like to return to the Giro. I’ve lived in Italy for the last 11 years but only raced it once. And then of course there’s the Tour, which is just on a whole other level in terms of everything surrounding the race. I hope I can help the team get there.”
As a rider, King has come a long way over the last decade, and he says it’s a trajectory that matches that of the program known now as Rally Cycling.
“In 2008 [Kelly Benefit Strategies] were doing mostly criteriums in the US. Nowadays Rally Cycling has a full European calendar and is at some of the top-level races. Back then I was also still discovering what kind of rider I was, and how far I could go in the sport.”
While stage racing has always been his specialty, King says his love for the one-days has grown in recent years.
“I’ve gained a greater appreciation for the really gritty, fight-for-position races. I’ve done almost all of them including Paris-Roubaix which is just really special.”
Sometimes the races you want to love, turn out not to love you back.
“I guess your results and your performance, and how they all align, can affect how much you enjoy a race. I think if it was possible just to enjoy a race, a lot more races would be fun. If, at the end of a race, you don’t get the result you wanted that can color your impressions.”
And of course, in a year turned upside down, life has been particularly challenging for King, who welcomed his first child into the world just a month ago.
“It was such a tough year with all the lockdowns and being away from my wife. What with the baby coming, I was under an enormous amount of stress. When racing resumed there were so many unknowns up in the air, not knowing if I’d be able to get back to the US for the birth. And also with [NTT Pro Cycling] searching for a title sponsor, not knowing what I’d do for work.
“That all took a toll on my ability to focus and enjoy the process of training and racing, and that extra stress just made me so tired and run down and ready for an off-season even though we didn’t do a long stretch of racing.”
It was at about this point that the second phone call came on a day even more life-altering than the first.
“Jonas actually called me in the hospital a couple of hours after my son was born to offer me the spot on the team – that made for quite a crazy weekend.”
King said yes and – while the kind of sleep required for optimal post-ride recovery is a fondly-remembered thing of the past as he adjusts to life with a newborn – he is brimming with optimism about the future.
“I’m so excited to be coming back. I’ve kept in touch with Jonas pretty much every year over the last decade, he and Charles Aaron have always been people I respect and enjoy catching up with.
“As the team has grown, it’s always been attractive to me; the North American atmosphere will be really fun to be a part of, and John Kelly’s involvement is important as well. He’s been a family friend since before I was racing bikes. I can remember being on hunting trips with him and he would talk about wanting to have a team in the Tour de France and that looks achievable now in the future.”
He was also keen to stress the importance of the Rally Cycling ethos.
“The culture I remember and still appreciate from the outside is the team’s commitment to a common goal, the gritty breakaway racing style, and strong ethics, plus their firm stance against doping.”
King’s optimism about the new start has translated into a fresh drive to train hard.
“I kinda surprised myself with how motivated I am. I’ve been cranking back up the training. We’re working on ways to get some sleep around the newborn’s schedule, but I’m excited about team camp coming up and the races to follow.
“I love the vision of the team, the direction it has been headed for the decade I’ve been away. It’s exciting to be a part of that, hopefully, to be an influence on the further growth of the team. With Joey Rosskopf also coming, and the results the team achieved with Gavin Mannion and Keegan Swirbul at the end of the season, I’m excited to be going into that environment.”
King’s best career results have come mostly from escapes, something he’s eager to change.
“I’m working on my explosivity in the gym a lot. It’d be good to learn how to get a result that didn’t come from a breakaway. I think if I could be more patient and save some energy to get some results from the field that would be cool.”
And he looks forward to helping share his abilities with his new teammates.
“The team has some great sprinters, some really punchy riders, and I think the strengths I’m working on now will be really beneficial for the team – either for myself or as support for one of the other punchy guys in the team.”
For King, the prospect of ending his cycling career came uncomfortably soon.
“When it was getting late in the year and I still didn’t have a contract, I felt unsettled about potentially ending my career. I contemplated it, but it didn’t feel right. Analytically speaking, that desire to fulfill my potential is still what drives me. I’ve shown I’m a pretty decent bike rider at my best, but I still haven’t reached what I’m ultimately capable of.”
12 years on, while almost every aspect of his life away from the bike has changed, some things still haven’t.
“My goals are still the same, to reach my full potential. I spent 10 years in the WorldTour on three different teams and that was a great experience, but still one of the most fun years of my career was racing with Kelly Benefits in 2008.”