Alex Howes and I pounded fists over the dinner table after what felt like stage 96 of the Vuelta. We’d just received an email announcing our selection as one of six Americans to represent the United States in the World Championships. Since Richmond, VA, the city of my birth, was declared 2015 host city, I made Worlds my number one goal. Selection pended on performance and motivation after a long season. I fought so hard for that carrot. As a local I’d been sort of a poster boy for the event, and I knew that most of my football fan friends wouldn’t understand if I didn’t make the team. Notwithstanding my ego, the opportunity to represent The USA on team USA in my home state will never come again. The last time America hosted worlds was 1986 in Colorado Springs.
Immediately after the Vuelta, the team, promoters, sponsors, and fans roped me into obligations in Richmond almost daily. I didn’t want to miss the full Worlds experience, but fought jet lag and three weeks of racing fatigue. Easy rides felt worst and the couch and junk food called with overwhelming seductive charm. My legs felt heavy and blocked, My adrenal glands were empty, but I could rally for the “deedle-eet” sound of my Garmin’s interval button and watched personal records fall.
Expectations and pressure were high and I had no clue how I’d be. That’s why when the directors said “breakaway” in the meeting I jumped. Not only could I get out front and dictate the pace, take pressure off the team, and be visible to my friends and family on course, I could hope to let the selection come to me and contribute more to my teammates when they came across.
Alex Howes (Boulder, CO): We are teammates on Cannondale-Garmin, roommates, similar interests, and we’re always on the same level. Before we became teammates he was my arch nemesis. #samelevelbro Alex can hurt himself more than anyone I know and always rises to the occasion. We were both sick for two weeks in the Vuelta, but Alex also broke a rib on stage 11. Alex enjoys coconut oil, canoeing, camping, and his hair is always perfect.
Taylor Phinney (Boulder, CO): Crowd pleaser, funny man, and son of two Olympians, Taylor is a purebred freak who quickly made his own name in the sport. We were teammates in the development ranks. Taylor races for BMC. In 2010 as devo kids we were the only two from our team who rocked up to elite nationals. We won both the time trial and road race. At the same race in 2014, Taylor hit a guard rail and shattered the bones in his left leg. He rebounded from what could have been a career ending crash to podium in his first comeback races.
Tyler Farrar (Seattle, Washington): Our most experienced hitter, Farrar has won stages in all three grand tours. If the race comes down to a sprint, Tyler has us covered. We were teammates on Garmin-Sharp last season. He’s 31 and turned pro in 2004. Tyler prefers to race himself into shape racking up over 100 race days every year. He and his girlfriend live in Ghent, Belgium. You’ll recognise him by his long ginger locks. But, they aren’t girly on his lumberjack frame.
Brent Bookwalter (Asheville, NC): Brent is the often overlooked work horse that gets it done. He creeps around in the top ten at every type of race. We raced the 2011 Worlds in Copenhagen together. He’s the kind of guy that you’d let date your daughter, but sorry ladies, he’s taken! It’s not too late to ride with Brent in his Grand Fondo http://www.bookwalterbinge.com.
Lawson Craddock (Austin, TX): Lawson, our youngest member, came through the same junior and U23 teams that I did raising the bar behind me with all kinds of victories. He’s a time trial specialist and also raced the Vuelta. He stepped up his game to defend his teammate’s leader’s jersey through the majority of that race. Lawson lives in Girona, Spain with his girlfriend during the season, and still finds a way to follow football americano, and eat hamburgers. We’ve been on the same track since the inception of our careers and I’m excited that we will be teammates in 2016.
The race: 16 laps in downtown Richmond with three steep hills two of them cobbled within 5 km of the finish line
The criteria for my breakaway hunt was 8+ riders. A smaller group would be suicide. I floated a couple moves. Then a group got up the road without me. I was blocked, and may have even said, “nuh-uh,” out loud and shook my head. I elbowed to the front and sprinted after it. Three of us got half way, then struggled for ten minutes to catch the five leaders. After a desperate chase we joined forces just as we passed by the area that my family had stationed.
Each time up Libby Hill inflicted permanent hearing damage. The entire course was a tunnel of sound with 650,000 screaming partying fans. They chanted “Let’s Go, Ben!” and it made me a little dizzy. I tried to moderate my effort, but I felt incredible. Soon a chase from the peloton organised. Sprinting out of the 20+ corners and over three hills each lap proved grueling. Riders dropped. The chase kept us at two minutes for six laps. Do we wait? Do we fight? Do they want to catch us so soon? I resisted and encouraged my breakaway partners. One by one, three of them dropped. Five of us pushed on, but with five laps to go the peloton started with the body punches and shut us down.
Normally after such an effort, the day is done. Nobody else from the breakaway finished. But I still had some angry in my legs. For three laps I held on for dear life, nearly going out the back. Taylor Phinney marked an attack and did two laps off the front. When he came back we missed a group of favourites. Crunch time. Germany chased but needed help. I rebounded. “Brent, do we have anyone there?… No? Ok.” I got to the front and throttled myself for one lap. I was told that the TV commentators said, “What the hell? Is that Ben King? It can’t be.” *patting myself on the back*. With two laps to go, Alex was involved in a crash. I stopped and helped pace him back. With one to go, Farrar attacked hoping to get over the hills ahead, but the tidal wave snuffed him out just before Libby Hill. Sagan launch on the second climb. Alex positioned himself perfectly. He and Brent placed top 20.
World’s not only met, but exceeded my expectations. I am proud to be a Virginian. Thank you.
On Monday morning, after a night of celebrating, I drove to NYC for sponsor obligations and the off-season officially began.