Ben King Digs Deep to Win Stage 9 of the Vuelta a España
I got in touch with Ben King to interview him for my blog. Before he replied to me, I read his race report from the Vuelta a España. I liked it so much I decided to quote an excerpt of his race report before I post his response. He won both stage 4 and stage 9 of the Vuelta and the whole story is well worth the read because Ben King is a great racer AND a great writer. Go to benkingusa.com/new-blog/ to read about his World Championships race in Austria.
Stage 9: 205 km
The plan for the second mountain top finish was to get Igor or Merhawi in the breakaway. After an aggressive fight for position in the neutral zone, however, I found myself at the front and covered the first attack. Eleven of us ripped through the twisty opening kilometres and our gap stabilised at four minutes. On the first long Category 1 climb, we rode hard enough that I could size up the group including the guys I didn’t know. The break included Thomas De Gendt, Bauke Mollema, Reto Hollenstein, Luis Mas, Luis Angel Mate and Edward Teuns, some of the strongest breakaway specialists in cycling. They made valuable allies for the moment, but would be formidable rivals if the stage came down to a shootout between us.
Once we crested the first climb, we increased the effort. Our gap stretched from 4 to 6 minutes. Then it ballooned to over 9 minutes making me the virtual race leader once again. It also meant that someone from the breakaway had a chance for victory. As the kilometres ticked by, I became increasingly alert. Thomas De Gendt had been frustrated by the lack of contribution from some of the breakaway riders, and I anticipated his early attack. In a breakaway this spring, De Gendt had shredded me off his back wheel and I knew if he gained an inch he could take a mile. His attack came on a steep hill with 30 km to go. I responded first and attached myself to his draft. The enormous effort hurt but that I had it in me was encouraging. Our group trimmed to 7 riders. All of us showed the effects of 5 arduous hours in the heat. From then on the course dragged up offering less recovery on the wheel.
As the peloton powered up the road behind us eating into our advantage, we continued working together but the tone shifted to one of wary enmity. Hollenstein attacked. We followed. Mollema tested us a couple of times. I surged once and noticed Mollema’s immediate reaction. Then Mas attacked up the right side. I know Mas is a strong rider. A quick look at the other riders told me that none of them was about to go after him. They didn’t want to risk another high intensity effort before the final 10 km HC category climb of the Covatilla. Shifting up a gear I darted after him. We entered a steep and very rough cobbled street that kicked up through a small town. Rattling over the uncomfortable stones I mashed the pedals and dropped Mas. Using the time between the wild cheers of groups of fans I judged the distance to my pursuers. After an all out five minute effort up the cobbles I was alone and committed. To make it count, I would need to open a discouraging buffer to everyone else. Over the radio my director said, “save something for the climb.” But, I felt like I had nothing left to save. I was running on stubborn defiance scrapping for every second. One rider against six sharing the load. My lead stretched little by little to 1 minute 25 seconds.
I’d been alone riding over my limit for 10 km, and then hit the climb, the hardest section of the stage. On the steep gradient, I’d have to ride my own pace as hard as I could without panicking or surging. After the first kilometer, my engine spluttered like a lawn mower sucking up the last drops of gas in the tank. I looked towards the top of the mountain. The barren landscape exposed layers of switchbacks at dizzying heights. Don’t ever look up again. From then on I focused on the pavement ahead of me. Mollema attacked the breakaway and in no time brought back 30 seconds. I believed the pure climber, who placed 4th overall in the Tour de France, would catch me, but I’m stubborn and focused on my own effort. He closed to within 40 seconds on the steepest section. Then the gap stabilised somewhat. If he wasn’t also suffering I knew he would quickly overcome my languished effort. Like battered boxers in the twelfth round we wrestled ourselves through each agonising minute. My director told me, “Mollema is suffering. He’s rocking all over his bike.” Conscious that similar information could be relayed to him, I focused on my composure. On the inside I flailed.
With five km to go twenty seconds separated us. If I looked back I could see him mere meters behind me. If he catches me, just maybe, I can stay with him and beat him at the finish. But solo is cool… and safer. The climb pitched up at 3.5 km to go. I thought if I concede a few seconds now, recover any strength possible, and accelerate over the steep part it might break him mentally. Mollema closed to a tantalising 15 seconds while I tried to steady my breathing. Then I thrust into the climb. From then on I didn’t get any more time splits. The acceleration emptied me. Two km to go. “I can do this,” but my thoughts were distant and blurry. Devoid of the adrenaline and endorphins that accompanied stage four, my muscled threatened to buckle. Even my arms struggled to support my upper body. I had no “final kick.” I looked back for Mollema, but the TV motorbike obscured my line of sight. One km to go. On the radio my director, Alex, said, “Enjoy it.” Enjoy it? Am I going to win? How can he be sure? It’s too painful to enjoy. I’ll enjoy it later. It will be worth it. Just before the finish, I knew. I pointed to heaven, kissed my wedding ring, and raised my arms.
On the other side of the finish line I collapsed. I didn’t even notice Mollema roll through 45 second later. It was a more dramatic and beautiful victory than stage four. It both destroyed me and reinforced my potential. It’s still sinking in.