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Ben King Diary: Racing like a rock star at Tour of California

I felt like a rock star racing in the USA’s most prestigious race in the stars and stripes for the winning team.

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2011 Amgen Tour of California, stage 5, Casey B. Gibson gallery
King and Jason McCartney on the front for RadioShack during stage 5. Photo: Casey B. Gibson

Editor’s Note: This is the latest diary by RadioShack’s Ben King, who will be defending his national pro road race title Monday in Greenville, South Carolina. He has promised to send another diary soon about the road race.

I felt like a rock star racing in the USA’s most prestigious race in the stars and stripes for the winning team.

From the beginning every action of our leaders, Chris Horner and Levi Leipheimer, evidenced intense focus. After the cancellation of stage 1, Horner rode the trainer for three hours. I’ll assume that makes him the winner of stage 1. By the end of the week, however, we had all forgotten his stage 1 victory and the frustrations of a delayed start.

Levi, confident in his high-altitude preparation and eventual need of our support, graciously gifted each of us an Ipad from RadioShack. World renowned physiologist, Allen Lim, told me a few of the Rocky Balboa-esque training days and motor pace sessions that Levi had attacked. The week before Levi sent me a message reading, “Take care of yourself and get ready for battle. We’re going to crush it.” Levi isn’t a trash talker, so his surety invigorated me.

The other domestiques showed signs of their commitment and confidence in our team. Swapping pulls with Markel all week, I chuckled to myself remembering what he had said upon accepting his new Ipad before the race had started. “Hey Levi, when I’m pulling for you just don’t tell me to slow down, because I don’t want to give it back!”

J-Mac (Jason McCartney) brings not only years of experience but a positive attitude that helped relieve loads of tension under pressure from our sponsors and management. After Horner stole the race lead, our director, Alain Gallopin, spoke nervously about “big breakaway groups that could be a problem.” J-Mac waited patiently for Gallo to express his concerns. Then he leaned forward and winked with a cordial smile, “it’s not a problem.” That’s when I noticed the garden hose veins wrapping his shredded quad. I tossed the jagged course profile aside. “No problem.”

Early in the race I teetered between being eager to support the team and stressing that I might get in the way and screw something up. With Levi on my wheel, wet circuits, and a disintegrating peloton, I felt the pressure of supporting a three-time champion. I sprinted in a panic. Both he and Horner gained time on other favorites.

On stage 3 Chris Horner broke a wheel 13 km from the finish. Markel Irizar swapped bikes with him, and I pulled him back to the field in another panic. Crisis averted.

Although it felt nice to be useful in these technical situations, I had prepared all season to flog myself on the front. I anticipated the best seat in the house — front and center.

On stage 4 we took control. Horner wanted to destroy the field. On the first roller his legs felt exceptional, so he told us “every climb we go full gas.”

With Markel and I assigned to do as much damage as possible for the 85 km leading into Mount Hamilton, we time trialed at the head of the peloton. Horner and Levi cracked the whip as we reeled in the ten-man breakaway including the world champ, Thor Hushovd. Concerned that catching the break would make us vulnerable to another flurry of attacks, our director tried to slow us down. Horner captured the moment in a post race interview.

“We have one of the best directors in the European peloton, Alain Gallopin. After stringing out the field at mach speed for half an hour, Gallopin starts yelling, ‘slow down! Slow down!’ We have our young neo-pro, Ben King, with a big director that’s paying his salary telling him what to do. So Ben starts to slow down, and I start yelling, ‘speed up!’ I looked over at Gallopin and said, “we’re gonna make this race as hard as we possibly can.”

Horner and Gallopin have worked together since 1997 so Horner recognized the stare that said, “oh, you better be right.” On Sierra Road his legs did the talking.

I dropped anchor and weaved up the final climb hearing along the way that Horner had soloed to victory and that he and Levi held first and second on GC. That simplified my job description for the remainder of the race: pull hard as long as possible.

Each day I exceeded my own expectations. For example, on stage 7, I fretted the first 18 km climb. After all the work I had already done, I hoped only to survive it so that I could pull on the other side. When J-Mac motioned me to the front, I obeyed like a sheep going to slaughter. To my surprise, J-Mac, Markel, and I controlled the pace up the entire climb, and the next, until the base of Mout Baldy. I believe that Murayev, Busche, and Zubeldia took over when we had exhausted ourselves and put Levi and Horner in position to close the deal. For certain we had something to celebrate at RadioShack’s post race party.

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