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Ben King (Trek-Livestrong) put an affirmative stamp on the U.S. peloton Sunday when he won the115-mile road race at the USA Cycling professional national championships with a heroic 40-mile solo attack in Greenville, South Carolina.
King, the U23 road race and criterium champion, left breakaway companions Daniel Holloway (Bissell) and Scott Zwizanski (Kelly Benefit Strategies) on the slopes of Paris Mountain and held off a sometimes-disorganized chase to make it two-for-two for his development squad this weekend.
The trumpeter had barely finished the national anthem before five riders went clear on the first lap. King opened up the first gap just outside downtown Greenville. He was soon joined by Bissell’s national criterium champion Daniel Holloway, Scott Zwizanski (Kelly Benefit Strategies), Saturday’s time trial bronze medalist Bernard Van Ulden (Jelly Belly-Kenda) and Thomas Brown (Mountain Khakis-Jittery Joe’s).
Van Ulden’s back locked up halfway through the first 4.2-mile starting circuit and he was the first rider in the break to fall off the pace. “I can barely pedal right now, which is so sad because that group was really not that hard to get into and you saw that the field sat up,” he said. “My back was tightening up this morning, but as soon as I started really pushing on the pedals to get across to the group it instantly started going and by the time I got there, I couldn’t pedal.”
Brown followed Van Ulden into no man’s land just past the start/finish and the leaders were then three: Holloway, King and Zwizanski. The trio built a lead of nine minutes over two more opening circuits and the long, flat Old Buncombe Road as they approached the first climb of Paris Mountain, 20 miles into the race.
Back in the field, Kelly Benefit Strategies and Bissell patrolled the front, their competitors disinterested in an early chase, a mistake that would land them on the losing end of a fiercely hot South Carolina afternoon. The red uniforms of RadioShack and BMC Racing blended together just behind, the former happy to see King, a member of their development team, move up the road and take the responsibility for a pursuit off their shoulders.
The breakaway pushed the gap to 12:30 midway up the 2.2-mile ascent of Paris Mountain and to 17 minutes when they came through the start/finish to close the first of four long laps. BMC and Garmin tacked a rider each onto the front of the peloton as they returned to Greenville over a series of generally downhill rollers from the summit of the climb, but for the most part, the field was locked in a chess match, no one team willing to lay their cards out into a hard chase early in one of the longest days of racing on U.S. soil.
As Zwizanski and Holloway began to fade in the 90-degree-plus heat, the leaders’ advantage came down to 14:45 a lap later. When they turned onto Alamo Road and the Paris Mountain climb, King knew the group needed to ride tempo and his partners couldn’t hold the pace any longer, so he rode away alone.
“Obviously those are two quick guys and I’m not much of a sprinter, so I knew I had to get rid of them at some point,” King said. “It was actually nice to be solo because I could just focus and shut out the tactics of trying to help them and conserve.”
Holloway clung to Zwizanski’s wheel over the ascent and King put more than a minute into them by the top and flew away on the 60 mph descent from the summit.
“Ben was the strongest from the get-go, taking the longest pulls and going the best on the climb every time,” said Zwizanski. “The third time up, I’m pretty sure he just did the same pace he did all the other times, but Holloway and I were fried.”
In a throwback to his ride at U23 nationals in June, where he soloed 40km to the title, King’s chin nearly touched his stem as he drove the crankarms over into Greenville to start the last long circuit, 9:30 ahead of the thinning peloton of 30-odd riders, Holloway and Zwizanski in between. He arrived to the right turn onto the climb with a nine-minute lead and pushed up the nine-percent slopes above Furman University.
“Once I was solo and had nine minutes, I had a lot on my mind; I was thinking about a lot of motivators,” King said. “I started praying as soon as I got off Paris Mountain the last time.”
Timmy Duggan (Garmin) led the chase as the peloton whittled to around 20 riders on the climb. The favorites were there. Levi Leipheimer (Radioshack) sat third wheel. George Hincapie (BMC) and Craig Lewis (HTC-Columbia) made the selection, along with Chris Horner (Radioshack), Jeff Louder (BMC) and Ted King (Cervelo TestTeam).
Just like a year ago, Hincapie jumped out of the chase when the road pitched above ten percent near the top of the climb. Leipheimer and Reijnen followed and the trio went over the summit 7:00 down on King and 20 seconds ahead of what became a nine-rider selection.
King’s gap sank below four minutes with 14 miles remaining and he stood out of the saddle as he climbed over a series of five steep, quarter-mile ramps leading to the start/finish. “I was cramping,” King said. “I could not go any harder than I was.”
Leipheimer sat on his companions’ wheels down the rolling descent to town and the group lost its urgency quickly. The nine riders absorbed Hincapie, Leipheimer and Reijnen before they started the 2.5-mile finishing circuits. They trailed King by 3:41 at the start/finish.
In the chase, Carter Jones (Jelly Belly) countered the catch at the final corner before the start/finish. “I talked to (Carter) and he said he felt good, so I told him to just follow the moves,” Reijnen said. “Then I looked up and he was alone off the front.”
Bookwalter was not to be denied and led the group onto Jones’ wheel a half-mile later. Chris Baldwin (UnitedHealthcare-Maxxis) had a go at reversing a down season when he followed Jones’ move with a dig of his own and was nearly out of sight when he came through the line with two laps to go. Again Bookwalter drew the escapee back after less than a mile, selling himself for defending champion Hincapie. Lurking in second and third wheel were Phinney and Chris Horner (Radioshack), unwilling to pull the group to their teammate, who led by two minutes when the bell rang.
“I felt really good today and had good legs, which is not always the case on a national championship day,” said Bookwalter.
King rode cross-eyed into the final lap, the confidence of his U23 championship ride driving him on. At 5:44 p.m. local time, he rode onto the finish straight, pumped his fists in the air and pointed to the Trek-Livestrong logo on his black jersey as he made history. With his win, King became the youngest national professional road race champion in the 25-year history of the event and capped a weekend sweep for his development team.
Two minutes later Horner jumped away from the chase group 300 meters from the finish on a small rise leading to the final corner. Reijnen and Candelario grabbed his wheel onto the downhill run-in to the line and the Candelario came around both riders to secure the second consecutive road race silver medal for Kelly Benefit Strategies.
“The race played out a little easier than in years past,” said Candelario, known more for his exploits on flatter parcours than the Greenville circuit. “I got second today and it was a great result for the team … it’s always nice to get on the podium, but we wanted to win pretty bad.”
Reijnen slotted in for third, a breakthrough ride for the third-place finisher at July’s Tour of Quinghai Lake. “Whether I had good legs or not, I wanted to ride an aggressive race,” said Reijnen, who admitted the chase left King too long a leash in the end. “The big teams didn’t take control and that bit us in the butt.”
RadioShack director Johan Bruyneel called King after the finish to congratulate his young rider and give him the go-ahead to announce his move to the ProTour with RadioShack in 2011.
“He congratulated me,” King said. “To win both jerseys for Trek-Livestrong is pretty special.”