There was a moment with about five kilometers to go in Sunday’s long, grinding climb up La Covatilla when it looked like Ben King was doomed. The Dimension Data rider’s shoulders were slumped and his face could no longer hide the pain of spending so much of the Vuelta a España’s ninth stage off the front. Trek-Segafredo’s Bauke Mollema was closing in and hovered less than 30 seconds behind. King’s miracle ride looked to be over.
Then a few things turned to King’s advantage. The steepness of the climb flattened just a bit. The wind changed directions. And Mollema lost his momentum after pushing so hard to trim the gap. And just like that, King’s hopes were revitalized. Once he could see the finish line, he knew he could hold off Mollema. Hardly believing it, he crossed the line with his second stage victory during this Vuelta a España.
“For me, this is something incredible,” King said. “I am very happy to show that the first [stage win] wasn’t some sort of fluke.”
King collapsed at the line and he let the pain and suffering ease out of his body. The 29-year-old started this Vuelta with just one victory in Europe during his decade-long career. Within a week, he’s added two stages at the Vuelta to his palmares, and even that hardly reflects the dedication and hard work he’s put into the bike.
“I’ve never suffered that much in my entire life. I am still a bit foggy in my mind,” King said. “I am sure it will sink in soon what an accomplishment that is.”
King’s magical week comes as a salve after a long career of close calls, injuries, setbacks and personal struggles that might have sent lesser riders packing up for home. King’s faith runs deep and he counts on a strong support network that includes his wife, family and friends.
“I just suffered a lot. I didn’t quit and never gave up,” King said. “I kept having faith and thanks to my team, my wife, my family and people close to me who believe in me more than I believe in myself sometimes.”
Of the two mountaintop finales so far in this Vuelta, King has won both out of breakaways. He cited former RadioShack teammate Jens Voigt as an inspiration. King recognized long ago that he was never going to develop into a grand tour rider. That meant he was going to live and die by the breakaways. He’s had close calls before, including third in a Vuelta stage in 2016, but luck never tilted his way.
“Last year was a rough year, I really struggled. But I was in a breakaway in every stage race I did and none of them came to the line,” he said. “So far, in this Vuelta, I’ve been in two breakaways and both have made it to the finish. That’s it — it’s rolling the dice and taking a chance, and believing that it’s possible.”
His first grand tour stage win came Tuesday up Alfacar when he rode his breakaways companions off his wheel. That served as redemption. Sunday was about confirmation.
King snuck away with a big group of established stage-hunters. This time it wouldn’t be so easy. Joining King and Mollema were Thomas De Gendt (Lotto-Soudal), Lluís Mas (Caja-Rural), Dylan Teuns (BMC Racing), Reto Hollestein (Katusha-Alpecin), Thomas Leezer (LottoNL-Jumbo), Jesus Ezquerra (Burgos-BH), and Luis Angel Maté and Kenneth Vanbilsen (Cofidis).
After King rose into the “virtual” red jersey on the road and then dropped back out of the provisional lead again, it was all about the stage win. Realizing that such riders as Teuns, Mollema and De Gendt would be dangerous at the end of 200 kilometers, King wanted to take his fate into his own hands. He followed an acceleration from Mas coming into a cobbled climbing section at Candelario with about 20 kilometers to go. King opened up a gap of 1:20 before Mollema pounced near the base of La Covatilla base.
“Mollema is a pure climber, and I have a ton of respect for that guy. I knew to have a chance against a guy like him I needed a big advantage,” he said. “Being chased by a guy like Mollema is a lot of pressure and it took a lot to keep believing and keep suffering that much. I think it was a mental battle between us in the last bit, and 20 seconds is not a big gap. We were just separated by meters on the climb and it just stayed the same and we completely fired, dying a thousand deaths.”
King isn’t done yet. In a Vuelta full of breakaways, he promises to take a few more chances.
“Let’s keep the ball rolling,” he said. “You have to put yourself in situations to win.”
King’s been doing that for years. His dedication and faith is finally paying off in spades during this Vuelta.