Ben King wakes up every morning in the center of historic Lucca, just like he’s always done in the Tuscan city he’s called his European home since 2011. The NTT Pro Cycling rider goes through his morning routine, preps his bike, and heads out for a training ride.
It’s only when he opens the door that everything changes. The typically bustling streets are quiet. His favorite coffee shop is closed, along with just about everything else. The noise and buzz that make modern Italy so unique has gone eerily silent.
“We live in the middle of the old city, and usually the streets are so crowded I cannot ride,” he said. “Now they are completely empty.”
King, 30, is nearing the end of the second week of a nationwide lockdown across Italy. On Thursday, Italy saw another spike in coronavirus victims, and it’s likely the quarantine could last longer. He and his wife, Jenna, share an apartment in the historic city center, and they’re doing their best to handle the ever-changing, ever-uncertain situation.
“All we’ve been doing is sitting at home,” he said in a telephone interview. “At least we have a perspective of what it means to be in quarantine. A lot of countries are headed this way.”
In a matter of days, Italy went from normal everyday life into complete lockdown as coronavirus cases spiked. Italy was the first European nation to order quarantine, with Spain, Portugal and Andorra soon following suit.
Only essential businesses are allowed to open, such as pharmacies, bakeries and grocery stores. Customers line up outside, with tape marking one-meter distances to cue, and wait for someone to leave the store before entering. Everything else is eerily quiet, a sharp contrast to the typically loud and boisterous ambiance that makes Italy so lively.
“I’ve been very impressed with how the Italians have handled the situation,” King said. “Italians are not known for being followers, but they’ve taken this seriously and they’re being responsible. People realize they’re doing this for their grandparents and their neighbors.”
King is among a handful of U.S. professionals remaining in Europe as the coronavirus crisis sweeps the globe. The racing calendar has been thrown into disarray, and there’s no racing until at least May. Right now, no one knows when anyone will be racing bikes again in Europe.
“It’s no joke,” he said. “We’re not doing much except sitting at home. I’m not so much afraid of getting it in my system, but being part of the problem and dragging this out.”
Now in his 10th year as a pro, King started the 2020 season with high ambitions and held out of hope of earning a spot on the U.S. team for the Tokyo Olympic Games. To open the season, he raced the Saudi Tour as well as the French weekend races at Ardeche and La Drome in February. His schedule included Tirreno-Adriatico and the Ardennes classics, before a break and then a run-up toward what he was hoping would be a return to the Tour de France. All that seems like a mirage right now.
“I still hope the Tour is on track,” he said. “But no one could have imagined the Ardennes would have been canceled even just a week ago. Everything is literally changing by the hour.”
King had already taken notice of the coronavirus flare-up in China by January, so when he flew to Saudi Arabia in February he was “that guy” wearing a facemask around the airport and airplane. When the virus hit northern Italy, King was expecting the worst.
“I could see it coming,” he said. “People were talking that Strade Bianche was going to be OK, but I can literally ride my bike up to where the epicenter was in Italy. I didn’t see how having Tirreno-Adriatico was going to be a possibility.”
Amid the anxiety and uncertainty, King and his wife considered returning to the United States, but decided to stay just in case racing revs back up. They didn’t want to be stuck in the U.S. if suddenly races were given the green light in Europe, and he couldn’t get back.
“We went back and forth on whether or not to try to get back to the States,” he said. “But if we fly back, and races start up in Europe again, will we be able to get back? We all want to race. It would be a bummer to be back home and not be able to race.”
King’s hunch proved correct. Flights between Europe and the U.S. have all but been shut down, and likely will be for the foreseeable future. Several U.S. pros recently scrambled to get home this past week ahead of tightening restrictions.
“We’d rather be at home with our families. But we have a home here, too,” he said. “We’ve discussed it a lot. It’s a complicated situation. There are no easy answers.”
Against the backdrop of canceled races and an uncertain fate of a world health crisis, there’s another layer of stress for King. He’s in a contract year, and like any pro looking to secure their future, he wants to race and post results.
“As an athlete, we’ve made so many sacrifices to reach this level, so it’s hard to be missing out on racing. And I’m in a contract year, which makes it even more stressful,” he said. “Who knows when we will start racing again? The season might go until the end of November. There is so much uncertainty.”
King also realizes how everyone is in a tenuous situation, from the owner of the coffee shop down to the street, to race organizers trying to salvage their event. And it’s all set against a health emergency gripping the entire planet on an unimaginable scale, with Italy right at the heart of the drama.
“The worse thing anyone can do is panic and stress out,” he said. “We’re all in this together, across the entire globe. There is cause for anxiety, but the best thing we can do is to try to make the best of the situation and respect the rules.”
When VeloNews spoke to King earlier this week, there was still a thin possibility that the Ardennes classics might be held. Now they’ve been canceled, along with the Giro d’Italia, and racing across Europe is on hold until at least May.
“It’s hard to see these races canceled, but I think it’s the right decision,” he said. “My heart goes out to the race organizers and to the teams, and to all the people who’ve invested so much of themselves for the sport. It’s tragic that these races are being canceled. I’m a fan of racing, too. I love to watch the Flanders classics. It’s weird to sit at home and not know which races are going to be canceled next.”
Against the rather bleak backdrop, King said he’s trying to maintain a semblance of fitness, just in case racing resumes in May or June. He continues to work with his coach at NTT Racing to plan out a training and workout routine.
King is lucky that he can train on his bike outdoors, at least for now. Unlike Spain, Andorra and Portugal, which are also under lockdown, Italian authorities are allowing professionals to train on the open road. Riders must always ride alone, bring their racing licenses, and never venture beyond their home province. Amateur and recreational cyclists are being told to stay at home.
“The concern is that if riders crash, they will take up space at hospitals that are full or filling up quickly,” he said. “I haven’t been to the hospital in 10 years from a training incident — knock wood — but with that in mind, I am being extra careful.”
“It is still a bit uncomfortable,” he said. “Every person I pass, I am getting dirty looks and some rude comments. I am not legally allowed to stop and try to explain to them I can ride. I just carry on. That’s part of the stipulation is that you ride alone.”
King said there are too many unknowns right now to set any kind of target. Without knowing when racing will resume, he is biding his time, trying to stay fit, stay healthy and stay motivated.
“The most important thing is to save some mental bullets,” he said. “There’s a lot of mental stress that comes with this situation. And without having any clear goals, it’s not as easy as when you have a specific target.”
Before the quarantine hit and organizers started canceling races, King and his wife had planned to rent a car, and explore Italy before Tirreno-Adriatico on a roaming training camp. King would hit out hard on the bike for four or five hours, and then they could explore some new places in Italy.
“We had to bag that plan,” he said. “Now we’re just trying to wrap our heads around this new reality.”
Right now, there isn’t much to look forward to. The couple is grateful they’re healthy and safe, and they are in constant contact with friends and family. They’ve burned through season five of “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” just to keep things light in a rather bleak situation
“I’m still hoping the Tour happens,” King said. “That’s something to grasp on to now. No matter how likely it is to happen or not, at least it’s something to look forward to.”