In mid-October, Ben King left Europe and the pro cycling world behind and flew back to Virginia — he had bigger things than bike races on his mind. On October 16, just four days before he was to have started the Vuelta a España, King and his wife, Jenna, welcomed their first child, a son named Luca. A few hours after Luca’s birth, with the joy and emotion of the moment still going strong, King remembered the nagging dread that he felt from the world of professional cycling.
Here it was, nearly the end of the season, and he did not have a contract for 2021.
“I had absolutely nothing,” King told VeloNews. “With COVID-19 this year, there were certain teams that were stable, and then other teams with big question marks, like CCC Team and NTT, and it was stressful, really stressful. At that moment I had no idea what I was going to do next year.”
King’s phone rang and he picked it up. On the other line was the familiar voice of Jonas Carney, the longtime U.S. sport director who had hired King for his first professional cycling job way back in 2008 at a team called Kelly Benefits Strategies-Medifast. Carney called to offer King a job for 2021 and 2022 with that same team, now called Rally Cycling.
King said yes.
“It’s a huge honor and privilege to be given this opportunity,” he said.
Dozens of riders have felt the pinch of the stressful 2020 transfer season, made all the more complicated by COVID-19 and the racing shutdown. Riders and their agents often start contract negotiations early in the season, with new contracts being announced in September or October for the following season. This year, with racing going strong well into November, the negotiations were understandably delayed.
To compound the stress, two WorldTour teams — CCC Team and King’s own NTT Pro Cycling — faced an unsure future, placing more than 50 jobs at risk, including King.
King, 31, has been through stressful and last-minute contract negotiations before.
“I’ve signed a number of contracts during the Vuelta, and I signed my last one with NTT the week before the Vuelta in 2018 when I won two stages,” King said. “Every year it has been quite late for me. It’s a tough lifestyle to go on year-to-year contracts, and there’s really no security even if you perform.”
Whether or not NTT returns to the WorldTour is yet to be seen — reports hint that the team could have inked a new deal to keep it afloat for 2021 and beyond. King thanked the team’s manager, Douglas Ryder, for his time on the South African squad.
“Those past four years were some of the best of my career,” he said.
The move to Rally could bring more stability to King’s career. The team has steadily built on its sponsorship in the last half-decade, inking multi-year deals with the U.S. digital health company, since 2016. The team stepped into the UCI Pro Continental ranks in 2017, and in 2018 launched an ambitious European racing schedule, with ownership eyeing a potential start in grand tours, or even a step into the UCI WorldTour someday.
Every year, the team would hire one or two North American WorldTour veterans at the tail end of their respective careers as chaperones for the up-and-coming North American riders. Danny Pate and Svein Tuft — both well into their 30s — inked deals with Rally, and retired as road captains.
The team’s hiring process enters a new chapter in 2021. King will join the squad alongside fellow WorldTour rider Joey Rosskopf, with both men in the midst of their respective careers at age 31. The team’s first-ever European hire, Dutch sprinter Arvid De Kleijn, will lead the team in sprints.
Rosskopf, who revealed his move to the team in early November, said the squad’s stability was a big selling point. King echoed that sentiment.
“In the last five years they have made big steps upward, and if they continue that trajectory then Joey [Rosskopf] and I will be given the opportunity to race grand tours with Rally,” King said. “Back in 2008, when it was Kelly Benefits, that was always the pipe dream.”
King joined the squad in his first year out of the junior ranks, when he was a Freshman at Virginia Tech. He rode on the team’s criterium squad, barnstorming big-money crits along the east coast alongside Alex Candelario, Reid Mumford, Jonny Sundt, and others. King said it was his job to control the pace early, to try and set up the team’s sprinters.
“Jonas would say, ‘Ben, your job is the first three-quarters of the race, you ride the front as hard as you can and if you finish, I’ll have questions for you,'” King said. “It’s like, ride as hard as you can and your job is done. I usually still finished.”
More than 12 years later the team has progressed from those crits. Today, Rally has become a stalwart in European races like the Tour de Suisse, La Fleche Wallonne, and other events. While King’s experience in grand tours will make him a leader on the squad, he does not see himself playing the same role as Tuft or Pate did in previous seasons.
“These guys now have experience racing in Europe doing high-level races,” King said.
Instead, King hopes to help the team’s new hire, Magnus Sheffield, learn the dynamics of the European races. King and Sheffield both came up through the Hot Tubes Cycling junior development program.
Rather than ride as a mentor, Kings still wants to target breakaway victories — the kind of long-distance moves that earned him a stage win at the Amgen Tour of California, the 2010 U.S. national road title, and those two Vuelta victories.
On King’s wish list: win stages of the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France.
“I still feel like I have unfinished business in the sport, which was one of the hardest things to swallow when I didn’t have a contract this late in the season,” he said. “I still don’t think I’ve been as good as I’m capable of being, and I’d like to keep fighting, and to do that with Rally will be fun.”