June/July 2011 Joshua Cooley
Ben King remembers tasting nothing but salt. No surprise there. It’s normal when sweat pours out of an athlete’s body as he burns through energy like a wildfire consuming a forest.
But King also remembers the pain. It wasn’t a stub-your-toe kind of pain or a getting-dumped-by-your-girlfriend pain. This pain was from extreme physical exertion—the kind that takes the human mind down mysterious, unchaperoned paths where reality dissolves into Salvador Dali paintings.
Soon, tunnel vision set in, and King’s hearing blurred. The roar of the crowd sounded distant, as if 80,000 fans were screaming in a snow globe. His body begged for more oxygen but only received the gall of lactic acid. His legs began to cramp, and his mental capacity stalled. Consciousness was no longer a given.
To some, repeatedly subjecting a body to this kind of severity might seem masochistic. For King, it’s merely the price of victory. As a professional cyclist, he lives in a world of pain.
Ben King, far right, with (L to R) dad, Mark; brother, Jake; and uncle, Dan.
“Cycling is one of the hardest sports in the world,” he said. “It crushes you—really, you crush yourself—day in and day out. You have to embrace suffering.”
Last September, King conquered this physiological gauntlet to score the biggest win of his young career at the USA Cycling Professional Road Race National Championship in Greenville, S.C. It was a shocking upset that opened a world of possibilities. Said King, “It was the sort of victory that will stay with me for the rest of my career.”
Now the hard part begins. Reaching the top tier of this grueling, under-the-radar sport is one thing, but for a Christian rider like King to enjoy sustained success there—both competitively and spiritually—is quite another. The training is punishing (500-mile training weeks, anyone?), the schedule is chaotic, and there are only a handful of fellow believers to lean on.
It is into this complex world that King rides headlong. Talented, hard-working and only 22 years old, he has never backed down from a challenge. And he’s not about to start now.
Researching North Garden, Va., is no easy task. Google reveals no official town website, only scraps of information. A visit to Virginia’s official tourism site, virginia.org, yields this listing: “No dining found for North Garden, Va.” And Internet maps aren’t much help either. Only a handful of businesses and intersecting rural routes break up the green topography: a couple of lumber companies, a dairy farm and a pizza joint called Dr. Ho’s Humble Pie. (Maybe there is dining in North Garden.)
“North Garden is only a post office,” said Mark King, Ben’s father. “There’s no town. It’s actually Charlottesville.”
In this nondescript nook of central Virginia, Ben King first fell in love with cycling. There may not be much around, but there is certainly no shortage of long, country roads.
“As a cyclist, I’ve traveled the world to train and race,” King said. “So far, the roads around North Garden make it one of the best places on earth to train. With the Blue Ridge Parkway so close, it’s a beautiful place to ride yourself into the ground.”
As the product of a cycling family, King started cycling with his father at age 13. Years ago, Mark, the vice president of a large HVAC filtration company, was a category 2 cyclist competing in events like the Tour of Mexico. Mark’s brother, Dan, is a category 1 racer, and Mark’s younger son, Jake, 15, is an aspiring cyclist with Hot Tubes, one of the world’s best junior developmental teams.
From the get-go, young Ben showed an uncanny cycling ability—and rare grit. In his first race, a criterium in Virginia Beach when he was 14, he was broadsided by a cargo van during warmups and thrown 10 feet. While his bike was completely destroyed, King remained undeterred. He hopped on his dad’s cycle and finished third to last.
In 2008, at age 18, King signed with Kelly Benefit Strategies (KBS), a large healthcare insurance consulting firm that sponsors a pro cycling team and whose president, John Kelly, is one of Mark’s longtime friends. The following year, King won the junior national time trial and road race championships.
In 2009, he left Virginia Tech after two years and signed with Lance Armstrong’s Trek-LIVESTRONG under-23 development team and went on to a breakout season in 2010. He won the Pan-American U23 time trial and road race in Mexico last May and earned the “Best Young Rider” award at the Cascade Cycling Classic (Ore.) in July. In September, he signed with Team RadioShack, Armstrong’s elite-level outfit.
Then came Greenville.
“The way he won the championships last year was insane,” said FCA Endurance National Director Chris Anderson, who was at the race.
From the start of the 115-mile event, King, along with Daniel Holloway (Bissell Pro Cycling) and Scott Zwizanski (KBS), surged ahead of the pack. Early breakaways are a common tactic, but pack riders burn far less energy than the frontrunners, and the pack almost always catches up.
Not this time. King and his two companions opened a huge 17-minute lead. By the third of four 22-mile laps up Paris Mountain, King left Holloway and Zwizanski behind, but the pack was starting to bear down. Once the race shifted into the final four circuits in downtown Greenville, King’s lead had shrunk to three minutes, and he got a clear understanding of why his opening stunt is called a “suicide attack.” Nearing a collapse, King prayed.
“My prayer is that I can be a light to my peers in both word and action.”
“Nothing in particular—I was just acknowledging Him,” King recalled. “I could really feel Him meeting me in my suffering.”
It showed. King’s two-wheeled conquest—accomplished in 4 hours, 44 minutes and 57 seconds, which was 94 seconds ahead of runner-up Alex Candelario—made him the youngest rider to win the 25-year-old race and the first U.S. cyclist to hold the under-23 and senior elite titles at the same time. Among the most notable competitors he vanquished were Trek-LIVESTRONG teammate Taylor Phinney, the previous day’s time-trial national champion; reigning road race national champion George Hincapie; and former Tour de France stage winner Levi Leipheimer.
Said King, “I realize now how one moment can reshape your life.”
Talk about your uphill climbs.
Like most Christians, spiritual growth for professional cyclists can sometimes feel like riding into a strong headwind. With allegations of performance-enhancing drug use dominating headlines in recent years, there are plenty of spiritual potholes for Christian competitors like King to avoid.
While according to Mark King there are many spiritual bright spots in the world of cycling, it remains relatively untouched by the gospel. And, for those who are believers, the sport’s demanding schedule doesn’t make consistent church attendance easy. Elite riders compete 10 months out of the year (mostly on weekends), train virtually year-round, and live out of suitcases.
That’s where FCA Endurance comes in. Recently, Anderson has been focused on making inroads into this unique community, but it hasn’t been easy. According to Kelly, pro cyclists can get “a little self-centered.”
“You have to be so committed to training and preparation,” Kelly said. “Without faith, you can become completely absorbed with yourself.”
Thankfully, King benefits from a solid spiritual foundation.
His family still attends Trinity Presbyterian Church in Charlottesville, where he first trusted in Christ at the age of 13. As a senior in high school, King’s faith matured when he began racing in Europe, and being away from home forced him to truly own the beliefs he professed.
“When you’ve grown up surrounded by biblical perspective, it’s challenging not to take truth for granted,” he said.
Now, though, King wants to share that truth with others. He has taken several humanitarian trips to Mexico and Nicaragua, and he did a podcast with FCA Endurance last December in order to communicate his faith in Christ. In fact, his first introduction to FCA came the day before his remarkable win in Greenville when he and four other riders met with Anderson to learn more about what God was doing through FCA.
“We had a great time of fellowship and prayer,” Anderson recalled. “Then Ben went out the following day and astonished everybody by winning the thing. You couldn’t help but look back and say, ‘That was totally orchestrated by the Lord.’”
“Dad, there’s no way they would be interested in me,” said pro cyclist Caleb Fairly regarding Highroad Sports, the world’s winningest cycling team. “They’re the best team in the world.”
In August 2010, Fairly, age 23, and his agent found themselves suddenly and frantically searching for a new contract with the announcement that his current team would be cancelling his 2011 contract.
Because it was already late in the signing season, Fairly knew his future as a professional cyclist was on the line. But, as he would find out, God had Fairly’s future under control…
To read more about God’s provision and providence in the life of up-and-coming pro cyclist Caleb Fairly, click here to read the article “Unexpected Turns,” written by Fairly’s sister and former Baylor University student-athlete, Caitlin.
Today, King’s vocation is his main mission field.
“This can be a lonely existence for a lot of young pros, especially the Americans who are a continent away from their families,” he said. “It forces them to start asking hard questions about their purpose, but it can also force them to become hardened, self-dependent, self-focused and stubborn. I’m growing in my faith through those very same circumstances, but finding my identity in Christ rather than cycling puts me in a position to withstand these trials. My prayer is that I can be a light to my peers in both word and action.”
So, on he pedals. After finishing a European circuit earlier this spring, King hoped to ride in the Tour de California and return to Greenville in May to defend his U.S. road race title (both races ended after STV’s press deadline). Later this summer, he also plans to compete in the Tour of Austria, the Clasica Ciclista San Sebastian in Spain, the Tour of Colorado, and the Tour of Utah.
As a Team RadioShack rookie, he is realistic about his goals for 2011.
“My short-term goal is to find my place on the team, to learn quickly, and to hear ‘good job’ at the end of races,” King said. “Long-term, I want to race the Tour de France and the Olympics.”
Kelly, for one, believes that is entirely possible.
“He has the commitment, the hard work and the engine,” Kelly said. “I personally think he has the ability to be a Tour de France contender if he wants to, and there aren’t many people who can contend for that race.”
It’s an uphill climb indeed. But King isn’t in the business of backing down from challenges.
“I’ve taken a lot of risks and made a lot of sacrifices so far,” he said. “For me, it’s motivating to believe that I’m following God’s plan for my life.”
--For more stories about faith and sport, visit www.sharingthevictory.com, the official magazine of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. To subscribe to STV, click here.
Courtesy of Team RadioShack/Dan King; Brian Hodes/Veloimages