Editor’s note: Ben King is a first-year professional with Team RadioShack (Related: Ben’s previous VeloNews diaries)
My American cycling compatriots and I pedaled over green Tuscan hills striped with vineyards and paused to sip cappuccinos at sunny cafes. In our eighth month of competition, this type of anti-stress training served as a mental shot of espresso for the final race blending the perfect combination of saddle time, wine, and pizza.
A chartered flight of European cyclists landed in Beijing Sunday morning for the first edition of the Tour of Beijing. On the first day, training in the massive city proved impossible, so the next day we organized a caravan and drove 1.5 hrs out of the city for a ProTour group ride.
Tour of Beijing: Five stages and my first World Tour stage race
Stage 1: 11.3 km TT
Riders rocketed around the 2008 Olympic Park, launching off the start ramp and disappearing into the smog. I tucked into an aero position and considered my director, Viatcheslav Ekimov’s advice: “Go fast.” You have to process even sarcastic jokes from a three-time Olympic gold medalist. In my ear piece, he encouraged me, affirmed my effort, and coached me through the course. I hunted down my minute man and caught him 2 km from the finish.
As an early starter, I could watch the rest of the race from the hotel. After my shower I was still fifth on the leader board. Organizers, however, typically reserve the best for last, and gradually I slipped into 15th, still a good result for me that shows I’m improving.
Tony Martin, the new TT world champ, smashed everyone, and Alex Dowsett, my old teammate on Trek-Livestrong, took a podium spot.
Stage 2: 137 km
The time gaps between riders are small, but as our team’s top finisher, I stayed in the peloton while Dmitriy Muravyev jumped in a four-man breakaway. We caught them with 15 km to go.
4 km to go. Markel Irizar attacked and held a gap for one km.
3 km to go. Riders flicked themselves through gaps, and thrust their wheels into tight spaces. Teams surged forward a few positions on the outside. Brakes locked, a BMC rider crashed beside me. His bike inverted and the wheels jammed into my frame knocking me sideways. I skidded, straightened out, and lunged back into the melee. I yielded to the proven sprinters because I know they are partly insane. TAP, TAP, TAP, someone snapped a spoke in his wheel. It wobbles fiercely, and we swarm around him. Two riders butt shoulders, and we juke them like a school of fish.
Under the banner 20 places ahead of me a Garmin rider throws up his hands in victory. Tomorrow is the “queen (most difficult) stage.”
Stage 3: 162 km
Fall-colored mountains rose shrouded in smog. The Great Wall draped in red vines added to the rugged beauty. Speeding in single file we traced its sinuous path. Two climbs in the first 40 km disrupted our peaceful departure. Three, then six riders broke away, but the team of race leader Tony Martin limited their advantage.
A 6.5 km then a 4.5 km climb barred the finish. Without overexerting, riders jockeyed for position, crawling like a flame down a wick and erupting into the climb. Adrenaline switched my mentality from conserve to feisty “go or blow.”
Too far from the front I hammered around anyone who looked fragile. Alex Dowsett, the white jersey (best U25 rider), dropped, making me the virtual leader. Fewer than 40 riders remained. Janez Braijkovic and Tiago Machado attacked the crest, but the peloton swelled to 70 on the decent and dragged them back before the last climb.
Janez asked me how I felt. “OK. I think I can make it,” I said. Halfway up the climb my roommate, Phillip Deignan, attacked. At the “one km to summit” marker the battery in my brain was running low, but Zubeldia tapped my rear and brought me back into focus. A group of 50 pursued Deignan’s leading trio. They sprinted out the win one second ahead of us, Deignan second.
Two Chinese flowers in white dresses presented me the white jersey on the podium. As I sprayed the crowd with champagne, I remembered one of my favorite career moments, Alex Dowsett winning the final stage of the 2010 Cascade Classic after slaving to help defend my lead in the best young rider competition. One year since that domestic victory we’re swapping the same jersey in a World Tour race.