Kings of the Hill

The family behind Ben King, one of Virginia’s top pro cyclists.

photography by Sarah Cramer Shields


True story: Christine King found out she was pregnant during a summer bike racing weekend in 1988, emerging from the hotel bathroom to wave the blue-dot test strip in front of her husband Mark and his brother Dan, both prepping for the day’s race. That blue dot was Ben. Six years and two more babies later (Hannah and Sarah), Jake arrived, and Virginia’s best-known cycling family was complete.  

You can’t be faulted for thinking the blue dot is an embellished yarn of a story, the type of “He rode out of the womb with a bike helmet on!” joke that Ben’s dad and “Duncle” toss around so freely that sometimes even Ben isn’t sure what to believe.

Like that phone call in 2007 from Axel Merckx, saying in a deep German accent that he was putting together an American junior pro cycling team and wanted then 18-year-old Ben on it. Sure, for several years Ben had been winning big-deal bike races across the country, but Axel Merckx? Son of legendary cyclist Eddy Merckx, five-time winner of the Tour de France? “I had to call my dad to make sure it wasn’t a joke,” Ben says. It wasn’t.  

At age 26, Ben King is now a top-level pro cyclist, winning races and backing up others on American team Cannondale-Garmin, and racing in Richmond at the UCI Road World Championships in September. He is the prince in a cycling royal family: Jake, age 20, races for a semi-pro team based in California; Duncle, age 46, still schools riders half his age at Bryan Park’s weekly bike races in Richmond, regularly winning the tough “A” race. He uses tactics learned from big brother Mark, who rides regularly but no longer races (Christine rides too but doesn’t race). For example, when all the riders (including you) are exhausted and about to crack, ride up next to your biggest competitor and say something dismissive to psych them out, like, “Don’t worry, you look pretty good.”  

Mark, muscled and fit at age 54, used to pull that trick on Duncle, Ben and Jake when the four of them trained in the unforgiving Blue Ridge Mountains. They had a year, maybe two, when all were able to do the same races together, before Ben and Jake, both still teenagers, outstripped the oldsters. “It’s family time!” Mark would tell Christine, justifying the testosterone-and-spandex-fueled weekends away, when the guys would do four to five races a day while the girls hung out at the hotel pool.

Ben has made it to cycling’s peak, but he is remarkably even-keeled about it. He doesn’t get overly excited about his wins, which means he also doesn’t fret much over his losses. He is quick to point out that bike racing is what he does, not who he is. Who he is: a man of faith who joins in weekly Bible studies over Skype with other pro cyclists when he’s not racing. He is an artist skilled at pastels and woodworking. He is a Virginia Tech dropout who will go back and finish “when I need to.” He is an avid outdoorsman who particularly enjoys sport fishing. And he also happens to be a very successful pro cyclist who this spring won the opening stage of the Criterium International in France, and placed first in the 2010 USA Pro Championships. He keeps homes in Charlottesville and his training base of Lucca, Italy.   

Ben’s family has ridden right alongside his steady ascent, organizing trips with the kids, Jake, Hannah and Sarah (who are runners, not cyclists), and Duncle’s wife and two girls to see Ben race in Europe; and providing a home-cooked meal and a training ride whenever Ben’s wonky travel schedule lands him home for breaks.

Meanwhile, Jake is impatient to shadow his elder brother. “Ben is more of a big diesel engine, while Jake is a sportscar,” says Mark. Which means Ben can crank away relentlessly on the long stages and climbs of races like the Tour de France (which he completed in 2014) while Jake has the speed and “snap” required for sprint finishes. Like Duncle, Jake also shows up regularly for the Bryan Park crits, a jumpy string bean in his red California Giant team uniform. Sometimes he places and sometimes he just puts a big hurt on the other racers with his repeated breakaways. Jake lives at home, works full-time selling cars and rides five hours a day while he waits for his current team to send him to races—and for a bigger team to notice his skills and hire him.   

This tight family support keeps Ben sane. He talks about the pressure, sitting in the den with Dad and Duncle at his parents’ 200-acre farm in Charlottesville. “It’s easy to get sucked into a performance-based identity in cycling, where if you have a bad race you feel like a pile of dirt,” he says. “But my faith, friends and family, I know people at home will care about me regardless of my results.”

Dad and Duncle can’t resist the opportunity. They both shake their heads. “Nope, not really,” they say. And Ben King laughs.  

Follow Ben on Twitter: @BenKing89. The UCI Road World Championships take place Sept. 19-27 in Richmond. Richmond2015.com, USACycling.org

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