Former road pro Ted King created a community of gravel riders by riding alone

By Zap

For as long as I’ve been interviewing racers and industry icons, I don’t even know when the last time was, if ever, that someone mentioned the importance of our being “stewards” for the sport. And so it was, when I was talking to former WorldTour pro and two-time Dirty Kanza winner Ted King about his latest endeavors, that he spoke of his desire that his DIY (Do-It-Yourself) gravel rides could lead to something more meaningful to the growth of the sport than simply the pursuit of more Instagram followers by a retired pro rider. That was nice to hear. 

Ted King started riding in the latter days of his teen years, turned pro in 2006, retired in 2015 and has been turning circles ever since. Over the years—from a Liquigas team camp in Sardinia to the Tour de France, from muddy Cyclocross Nationals in North Carolina to a dusty Dirty Kanza—I’ve had the good fortune to bump into Ted around the globe. 

In addition to overseeing the Untapped nutrition brand he founded, Ted and his brother organize the King Challenge, which is a benefit bike ride in Stratham, New Hampshire, that raises funds for the Krempels Center to aid those having suffered from brain injuries. 

When not out on his bike, the affable Vermonter has enjoyed re-orienting his life around the duties of parenthood after he and his wife, Laura, celebrated the arrival of their daughter, Hazel, earlier this year. 

“It’s important that, in any small way, each of us needs to act as a steward for the sport. And in trying to make the best of a crummy situation with the pandemic, I’m hoping my DIY rides are
doing that.” 

How did the ride first come together?
With everybody in lockdown, I knew that people were scrambling, looking for some kind of event to participate in. One after another, we all saw dates for events coming and going, like the Rasputitsa, which had 1800 riders ready to ride and suddenly there was nothing. I know many people were bummed, and I just thought that, somehow, we still needed to find some way to celebrate the adventure.

I was really hoping to do Dirty Kanza this year and qualify for my 1000-mile status (for finishing five times), but obviously the pandemic quashed that plan. I came up with the “Do-It-Yourself” gravel idea as an alternative to an actual event where I could still do a cool ride safely and in state.

Actually, my first DIY ride was for the Belgian Waffle Ride in May. The idea was for people to create their own route within a week of any gravel ride that got canceled, which they could do alone, as they should for a DIY ride.  

No doubt aided by Zwift, there has been a real surge in the concept of virtual rides. I know a lot of people are excited about them and have gotten inspired by the concept. While I think the virtual road-ride side of things has become pretty saturated, I’ve seen an amazing groundswell of enthusiasm for the DIY gravel rides. It’s obvious that people are looking for a community to share their rides with, even though these are intended as DIY rides. It’s been good to see the benefit from all of this and how some people are using their rides as charity fundraisers as well.

What was involved with figuring out the route?
While I had previously ridden the “200 on 100” ride, which runs the length of Vermont on paved roads, I was curious about the possibility of doing a border-to-border ride off-road. I reached out to Joe Cruz from to see if he could help me put together a gravel route, and he dug deep with http://www.Bikepacking.commaps, GPS and public town records, and even sent a friend out to ride some sections to see if they could be ridden on. 

At home with his wife Laura and newborn daughter Hazel.

How would you describe the ride?
It went from north to south and, in a word, gnarly! My goal was to try and maintain a 15 mph average pace, but I was hardly able to maintain that over the 350 miles. Between the fun I had riding the unmaintained Class 4 roads and riding in the rain, the ride had a little bit of everything. I thought those early parts were the hardest, but the hilliest miles were found in the last 60. 

Struggling through darkness and rain to get the job done.

By the end I was freaking exhausted. Still, there were some great moments. Like when I rode past (pro rider) Ian Boswell’s house at dawn, and he had some coffee and muffins waiting for me. In the final 50 miles I would come into some pockets of people who knew where I was going to be that were cheering me on and some were riding along with me, kind of like that scene in Forrest Gump! 

What did you think of the Cannondale Topstone?
Originally, I was going to the ride on a regular road bike with 32mm tires, but after doing the ride, there was probably no way I would’ve survived without riding the Topstone Lefty. That one- inch of fork travel made all the difference. 

(read RBA’s review of the Cannondale Topstone Lefty)

How about the wheels and tires?
I was thrilled with the wheelset. Zipp made up a set of 650b Firecrest 303 wheels with a Lefty front hub and an offset Ai rear to fit the frame. The 650x48mm Rene Herse Switchback Hill slick tires are speedy while still being comfy and plush, and they grip the terrain incredibly well. Actually, the slick tires have been another revelation of the pandemic, because without any other riders that I’d be racing against, I didn’t need to worry about diving into corners for a faster line. 

Sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do just to survive!

Knowing that we share the same high-tech tool for gauging tire pressure (pinching with our fingers), what kind of air pressure did you run?
I still rely on the same setup. Put in a lot of air and take out a little; I’m guessing around 30 psi.

What about any of the other accessories you relied on?
I ran a SRAM Eagle drivetrain and used a Zipp cockpit with an Xplr handlebar (I’m learning to like flared bars), and a Zipp SL stem and seatpost with a Fizik Tempo Argo R1 saddle, a frame bag from Moose Packs and two Cycliq Fly lights with cameras, and a Blackburn Countdown 1600 light. 

What about nutrition?
I burned 13,000 calories, and other than some pumpkin bread, the delicious cheddar cheese and bacon cornbread muffins that Ian had for me, and some peanut butter pretzels, I relied on a variety of Untapped products— between the two flavors of drink mix, three flavors of gels and, of course, the waffles, I had more than enough choices to keep
me fueled. 

“It’s funny to look back on photos from my road career, because it’s a different chapter of my life as much as it feels like an entirely different book.” 

Do you listen to music when you ride?
I have some earbuds and used just one so as to keep an ear open for traffic. Although I have no retention, I listen to a lot of podcasts, but mostly just to help pass the time. I think for the whole ride it was broken down to 30-percent podcasts and 70-percent silence.   

How would you compare this ride to competing in the DK 200?

Ted is a two-time winner of Dirty Kanza. Photo: Zap

It was similar, but it was also different. I love point-to-point rides because they take a lot of logistics to make it happen. I know I finished both physically empty. On this ride I was forced to always push myself versus having a competitor push me. Eventually, I had to just stop doing the mental math thinking about how much further and how much longer I would have to ride.

You were one of the earlier big-name pro riders to embrace the status of being an “ambassador.” What’s that transition been like?
A lot of people think being an ambassador just means you get a lot of free stuff to just ride your bike, but it has more to do than just getting good results. To do it legitimately, you have to be on your toes. I am curious about what will happen in the future if a bunch of super-fast road pros with nothing to do and not making any money and just thinking, “Oh, I can pull that gravel stuff off.” But, it really is a non-stop hustle; my job is to make people excited about riding their bikes!

You retired from the road world in 2015. How do you compare the two different worlds of road and gravel?
It’s beyond a night-and-day difference. The ProTour represents the best 1 percent of the 1 percent of the riders in the world. You eat and sleep and lead a monastic lifestyle to make any gain you can. You starve yourself to be able to go up a hill three seconds faster. It’s so tough, it’s so grim.

Now, even in the heat of competition at the gravel events, it’s fun. Racing gravel is simple in comparison where we’re bumping elbows and having at it while on the road. You could be coming down a wet road in the Giro, and if you make just one small mistake, you could get killed. 

Where does the sport find itself amid all these various virtual and DIY rides?
I’ve purposely scheduled all of my DIY rides to run in conjunction with actual organized rides. Besides the Belgian Waffle Ride and Dirty Kanza, I will also be doing DIY rides simultaneously with the Steamboat Gravel, the Rift in Iceland and Rooted Vermont. The events themselves appreciate it, because at the same time I’m doing my solo ride, I’m also cross-promoting their event as well.

I think it’s important that, in any small way, each of us needs to act as a steward for the sport. And, in trying to make the best of crummy situation with the pandemic, I’m hoping my DIY rides are helping to do that. 

What are your thoughts when you think back on those days racing in the WorldTour?

It’s funny to look back on photos from my road career, because it’s a different chapter of my life as much as it feels like an entirely different book. I have great memories. There was so much success racing with Sagan, plus Viviani, Nibali, Oss, Moser and plenty of other hot shots, that it’s hard not to think back happily. 

There are plenty of challenging memories, too. Liquigas was a really tough organization. They were successful, thanks to long ingrained Italian cycling tradition, and that came with feeling like an American island quite often. Thankfully, I had (fellow American) Timmy Duggan as part of the adventure for a couple of those years. The team was strict and ran a tight ship, so to have to adopt a whole new language and culture to take it all in was far easier said than done. But, with success—successful Spring Classics campaigns or making a Tour team—came quiet acknowledgment, and that was redeeming. 

You competed in the Tour de France twice (2013 and 2014). In a nutshell, how would you describe what it’s like to race in the Tour de France?
It’s the highest and hardest version of the sport. You spend your whole career thinking about it, but never knowing if you’ll ever make it. The race is harder and faster, more nerve-wracking, and more dangerous than any other race. I can’t think of any other race where you would crash on Stage 1, break your scapula and some ribs, and still keep racing for three more stages until you get cut by missing the time check in the team time trial (2013). 

You mentioned the importance of each of us being a good steward for the sport. What does that mean to you?
The sport of cycling is timeless and has so much history. At some point it will forget me and those who happen to be on the tip of our tongues. I also think it’s important to remember certain eras, and right now we are in an era when gravel riding is ascending. I’m not sure what the distinction is between road and gravel really, but I do think gravel is special. So many people are riding now with gravel, and I’m not sure that as many people would so easily and enthusiastically sign up to race in a criterium. I don’t think gravel is just a flash in the pan.  

As a side note, what’s up with your wife doing her own DIY ride?
Yeah, Laura’s tough and hates to be outdone, so she did a 200-mile ride from our house to Portland, Maine, a week after I did mine. She was never a pro road racer, but she’s finished top 10 at Leadville.

We all spend a lot of time riding and talking about the bike. What does the bicycle mean to you?
That’s a tough one. The bike is everything to me. It’s my freedom, my empowerment and my output of stress. The bike is my family. My brother got me started riding, and I found my wife riding bikes. I often wonder what I would do if I didn’t have a bike to ride; it’s my everything.

Looking back on past days of  another kind of suffering

At the 2014 Tour de France, Cannondale rolled out specially painted bikes for select riders on the Liquigas team. Ted’s custom graphics reflected the artwork of indigenous tribes. Photo: Zap

(Editor’s note: The following interview was conducted in 2012 at the Liquigas team camp in Sardinia for the April issue of RBA.)

RBA: How did you get started in cycling?
Ted: I actually started late when I was about 19 years old. My older brother was going to prep school and racing bikes, and once he competed in the collegiate nationals, which were held in Vermont and went right by Middlebury College, where I was going to school at the time. My brother ended up being a two-time collegiate champion before some health problems ended his career. I started riding and racing, and eventually I found my way on to the Bissell and Cervelo teams before getting hired by Liquigas last year.

RBA: What’s one thing about you that might surprise people?
Ted: Probably that I love to cook. I have a certain prowess in the kitchen that stems from a Thanksgiving dinner my family had two decades ago. I love  pumpkin pie, and when I asked my mom to make me one, she said I should learn to do it myself. Although I don’t make my own crust, it’s amazingly simple to do, and that was the spark that’s kept me interested in cooking all these years.

Ted made the cover of the April 2012 issue as he rode second wheel to then-teammate Vincenzo Nibali during the Liquigas training camp in Sardinia.

RBA: That must be kind of tough given how limited your menu has to be as a racer.
Ted: Yeah, it’s actually a complete affront to everything I do for a career, and so for the most part, I’m forced to live  vicariously through all the food magazines that I read. Reading Saveur magazine  definitely flies in the face of having to eat salad for lunch and dinner and a bowl of oatmeal for breakfast each day! At least during the off-season you can reward yourself a little bit if you had a good year, but you never forget the fact that the sport rewards those with a good sense of self-discipline!

RBA: What’s it like being on an Italian team with top riders like Basso and Nibali?
Ted: As one of two North Americans on the team, you have to appreciate the adventure of it all. Having some good   language skills has helped so much with my integration into the team. I started learning with Rosetta Stone the day after I signed my contract! As far as a team  hierarchy, I like when people have an ego and they’ve earned it. Nibali isn’t the only guy who cuts in line at the dinner buffet, but that’s fine with me.

 RBA: What are your plans for 2012?
Ted: I’m still waiting to get my program from the team. I’m hoping for a good showing in the spring Classics, going into the Tour of California, Philly—and if I had the chance to get picked for the Tour de France, well, that would be huge. Both Tim and I would love to race in the Giro, but since it’s an Italian team, we know we most likely won’t get the nod, so it’s really a non-issue.

 RBA: What’s the hardest part about being a pro bike racer?
Ted: I think it’s really a double-edged sword. The lifestyle is fun and glamorous, and I always say a bad day on the bike is better than a good day at work, but it’s still hard. And being on the road and away from your family for so long is tough. 

Ted is always a good time…here spoofing at the 2015 Cyclocross Nationals. Photo: Zap

Photos: Bettini,  Nick Keating/Vermont Social

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