Getting the spark back: Kennaugh presses the reset button on his career

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L’Equipe was exaggerating, but its recent headline ‘Le règne sans fin’ – the unending reign – had elements of truth to it. Since 2012 British riders have won the Tour de France a staggering six out of the past seven years. Bradley Wiggins got the ball rolling in 2012, Chris Froome took over the following year and then, this summer, Geraint Thomas knuckled down, stepped up, and took his own yellow jersey to Paris.

If it wasn’t for Froome’s crash and withdrawal in 2014, Britain may have had a clean sweep of the past seven editions. Given that the country had never won the race before Wiggins, it’s been a dramatic – and unexpected – turnaround.

It’s not all plain sailing for British riders, though. While Thomas and Froome were doing their final preparation before the Grand Depart, another rider was competing under very, very different circumstances.

Several years ago Peter Kennaugh was spoken of as a future Tour winner. Early successes included a stage win plus third overall in the Baby Giro, European and world track championship gold medals plus an Olympic medal and world record in the team pursuit as a 23 year old.

Kennaugh was snapped up by Team Sky in 2010. Victories in the Tour of Austria and the Settimana Internazionale di Coppi e Bartali in 2014 piled on the expectations. He was seen as a logical future candidate for team leadership and, some felt, a rider who could take yellow all the way to Paris. And while his rate of progression tapered off in recent years, stage wins in the Critérium du Dauphiné in 2015 and again last year kept hopes alive.

Yet, despite a move to Bora-hansgrohe and the anticipated greater freedom that would bring, despite talk of him being given team leadership in major events, Kennaugh ended up competing in a local Isle of Man time trial while Froome, Thomas and others were in Vendée for the Grand Départ.

Things had not gone as expected at all.

Heading for turbulence

Last December, things looked very different for Kennaugh. Speaking to CyclingTips at the Bora-hansgrohe training camp, he referred to his new contract as “pressing the reset button,” and saw it as a fresh start. He admitted that he had lost momentum in his eight seasons with Team Sky, and that a move could be the best thing for his career.

“Change is good. Maybe it took me a few years to realise that I had sort of stagnated and gone a bit stale,” Kennaugh said then. “I think moving teams allows you to sort of re-evaluate a bit, to look back and look at what you were doing right or what you could do better.”

He was fired up and keen to get his career back on track. Passed over by Sky for Tour de France selection in 2017, he was eying a return to the French event, as well as team leadership in other races such as Paris-Nice, the Ardennes Classics and the Critérium du Dauphiné. He had a chance to prove doubters wrong, and planned to grab it with both hands.

Yet things didn’t work out that way.

Kennaugh believed his move to a new team will give his career a fresh start. Things were more complicated than that.

In March of this year, his new team issued an unexpected statement. “Due to personal health reasons, Bora–hansgrohe’s Peter Kennaugh had to take some time off the bike after the Tour Down Under in January,” it said.

“Next week he will start training again to prepare himself for the second part of the season. His return to racing is not decided yet, but the team fully supports Peter in his preparations. After a first 6-8 week training period, the performance team and coaches will decide together with him which race will be appropriate for Peter to re-start his season.”

It asked the media and others to respect his privacy, and said that it would not be making any further comments at that point in time.

Months later, Kennaugh explains what happened.

“Things started off okay in Australia. I had similar sensations to what I am used to,” he tells CyclingTips, referring to the start of the year. “I was at the pointy end of the Cadel race. Not like I was two years ago [when he won], but still able to attack on the last climb and be part of the race.

“But when I came back from Australia, it all kind of just went south, really. Looking back now…it is not hard to talk about, but I am just a bit gutted. I just felt terrible for a good week to ten days. Then it just didn’t get any better. I was in such a hole, I felt so low. I felt so energy-less and bad on the bike for about two weeks.”

Kennaugh says it got to the point where he would avoid going training because, if things went badly, his mood would be off for the rest of the day. Avoiding the stressful situation became a coping mechanism. “When I would pluck up the courage [to train], it would be the same story. My head would just be in the bin again for a few days.

“It got to the point where I was going out for ten kilometre runs. I was just doing any other exercise to try to keep fit rather than ride my bike. It was a real low moment in my life.

“Thank God I had my family around me, and the team were more than understanding, to be honest.”

Everything is easier to understand in hindsight. Casting his mind back to the spring, Kennaugh says now that he should have taken a different approach. He felt bad coming back from Australia and rather than trying to push through with four hour training rides, he wishes he instead took a week to ten days completely off the bike.

“Whether it was related to something mental, I don’t know,” he says. “But I just don’t want to go through it ever again. Maybe it was just expectations of myself, and underlying pressure and stuff. I spoke to the doctors on the team quite a bit and I also actually saw a psychiatrist a few times just to try to get the bottom of it.

“He talked about whatever it was, being in the same team for eight years. Then you put all this underlying pressure on yourself, which just builds up without you realising. It just came out in that way and hit you at once.”

Dan Lorang is Kennaugh’s coach at Bora-hansgrohe. He gave his perspective as to what went wrong. “A transition to a new team also brings some risks,” he tells CyclingTips. “New environment, new goals, new responsibility,… The rider puts himself under pressure to show the team that he is a good investment. This could lead to overexcitement, and you overlook the signs of your body that tells you to go step by step.”

That applies to cycling, but also to many other areas of life. In fact, the same principle has long been recognised by psychologists. The Yerkes-Dodson Law – more commonly known as the inverted U model – defines optimal levels of stimulation. This can be represented diagrammatically by a bell curve.

The Inverted U model, or Yerkes-Dodson Law, shows there is an optimal amount of pressure. Too little or too much is counterproductive.

Simply put, there is an optimal amount of pressure to achieve good performance. If there is too little or too much stress, people under-perform. When the right balance is found, they can be at their optimum. In Kennaugh’s case, it appears that he took too much on his shoulders and paid the price for that.

Interestingly, when delving deeper with the 29 year old, it seems the pressures were not only related to moving to a new team. His first years with Team Sky were the time when the team was fixated on winning the Tour de France. It did so in 2012, and ever since that point there has been an expectation that the team, plus its British captain Froome, would win the Tour again.

Given Team Sky’s dominance plus Froome’s age, thoughts naturally turned to who might be his successor. Considering Kennaugh’s solid early results plus his strong climbing and time trial abilities, it was perhaps inevitable that the spotlight would land on him. And with that spotlight came pressure.

Being labelled a future Tour winner has messed up many a career, and he too felt that burden.

“Personally, looking back, when someone is a good amateur and getting results in the top amateur races, it is only natural that anyone is going to have expectations,” he says. “Whether it be the team I am signing for or journalists, they are going to talk about you as if you are going to win the next Tour de France or be the next British GC contender.”

It’s far from a uniquely British problem. After Eddy Merckx’s retirement, Belgian riders were suffocated for many years under the tag of the next Merckx. The same happened with French riders after Bernard Hinault hung up his wheels in 1986.

At the time Jean-François Bernard was being spoken of as the next great from that country. The following July, he seized yellow when he dominated the Mont Ventoux time trial in the 1987 Tour, but that was as good as it got. Burdened by that expectation, suffocated by the stress, Bernard went on to become a super-domestique for Miguel Indurain. France is still waiting for its next big champion.

Kennaugh would be forgiven for faulting those who spoke of him as a future Tour winner. However he believes that blaming others isn’t the solution.

“Pressure-wise, I think it is definitely my own fault, maybe,” he says. “I don’t feel like I have reached the potential that I should have done. When you see people that you are racing against and you feel like you could be up there or you should be up there, and you are not….”

Interestingly, he feels that this only bubbled to the surface because he had that difficult period earlier this year. “You usually finish racing in October. Then you are in your off season so you go on holiday. You are not reflecting, really. Okay, you say, ‘my season was good or my season was bad,’ but you leave it at that. You don’t really reflect on yourself as a person or your emotions.

“But when I had that time away from racing in February, it was unusual because it gave me a period to think. You’d normally be in the thick of the racing season but, with the way things worked out, I had that extra time to reflect. There was a lot of self-reflection, really.”

Kennaugh was smiling in December, but stressed out two months later.

Reaching a turning point

Every athlete has crisis moments. Take any of the big names from the sport and look at their careers. Whether it’s Mark Cavendish’s various sprint-related injuries, Peter Sagan limping through the Tour after crashing, Chris Froome and Alberto Contador hitting the deck in the 2014 Tour and withdrawing with fractures, Taylor Phinney having a devastating leg injury or, further back, Greg LeMond being shot, there are countless incidences of athletes being sidelined and having to start again.

The same applies to those who aren’t at the top of the sport, even if we aren’t as familiar with their travails. Cycling is an extremely difficult sport and ever rider will have his or her back against the wall at some point.

Kennaugh’s story may feel unique to him, but there are echoes of it in many careers. Success leading to expectation. Expectation leading to pressure. Something going astray, and then the need to rebuild all over again.

That’s part of what makes sport so compelling, but also what makes it so cruel.

When Bora-hansgrohe was faced with a big new signing having a crisis, the team could have turned the screw. Instead, as Kennaugh attests, it gave him space and allowed him to ease back into things.

His coach Lorang described how the situation was handled. “After some weeks off we started to do a slow build up without any pressure, and with enough time for development,” he says. “Everybody in the team was convinced about Peter’s capacities. We tried to give him confidence to give himself time to come back to a good level. With good training, some altitude camps, good mood and low pressure, Peter was able to come back to a good performance level.”

Kennaugh returned to competition in the Tour de Romandie and, in his own words, voluntarily ‘took a kicking’ in order to build form. He then went on to do the Eschborn-Frankfurt and the Critérium du Dauphiné.

Starting the latter, he still had hopes of riding the Tour. However while he said he was at race weight, his performances were not as good as he had anticipated. Halfway through the race, he admitted to himself that he would not be heading to the French event in July.

“It is the last place you want to be if you are not ready,” he says.

Hence the local time trial in the Isle of Man.

That was a far cry from the Grand Départ, and yet it brought some welcome encouragement to him.

“I hold the local course record, which I got off Cav three years ago,” he told CyclingTips the day after that TT. “I used to do ten mile time trials a lot when I was home; the last time I did one was two, three years ago, which was a 19.38. Imagine real rough country lanes, nothing like a dual carriageway situation.

“Yesterday, firstly my gears ran out of battery after one mile. So I was stuck in the 53×14, and then I had a dead turn, so it was like a massive standing start. And then an armpad came lose. So it was bad from that aspect. But, even with all that and being stuck in one gear, I broke my own record with 19.33. And the legs… I just feel like after such a shit season so far, it is the first time I confidently can say it is like a turning point. I felt like my spark was back. It has been so long. I felt elated, it felt great to feel good on the bike again.

“It was nice to just smash one out and feel good again.”

‘Maybe I was taking things for granted’

Since that TT, Kennaugh has continued building. On July 26 he won the Grand Prix Pino Cerami in Belgium, attacking out of the day’s break and soloing to the line. The victory was his first win since the Alpe d’Huez stage of the 2017 Critérium du Dauphiné, and therefore his first success with his new team.

Celebrating his first win with the team.

Two days later he rode the Prudential RideLondon Surrey Classic, and was again in the day’s break. The move was caught with ten kilometres to go, but being up the road took the pressure off his team and helped set up Pascal Ackermann for the win.

Next up will be the Clasica San Sebastian on Saturday, then the Tour of Poland and the Vuelta a España.

Kennaugh describes the latter as one of his favourite races of the year and hopes to be in top form for it. Lorang is also hopeful that he can show well there. “Perhaps he can be a key rider in the Vuelta to help our leaders for fighting for a good GC position,” he says. “Depending on the situation, he could even go for a good result for himself on some stages. The team just wants to see that there is a continuous process in his build-up and that he is able to manage the upcoming challenges.”

As for Kennaugh himself, he looks at this turbulent season as something which has taught him a lot about himself. The period of self-reflection has sharpened his focus. It has also led to the admission that he may have relied on talent too much in the past and not applied himself consistently to the sport.

“Maybe I was taking things for granted. Maybe I was lucky enough to go through my road career so far just getting results from things lining up together,” he says. “Perhaps it would have been like a month or two of hard work, of being strict with myself. Then I would get a result and then I would relax again.

“Whereas now I am realising that you can’t be in the best in the sport just by doing that. You need to be consistent. It is kind of a year-round process, really. It is not letting yourself go too much in the off season. It is not having to lose ten kilos in January.”

Kennaugh said that he took five weeks off the bike at the end of the 2017 season, and has tended to switch off in a similar way in the past. He has accepted that doing so is probably not the best way to approach a top level pro career.

“Nowadays, there is none of this racing to get fit any more,” he says. “You look at every good GC rider when they arrive at the start of the season, whether it be January or February, and they are ready to race. They are wanting to get results, aren’t they?

“It is the case of looking after yourself throughout the whole year. That is probably where I have struggled in the past, in that first part of the season. My form would never be so good as I did relax a bit too much in the off season. Then you play catch up during the year, and finally I would start to get results and feel really good. Then it would be October once more, and the circle would start again.”

The past few months have been a rollercoaster, a time he admits was the toughest of his career. It is often said that difficult periods are where the most learning is done, and he seems to see benefits to the tough times.

The speedbumps were jarring, but the readjustment was welcome.

“I’m maybe more grateful now. It put life in perspective as regards to what I had been able to achieve and also what I want to achieve going forward,” he says. “It is probably like in a lot of jobs…when you have been going through the motions for so long, you start to take things for granted, don’t you?

“I think looking at everything as a whole, my hunger and my professionalism at the minute is probably the best it has ever been. I am just hoping that it pays off, that there is a bit of a silver lining to it. Time will tell, I guess, but I am feeling more motivated than ever.”

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