Interview by Tom Southam | Photos by Scott Mitchell
I met a guy out riding once who claimed to have completed Special Air Service training. Curious as to the demands of the famously challenging course, I asked what it was like.
“It’s pretty hard… not so much physically, but mentally. It’s designed to make you as exhausted as you can be, so they can see whether or not you’re still a good bloke and can do what is right when the pressure is really on. Basically, how you operate when the shit hits the fan.”
I wouldn’t know for sure, but it seems that riding in a team that is trying to win the Tour de France is something like that. An intensely demanding experience that takes people to their limits both physically and mentally.
Peter Kennaugh is a man who has proven that he can rise to the challenge in the highest of high-pressure environments. Already a gold medallist on the track at London in 2012, at this year’s Tour de France the 24 year-old Manxman was one of the true revelations of the race, emerging as one of Chris Froome’s key domestiques.
Three days after he’d finished his first Tour, I spoke to Kennaugh about what it takes to be in the winning team, and discovering what kind of person you really are when the shit hits the fan.
After riding the Giro and the Olympics in previous years, do you feel that riding the Tour this year was a natural progression in your career?
You could say that, I suppose. It came maybe a year or two earlier than I thought it would in all honesty, but at the end of the day they’re all bike races really… You know, the same guys are riding there as elsewhere, and the distances are similar.
Going into the race were you nervous? You went into it riding for the red-hot favourite, and you had a pretty serious job to do.
I think that the biggest difference for me coming into this race was that in the grand tours I’ve done in the past – especially the Giro in 2011, when Sky wasn’t even a big team – I was able to do what I wanted, pretty much. If I had a bad day no one even noticed; I was just another rider in the peloton. But going into this Tour with the job I had to do, and with the favorite in the team, I suppose I was a bit nervous. I wouldn’t say worried, because I’d done a good job at the Dauphiné so I had confidence from that, but you see guys who do well there but don’t show at all at the Tour…
The first week of the Tour is notoriously dangerous, it’s crucial for G.C. favourites not to get caught out. How did you cope through those early flat stages with that kind of pressure?
That first week was something else. It seemed when I first turned pro that you maybe had three or four teams who were really organized and looked after their G.C. leader really well. But now it just seems that every team there is so organized, and everyone is trying to do the same thing, that it just causes so much stress in the peloton.
After some of those flat days it was actually a massive sense of relief to get to the mountains. I was just happy to be at the foot of a mountain and to be able to do my thing.
In that first week, at times I felt like my head was going to explode. When I was sat on the bus before the start and the flags were blowing in the wind and I’m thinking… oh my God, here we go.
I’d say that was the side I struggled with the most, it’s not just the physical strain it’s a mental strain and it sort of turns your love for the sport upside down a bit because you’re so stressed out all the time [laughs].
I guess that is something that people don’t really take into account, the toll that those early stages take. If they see teams riding in a controlled way, it can look dull, or unexciting.
It’s like that stage a few years ago where Astana split it and a lot of people were saying how that stage was really boring to watch. There was 30 or 40kph crosswinds all day but because everyone was so organised it didn’t split for ages, and it looked on TV like they were all just sort of riding along in formation. But you know that everyone in there would have been fighting all day.
In the race it seemed like (Bjarne) Riis’ tactic was to try to put you under pressure to force a mistake – hence the attacks on the descents and so forth. How hard is it defending a lead in that situation?
I think the day that I crashed [stage 9], when ‘G’ [Geraint Thomas] was still a bit weakened and a few guys weren’t going that well, a few teams really thought ‘maybe we can’t break Froome, but if we can break the team then he’ll be exposed.’ So then they concentrated on making the race as hard as possible so they could whittle us down and isolate him again.
It was hard but in those situations it all comes down to not panicking, especially early in the stage when 40 guys were trying to get up the road. The one thing we couldn’t do was go full gas after a guy like [Rui] Costa, and then just have me, Richie and Froome left. We had to ride to each other’s paces as a group, and get over the climb and try to take control again on the valley road. Things change on a daily basis, and it was sort of a case of seeing how everyone was on the day, as opposed to predetermining who rode when and where.
And presumably learning as you went along?
Yes, there was a lot of learning. Each day we learnt a bit more about the race, and a bit more about each other as well. It’s a matter of working out the best way to use each other really to get what we want and it took a good ten days before everyone started to gel properly.
I think the criticism from the press was one of the things that really motivated us, because we were getting so much stick. We weren’t even failing, but if we even made a tiny little mistake it would get so blown out of proportion.
On the crosswind day [stage 13] for example, we were constantly together throughout the stage, we had the whole team in the first split and then good numbers in the second split, but when Saxo went, two Belkin guys blew and the gap was there – but that’s racing isn’t it? I think a lot of people don’t really get that; this is bike racing – it wasn’t a mistake, they were just better than us on the day, and we couldn’t close the gap. It got blown out of proportion and I think that made us want to prove our strength.
On Mont Ventoux you put in one of the more memorable performances of the Tour, that can’t have been just another ‘day in the office.’ Did you get a sense of what you were doing there?
It’s hard to take in at the time. Looking back at the whole Tour, there were three stages that stood out, Ax 3-Domaines, Ventoux and Alpe d’Huez. That Ventoux stage was something else, not just because of the climb but because of the distance and the speed the whole stage was raced at.
After you’d done your job on Ventoux you swung off and virtually stopped moving. What was it like riding after that? You still had to get to the summit of Ventoux…
It’s strange. It is quite a nice feeling really. You are on your absolute limit for the last km or so of your turn, so when you do swing off you feel like ‘I’m done’, and you pretty much come to a halt, but within another km you’ve almost recovered again. Then its almost a case of making sure that you do hold back and don’t go too hard – because it is so easy to get carried away, especially with all the fans and stuff up there.
It sounds like a funny thing to say but I actually really enjoyed my ride to the finish. I got out of the trees and it wasn’t windy and I thought it was quite a nice ride up, really [laughs].
You mentioned in the press that one of your proudest moments was riding past your brother Tim (former Rapha Condor Sharp rider), on Alpe d’Huez. That must have been pretty special?
Alpe d’Huez was mental. It felt like I was at a football match, not at a bike race. I didn’t see Tim the first time up, because we were riding tempo as a team and it was all a bit of a blur. But the second time up I saw Tim and Dave and Chris [friends from the Isle of Man] and they were the first familiar faces that I’d seen for a few weeks.
After being in that Tour de France bubble, where all you have is people you don’t know coming up to you asking for autographs, seeing Tim felt really emotional. It was like a release of tension, just being able to see a familiar face. It was such a special moment because, being in so much pain at the time, little things mean so much.
I gather that family is pretty important to you?
Yeah definitely, I’ve got a big family and we’re all really close. Obviously Tim used to be the best training partner, and we’d train together a lot and always get the best out of each other. I was pretty gutted for him when he had all those thyroid problems and I’m glad he’s still involved in it [Tim now works as a soigneur for Rapha-Condor-JLT].
Now that it is all over how are you adjusting to being back home?
It’s pretty weird because I moved out of my old house when I left for the Tour, and came back to a brand new house, but that was well nice. Also my girlfriend Lauren and her two year-old son Grayson moved in with me too, so I am just getting used to that now.
But I love just chilling out around the house and not talking about cycling. Almost everyone else in my life is sort of involved in cycling, so whenever I go over to my Gran’s for tea it’s always ‘where are you racing next?’ or whatever but with Lauren and Grayson it’s like I am not a cyclist, and I need that.
But it is weird when you don’t really know what to do with yourself. I tried to go out on my bike today and I managed 40 minutes. You go from feeling like this ultimate athlete to feeling like absolute crap [laughs]…