Keagan Girdlestone: racing with ambition in 2018
Next week marks another chapter in the life of Keagan Girdlestone. He’ll contest his first UCI race since The Accident in June 2016.
Portrait (above) by Megan Ellis.
His story is one that inspires people well beyond the cycling realm. Keagan Girdlestone will talk about his accident, his near-death experience, his recuperation, and his comeback to racing for a long time yet. It is inevitable that several themes continue to emerge during discussions with this charismatic 20-year-old.
He lives in New Zealand and had hoped to contest the national championships on the weekend but issues with him being a citizen of South Africa, where he was born, meant that he ultimately decided to train instead of race on the day Jason Christie won himself the right to wear a black and white jersey for 12 months.
RIDE has done several interviews with Girdlestone over the years and it’s wonderful to hear him speak with such a strong voice after a long time of talking in a whisper. He explained why he spoke so softly in an inspirational feature published in #RIDE74.
We caught up with him again a week out from his first UCI level stage race since his crash in Italy two and a half years ago.
Click the SoundCloud file to listen to the interview
and/or read the transcript below.
Click the link above to listen to RIDE’s interview with Keagan Girdlestone.
RIDE: It’s a Wednesday afternoon and I’ve taken a quick opportunity to catch up with Keagan Girdlestone who we haven’t spoken to for, probably, sixth months. When we last talked he was about to participate in his first race since a major accident; he did the Grafton to Inverell. Next week he’s going to start a UCI race in New Zealand. And I just thought we’d take the opportunity to find out how life is. What are you up to these days? You missed the nationals; what was going on there?
Keagan Girdlestone: “So, I took a bit of a break towards the end of the year just because I hadn’t really taken a break ever since I got back on the bike. I guess I got really excited that I could actually ride a bike again so I just kept on training non-stop, really. And it became quite overpowering with all my rehab over and above the riding, and then the gym to rebuild the muscle etcetera… everything became a bit much.
“Then I got training again and I knew that there might be some problems with me racing the New Zealand nationals because I’m a South African citizen. But I thought I could race so I emailed Cycling New Zealand, asking if it’d be possible to race, even if – by some miracle – I were to win and I wouldn’t get the jersey, I’d be fine with that.
“But they said, ‘No…’ because I was too high risk for taking UCI points away from New Zealand riders for their high performance [program], which is fair enough. So that’s why I didn’t end up going to race the nationals.
“In the end, I think it’s a blessing in disguise because it gives me an extra week of training.”
And what is the UCI race you’re going to be doing?
“The New Zealand Cycle Classic.”
Distances involved? Is it going to be like Grafton to Inverell (228km) or a little easier? A little harder? What’s the routine?
“I think pretty much every stage is about 120km, except for stage four which is the Queen Stage which is 150km and finishes up a 15-minute climb, a hilltop finish.”
And are you looking as lean as we’ve seen you in the past? What’s your aesthetic like these days?
“I’m still very skinny but I have been trying to put on weight because I was just too skinny. I didn’t have enough muscle to actually produce any power. And also, after a big ride I would get quite deflated and depleted of energy so I’ve been working towards putting on weight.
“Now I’m around the 64kg mark and at Grafton [last May] I was about 61.”
…and the numbers? Your power? You feel like you’re getting more out of the pedals these days? How is the sensation while riding?
“I’m actually producing quite good power at the moment. It’s nothing spectacular yet but the reason I took a step back towards the end of the year from racing was because I had a breathing problem which is caused from the paralysis in my neck.
“What happened was, one of the nerves that I severed lift up my diaphragm and this caused my diaphragm to not work properly – obviously, because it’s paralysed. But also, we think, because I was on a life-support and I wasn’t actually breathing for myself so the diaphragm went sort of into hibernation mode.
“So, I’ve had to do a lot of rehab to actually just reactivate the diaphragm again and to work at increasing my lung capacity because I was breathing like a child but I was trying to race against the best in the world. So, it was never going to end well.”
I’m trying to picture what exercises they may be… as bike riders we get used to being told about increasing core strength and the like, but what sort of thing do you have to do to strengthen your diaphragm?
“I pretty much started out lying on the floor and putting a five kilogram weight on my stomach and trying to breathe and push it out.”
And that’s helped?
“Yeah, it has actually. It’s improved immensely because I get to a point where, if I exerted myself too much – like, say, for VO2 max efforts – I couldn’t actually make enough power… I couldn’t get enough power through the pedals because I couldn’t breathe enough oxygen in to actually fuel the muscles.
“So, I would actually run out of air before the legs would fatigue.
“I couldn’t go any harder but the legs wouldn’t hurt, and it’s quite a weird sensation to have.”
Lachlan Morton from the Dimension Data team joined Keagan on a recent training ride (above).
We referenced this when we first spoke, but you’re going to be talking about the effects of your accident forever more. When we did do our first interview, you talked about hoping to get out there on the ‘motivational speaking circuit’. Have you done much of that over the… let’s call it, the off-season?
“I actually did do a motivational speech about three weeks ago in Auckland. It was my first time doing it and I did a speech for the softball association in Auckland and it was quite a good experience.
“It was a learning experience for me too because I got a lot of constructive criticism which was really good. But, all in all, everything went really well and my message got across to a few people and they really appreciated it.
“It was quite nice knowing that an idiot like me can actually help a few people here and there.”
After you told me about the aims of doing [the speeches] I then asked what you would be talking about and you said you weren’t too certain. Was it just a recount of what you’d been through and then the recovery process? Or have you taken a little bit of a step back from that and talked about just the joy of being back on the bike…? What gets you talking these days? Are you constantly referencing the accident and the recovery?
“This year I’m approaching it a bit differently. I heard something quite interesting in a video I watched some time ago. It was just a simple mindset change that I’ve tried to employ lately, especially with my training. I think it’s really helped because I’ve been training really well and I’ve enjoyed every ride, even if it was in the rain or if it was just brutal – actually really enjoyed it.
“My mindset now – and what I try to tell other people now – is that I don’t have to train, I get to train because it’s a privilege.
“For me it’s a privilege because I was never supposed to be able to ride because of the accident and because of the injuries.
“It should be a privilege for everyone [who can ride] because it’s not like everyone has a bike, not every kid has the privilege of getting given a bike by their parents. Or there’s people out there that actually can’t afford it, so it’s a privilege to go out and ride bikes.
“I try and see it as, I don’t have to go train – I get to go and train.
“I get to do stuff, I don’t have to do stuff.”
I like it. I guess what I enjoy about talking to you is that we get to see the positives rather than the negatives. You’re just an eternally optimistic bloke, aren’t you?
“Yeah, I try to be more optimistic than pessimistic.”
Keagan and Lachlan went for a ride…
What are your expectations from the race this coming week?
“Um… well, the born racer in me wants to win. But I know, realistically, it’s probably not going to happen.
“So, I’ve set myself goals and I’m writing them down on a piece of paper and then I’ll take it with me… and, as I achieve them throughout the race, I’ll tick it off and go, ‘Okay, well that’s one goal done. I’ll move onto the next one…’
“And for me the first one, really, is: ‘To finish with the bunch.’ Because [while racing] in Australia I was unable to do that. And I’ve only actually finished in the bunch once since my accident. So, that would be the first goal.
“Once I’ve finished the first goal, I’ll move on from ‘finishing in the bunch’ to ‘finishing towards the front end of the race…’ maybe top 20 or top 15.
“And then, once I do that, I want to animate the race: whether that’s attack with a kilometre to go or five kilometres to go… but not just sit in making up numbers.
“Then work my way towards top 10 and then the podium and then obviously start winning – winning stages and then the tour overall.”
– Interview by Rob Arnold