Getting to know Peter Kennaugh
He’s the two-time British road race champion and in a few days Peter Kennaugh will make his second appearance in the Tour de France. He’s got an Olympic gold medal in his collection of prizes but just being back in The Big Loop is what he says cycling is all about. RIDE caught up with the Manxman earlier this year to find out a little bit about what makes him tick.
– By Rob Arnold
Let’s start with the basics: pronunciation. Peter. That’s not too difficult. Even with the vast array of accents in cycling it’s hard to get that wrong. ‘Pee-ter’. No need for practice, so let’s move on. Kennaugh. Hmmm, that’s a different story. Forget phonetics and go straight to the source, that’s what I thought two years ago when this young man from the Isle of Man made his first appearance in the Tour. His father, Peter Kennaugh senior, replied to a query during the race and told me, “It’s Ken-yick.” And I felt like I was in on a secret. (“Pronounced Ken-yick” is now part of Peter Snr’s Twitter introduction.)
We began our interview earlier this year with me saying his name correctly. It’s a good way to start, and he was grateful. “That’s it, perfect,” he laughed, adding: “Not like the commentator. He asked me the first day I was here when we were having breakfast and I was like, ‘Oh mate, just say it how you like because no one gets it right anyway.’
“And he was like, ‘No, no, no… come on, I want to know.’
“So I told him how to say it: ‘Ken-yick’. And he was like, ‘Okay…’
“And it started off as ‘Ken-ukk’, and then it’s gone ‘Ken-ook’. And then it was ‘Ken-ooouk’ by the end of the week. And I’m like: ‘How has he got there?!’
“This is why I just couldn’t even be bothered telling him. But I’m used to it now.”
But we move on. There are more interesting things to know about this rider who has been part of Team Sky since its inception, a pro at the age of 18. That’s a story in itself. But it’s Tour time and he’s one of the 10 British riders selected to participate in the 2015 race, so we’ll consider that race and its influence on the two-time elite British road race champion (2014 and 2015, plus the equivalent title in 2008 as an under-23 rider).
At the centenary edition of the Tour de France in 2013, Peter Kennaugh junior was part of The Blue Line; one of the eight men designated with the task of helping Chris Froome with a second successive title for Team Sky. He was just 24, the youngest on the Tour team in 2013.
He had been talked about in high regard before then. Sir Dave once even confided, “He’s got all the traits of a rider who can win the Tour.” And yet in commentary circles – no matter the language – there remains confusion about how to say his name. That won’t last. If the 2015 Tour is anything like the 2013 edition, there’ll be plenty of opportunity to practice ‘Ken-yick’ in the coming weeks.
Two years ago we saw him often, at the front of the peloton tapping out tempo, setting the pace with a stunning pedalling action befitting a rider who was a key part of the phenomenal team pursuit quartet that rode 3:51 to win Olympic gold in 2013.
In Britain he is well known, success in a home Games helps raise the profile. But he was one of many victorious athletes from Team GB in London 2012. And, gracious as he is for the opportunity to put his talents on display on the track three years ago in front of a phenomenally vocal crowd, it’s a road race that means the most to him. When we spoke earlier this year, we discussed his pursuiting history and other aspects of his career but, I wanted to know, which is more appealing: the Olympics or the Tour de France?
“Oh, the Tour de France: 100 percent! The Olympics is just something I could do at the time.
“I wasn’t really into the whole Olympic scene,” he explained, “you know the village and all the different athletes… it just didn’t really do it for me. It kinda felt like one big sports day. I’m not saying it wasn’t a great experience; it was great to do at the time but it’s not something I grew up dreaming of doing like the Tour de France.
“Even just to ride the Tour de France is probably on par with winning the gold medal.
“The best part of the Olympics, for me, was the actual team pursuit event… not like, the people who go there almost as ‘an experience’ – to go and get that atmosphere. But I didn’t go to the closing ceremony, I didn’t go to the opening ceremony… but that’s me being a bit cynical, being a bit single-minded because maybe the Olympics, in other sports, is like the Tour de France for them – that’s the pinnacle of their sport.
“I have to watch what I say but if it’s just coming from me, personally – and it’s my opinion… every sport is different, you know. It’s like table tennis or a 100 metre runner in athletics – then it’s just huge, isn’t it?”
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At the Tour in 2013, he crashed in stage eight on the second day in the Pyrenees. A touch of wheels on the left of the road and a nasty slide over the tarmac before falling down a steep embankment and eventually coming to a halt. That came a day after Froome took the yellow jersey and Richie Porte was second at Ax-3-Domaines and it seemed another procession to Paris would ensue. Instead, it was a day Froome was made to fight for survival, isolated from his team-mates.
Thinking back to the crash, I told him how I thought it was quite an impressive stunt. “Yeah, it was good,” he laughed before querying, “Did you like that?” Yes, I replied, very well done.
“I can hardly remember it happening to be honest. One minute we were spreading across the road, the next minute, I was literally down this ditch.
“It was funny. It was kind of surreal. Because, you know, the Tour is just nuts, isn’t it? It’s just people everywhere – all of the time, and you just can’t get away from it. And then I was just, like – for a minute – I was just down this small ravine, a kind of ditch. And it was so peaceful.
“I was like, ‘Oh… this is relaxing.’
“It was just like I could have been anywhere in the world, know what I mean?”
No, I didn’t know what he meant. I couldn’t imagine being so calm about a day when the Tour seemed to be filled with panic. “‘It’s relaxing…’?!” I repeated, checking that I’d heard him correctly. “Yeah,” he laughed before explaining his subsequent reaction.
“Then I was, like, ‘Right, better get up now.’ And then I started pulling myself up and then I was just back into it again. Back into the mad circus, you know.”
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He’s got enormous potential, fantastic support and a phenomenal physiology, but Kennaugh isn’t convinced he’s going to be The Next Big Thing in British cycling. Rather, he prefers to take things as they come, be relaxed and let the others handle the pressure. At least that’s his approach for now.
“At the moment I’m really happy just going to these races and working for these guys. I get a lot of satisfaction out of it, especially if we win… but I don’t like to look too far ahead.
“I go on training camps with these guys, I race with these guys, I’m mates with these guys and it’s like I can see that they’re that much further ahead of me at the minute so it’s, like, for me to want to go in [as leader] at these races before them… it’s just a bit deluded really.
“At the moment if I’ll be on a training camp or at a race I find myself in the front group with them or just dropping them on climbs, then I’d be like, ‘Maybe I can start to think about this…’ but at the minute I know where I’m at myself and I’m quite realistic with it and there’s no point in putting any more pressure on myself than there already is.”
He takes his racing seriously but there’s more to life than cycling for Peter Kennaugh. “I just love chillin’ out with my girlfriend and just being normal to be honest,” he told me. “I like a bit of routine at home and I’m just quite a normal guy.
“Some guys just love it when they’re at a race; staying in hotels and all that, they just can’t stay away from it. They want to get involved in something all the time. But I like going home and switching off – so, you know, bring on retirement. Ha!”
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He’s ridden with some of the biggest names in cycling. So, I asked, could he just go through his experience of racing with fellow Manxman Mark Cavendish – at Sky in 2012 but also on the track where the pair regularly raced as part of Team GB – as well as Froome, Bradley Wiggins and Richie Porte?
“It’s a good question,” he replied “because there are definitely things that are similar between ‘Cav’ and Richie and Froomie – they always give 100 percent. And, as a leader, if you see a leader spit the dummy a few times you can maybe allow it to happen once or twice but after a while you just stop believing in them. But the guys you’ve listed are all very serious and you want to give back something.
“Cav was like my first experience of riding with one of the men who was going for the win.
“I’ve done quite a few races with Brad but never been there when he’s fully on it and going for the win, so my experiences with him are very different. I’ve been at races like the Tour de Suisse last year or smaller races when you can sense he doesn’t really want to be there – he’s kind of doing it as part of a build up to something else – so it’s a very different experience to what I’ve had with Richie, Froome and Cav.
“And also other team-mates have had a different experience of riding with Brad. I can’t imagine what it would have been like when he was going for it at the Tour…! I’d imagine it’d be something similar to the others.
“But I think that Brad, when he’s going for a win, he’s very calculated and turns into a sort of robot mode; he comes down for food, eats his dinner and goes back up to his room and switches off from everything. Then, when he’s at a race when he’s relaxed, he’s a totally different character and he’s fun to be around. He’ll stay around at the dinner table and have a laugh and joke.
“Cav is very much the same character every time, you know… pretty full-on, says what he thinks even when he’s going for the win or it’s a mountain stage, he’ll still just be at the dinner table ripping the piss out of everyone. He’s one to joke around. He can never sit still.
“It’s never silent at the dinner table at any point when you’re with Cav and it’s pretty similar in the race really, quite vocal but I quite like that when I’m working with someone – you want to know where you’re at and if you’re doing the right thing or not.
“When he’s up for a sprint, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone else who is more committed than him.
“And then Froomie and Richie, they’re just – I don’t know… from what I’ve seen of them they are kind of almost like the whole package. They just do everything for the bike. I think Richie, this year, he’s more-so that way than ever. Last year he sill wouldn’t mind the odd drink and still sort of binged out a few times but this year he does seem, like, on it! He’s really got his teeth stuck into it and he’s 100 percent committed to the sport. That’s what I see with Froomie as well.
“Everything they do is about the bike until the season is over, until the Tour is over. And that’s a talent in itself to be honest, to be able to make those sacrifices and have that work ethic and think, ‘I’m not gonna have that dessert’, or ‘I’m not going to have that drink…’ and then just to nail the training, that’s one of the things about Froomie – I’ve never seen anyone nail the training like he does. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him, say, do half the training session… [for example] if he’s got three efforts to do off Tim [Kerrison] I’ve never seen him do one or two, it’s always three. Where, with me, I can always justify not doing three [laughs].
“When I’m not with the team, training on my own, I can justify it – I’ll be like, ‘Hmmm… yeah, you’ll probably just be worse off for it, to be honest…’
“I’d somehow justify it to myself…
“I can do it sometimes on my own but it’s definitely best in the team environment, with the other guys, training.
“But, going back to the leaders… Richie and Froome are very similar in terms of when they’re in the race, from the start they’re just fully switched on. They clock on and clock off – they do not stop concentrating until the finish line. I think that’s something you gain with experience as well.”
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Peter Kennaugh turned 26 a couple of weeks ago, but at the time we spoke he was the same age Bradley Wiggins was 10 years earlier when we sat in the same restaurant in Adelaide talking about the Olympics and road racing and what the future might hold. Cycling has changed a lot in that time and, for Brits in particular, the prospects are good.
At the end of our interview, I thanked him and told him I’d see him in July in Utrecht to see what comes of the next phase of Kennaugh. “Yeah, we’ll see eh? We’ll see what the next couple of years brings. Who knows?”
I pointed to the table where I’d done the interview with Wiggins, and explained: I sat just over by that window in January 2005 with Bradley and back then, he was just another guy in the peloton… ‘Oh, you know, I’m doing the Olympics and I don’t know what’s going to come of me…’ and I think about what has happened to him since then and it’s quite phenomenal.
“Scary isn’t it? It really is scary,” concluded Kennaugh, “the way of the world. But it just depends where you’re at, doesn’t it? What age you are.
“How old was he when he sat over there in 2005?” he asked me.
He would have been 25 then…
“Yeah, exactly the same as me now. It’s like it’s hard to look that far ahead or even fathom what you might do… “
Well, I said, we’ll see if, in a couple of years time we’re calling you ‘Sir Peter Kennaugh’…
– By Rob Arnold