Peter Kennaugh: The human cost of performance and finding closure

Peter Kennaugh
Peter Kennaugh (Image credit: Wahoo/Ertzui Film)

At the Rouleur Live event in London last week, former professional Peter Kennaugh spoke extensively about his decision to retire in 2019, along with his struggles on and off the bike. The former Team Sky rider has made no secret of his battles, both physically and mentally, and Wahoo created a stunning short film with Kennaugh at his home on the Isle of Man, which you can watch below. While in London, Kennaugh also sat down with Philippa York, and in this exclusive piece, she gives her perspective on Kennaugh’s career, his bravery in speaking publicly, and the need for fans to remember that riders are not robots.

Abergavenny 2009, the British road race championships are coming to their conclusion under a scorching sun. I’ve been watching from a nicely shaded part of the final circuit, about halfway up the rise to the feed zone and it looks like it’s been a brutal race because there are groups scattered all over the place. In the front, there are four riders left: Chris Froome, Dan Lloyd, Kristian House, and one of the U23 riders from the British Cycling development set-up, 100% Me, called Peter Kennaugh.

Three pros, one amateur is the logical assessment, and you would think the latter would be flattered to be in the same company as his companions. But he isn’t. He actually looks the strongest one there.

Not quite sure of how many laps there are to go, I’m thinking it might be time to catch a glimpse of the finish when I notice all the people giving up bottles have suddenly packed up and left so I scuttle back towards the packed town centre, but it’s further than I reckoned, and I only get as far as the red flag marking a kilometre to go before the race appears behind me. 

Just as they pass by Froome attacks and the three others hesitate for a split second before the amateur in the equation goes after him and they all disappear around the corner towards the line. Froome looked like he had a big enough gap to win, but the little U23 guy looked the freshest and was probably the fastest, too.

Fifteen minutes later, I find out the result and Kristian House of Rapha-Condor has won with young Kennaugh second. Lloyd and Froome, the Euro professionals, have lost out to the home-based boys, which is a bit of a turn up for the books. Bradley Wiggins and David Millar might have had the excuse that they used it as training for the Tour de France, which was starting a week later, and Mark Cavendish could point out that he fell into the clutches of everyone who naturally wouldn’t ride with him.

That’s one of the dilemmas of a one-day event like the National Championships. The event always has a ‘them versus us’ feeling, with the European glitterati versus the UK domestic scene. It’s as if the former look down upon the latter with a touch of arrogance – which obviously they don’t, but some people do believe that – so the tactics can be a bit strange on occasion.

For me, looking at it from the outside, young Kennaugh seems to be going places. He appears serious, focused, and determined. He has some of the things you need to reach pro level, along with more than a fair share of talent. Well obviously, he has the talent, otherwise, he wouldn’t have been in the front on such a gruelling day and only just been beaten by someone with a lot more experience and race craft.

The following year, I wasn’t surprised when I read that Kennaugh had signed for Team Sky, along with the rider who finished fourth, one Chris Froome. It’s strange how things then developed for each of them because at the beginning of 2010 all the indications were that, of the two, it was the Manxman who was the most likely to shine. He wasn’t too big or heavy, so the sheer amount of climbing that exists in pro races wasn’t going to affect him, and in fact, everything pointed to a fabulous career ahead.

A decade on, and when you look back at what Kennaugh achieved in his career, it’s hard to deny that he had a successful spell in the sport. An Olympic Gold medal in the Team Pursuit at the London Games, twice national road race champion, and the winner of the Tour of Austria, but there’s also the feeling that somehow it could have been better.

There seems to be a judgement from some that the struggles that surfaced in 2018 were a weakness, a reason why he wasn’t quite what everyone expected. I think that it’s all too easy to forget that the average professional rider's career lasts four years before they are replaced or spent. Kennaugh did ten seasons, eight at Team Sky, and in an environment that had the best riders. His team changed how the top level of the sport operated and brought a higher intensity to all the riders, not just the ones who did the winning, but every member of the squad.

We came to expect and almost demand that when Dave Brailsford’s men turned up they were ready to dominate racing. However, those performances come at a cost, which isn’t only measured in financial terms, but also human ones. The pressure involved is enormous, and for some riders being part of a team that always wins is stimulating and it motivates them to do greater things.

We constantly see teams outperforming what they would usually do when they have a race lead or a potential champion – just look at UAE Team Emirates and the first Pogačar Tour de France victory. But there are also those who put themselves under too much pressure, characters who analyse everything they are doing and find faults in themselves compared to their peers. Confidence is so important and once you start to lose it or feel you aren’t reaching expectations, be they your own or the teams, then things can get difficult quickly.

Watching 'Frontiers' by Wahoo and their film with Kennaugh, one gets an insight into the complexities of being a professional bike rider in the modern age when data is king and performance seems to be programmable. Gone are the days when you could, if you wanted to, just go for a five-hour bike ride because you felt like it. Those times have been replaced by specific intervals, hill reps, or recovery days, when you’re only allowed to stay under so many watts in order not to mess up your TSS numbers. Add to that weight control, sleep monitoring, and other stuff like the bio passport, and you could easily feel that your life isn’t yours to decide anymore.

It brings up questions as to whether things have got better because everyone has access to performance-related information or has the sport forgotten that it’s ultimately entertainment and is supposed to be fun. Cycling was meant to add to our life experience and not take from it.

It’s all too easy to forget that the performers are people, not robots and they come with their own individual requirements. When you strive for perfection, you eventually discover it doesn’t exist and then you’re facing dealing with the reasons, imagined or real, of why you didn’t get there. 

I always say that professional cycling isn’t for everyone. It isn’t always a healthy environment to be part of, even when you have the talent and the health and the thousand and one other little things that let you function in that closed world. Because, make no mistake, it is a world that isn’t that open to discussing much else other than your last result or performance.

When you’ve watched 'Frontiers' you might start to understand that what Peter Kennaugh did when he said enough is enough back in 2019 took strength. It’s a moment of real bravery to recognise what he describes as his dream not being what he thought it would be, and to have to say that out loud, because to the cycling fan being a pro is the ultimate job.

It’s almost sacrilege to give it up. It’s as though cycling is a religion and when you stop believing then you’ve disgraced yourself and everyone associated with it.

If only life were that simple, but it’s not. Peter explains the emotions, the effects, and the fall-out from facing the reality that, rather than a pleasure, cycling had become a mere form of existence.

The sport was no longer giving him what he needed and was damaging his inner self and the people around him, which is so poignant in today’s emerging understanding of mental health.

It was quite humbling to sit down with him, and later on with some of the Wahoo guys as well, to discuss how and why they felt these topics needed investigation, and afterwards I was left thinking this is the only the beginning of the journey that Peter Kennaugh is embarking upon. It might be one where he does some competitive cycling, or he might not, but now he seems to be swimming with the tide and not against it, and that can only be a good thing.

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Philippa York is a long-standing Cyclingnews contributor who provides expert racing analysis. As a professional rider, she finished on the podium at the Giro d'Italia and Vuelta a España, as well as winning the mountains classification at the 1984 Tour de France.