Peter Kennaugh is placing his eggs in the Grand Tour basket over the next phase of his career, with the aim of breaking into the top 10 or 15 of a three-week race.
The Manxman has won the Tour of Austria and the Settimana Coppi e Bartali and has impressed on Grand Tour domestique duty while at Team Sky – where he started his career in 2010 – but last year's Vuelta a España confirmed his desire to explore his own potential in the biggest stage races. After a spell in the leader's jersey courtesy of Sky's opening-day TTT victory, he sat in the top 15 overall until that crazy stage to Formigal that saw close to 100 riders finish nearly an hour down.
"With the Grand Tours at the minute I'm trying to improve, and if I'm consistently there in the mountains, when it's whittled down to 10-15 guys, and I'm consistently there throughout the whole race – that's what I'm looking for this year," Kennaugh told Cyclingnews at the Abu Dhabi Tour the end of February.
"Not just doing a job into the climb then losing minutes and minutes. Just sort of being around those GC guys more when it comes down to the thick end of the races is sort of my main aim."
Kennaugh's commitment to testing himself as a GC rider is intriguing, given that arguably his most eye-catching results have come in one-day outings – two British national road titles, last year's Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race, and a stage win in the 2015 Criterium du Dauphine. He would seem to fit the mould of a hilly classics rider, though an annual April slump, which he's never been able to get to the bottom of, has meant he's never made an impact in the Ardennes.
Sky's lack of one-day success relative to the dizzy heights they've hit in stage racing has attracted much attention – though that tag has worn increasingly thin in the last two years – and Kennaugh is the latest in a line of riders capable of pulling off classy individual feats to lean towards the less spectacular model of general classification riding, where consistency is everything.
The team have tried to develop Michal Kwiatkowski as a stage racer since signing the former world champion in 2016, though his standout results have come at E3-Harelbeke last year and Strade Bianche last month. Geraint Thomas, who won Olympic team pursuit gold in 2008 and alongside Kennaugh four years later, has all but turned his back on the cobbled Classics – when winning the Tour of Flanders had become a realistic target – to try and crack the podium of a Grand Tour.
"Not really," replied Kennaugh when asked if he had any regrets or second thoughts about the resulting sacrifices to any one-day or stage hunting ambitions – the British nationals on home soil on the Isle of Man may remain a key target, but he'll cut two of the three Ardennes Classics to prepare for the Giro d'Italia.
"I'm 28 this year so it's getting to a point in my career where you've only got so much improvement left. So I've said to myself I'd like to be around the top 15 on GC in a Grand Tour in the next year or two. And progress from there.
"I've done good GC rides in shorter stage races. With the Grand Tour thing I'll see how it goes over the next two years, and then you're going to get to a point, at 29 knocking on 30, where you've either done it or you haven't. If you know yourself you're not capable of it you've got two options – you concentrate on one-day racing or you slot into an absolute domestique role. So we'll see how the next two years go. It's quite exciting."
'I always have a bad April and I don't know why'
Kennaugh hopes to ride both the Giro d'Italia and the Vuelta a España this season. He will race alongside Chris Froome at the Volta a Catalunya next week – "the first race where I want to be in really good shape" – hoping to prove his worth, all the while crossing his fingers that he'd done enough to banish those curious April blues.
"That April period last year I was just like so fatigued and low energy, just struggling to train really – never mind race. I kind of have that sort of period most years in April. I don't know why," Kennaugh explained.
"I don't even know what it is. I'm not sure if it's maybe a little case of overtraining in December, January and February. It can all catch up on you sometimes when you're trying to push everything a bit too much. So I'm just trying to monitor things better, and just try and knock that one on the head."
He hopes his decision to start his season in Europe – after two years in Australia – will help in that respect. And it's problem that is in need of instant rectification, because Kennaugh's spot in Sky's nine-man line-up for the Giro is far from guaranteed.
"On this team every Grand Tour is a bit of a battle to get selected for," he acknowledged, noting that there are around 12 riders in the frame for the corsa rosa.
"Last year I obviously started really good in Aus', with the win and stuff, but I just put so much work in that I sort of became a bit unstuck in April, so I'm just trying to change that a bit really, just start everything a bit later, a bit more stress-free. Just trying to just be a bit more consistent throughout the year.
"I want to prove myself in Catalunya, then let the legs do the talking in Trentino [Tour of the Alps], and that should sort the place on the team for the Giro."
Should he get the nod, he'll be doing for Thomas what Thomas has done for Froome at the past two Tours. Following in his compatriot's footsteps as he did at the Olympics, the next couple of years will be about exploration and finding out how far he can go, though in reality, with his contract with Sky up at the end of the year, that time frame he has set himself looks on the generous side; 2017 is a big year for Peter Kennaugh.
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