We talked to Jason Kenny just two days after he and Laura Kenny - ‘cycling’s golden couple’ according to the tabloids - had collected their honours, a knighthood for him and a damehood for her, at Windsor Castle in May.
First of all, how does it feel being Sir Jason?
“It feels the same as being not Sir Jason to be honest,” Kenny replies, as if being awarded a knighthood hasn’t quite sunk in. “It was one of those surreal days that happen from time to time in the life of an athlete.”
The tabloids reported that Prince William asked Jason if, now that he’s retired to coach Team GB’s men’s sprint squad (opens in new tab), he would also be coaching Laura.
“Yup,” he confirms. “I said she wouldn’t listen to me and that would be a waste of time.”
However, in his new job Kenny, 34, is counting on being listened to. The next Olympic Games are just two years away, with the pressure now on him to generate gold medals rather than win them himself.
“There’s plenty to do,” he agrees. “A lot of it is being at your laptop and keeping on top of things. My priority is delivering the coaching to the lads and making sure they know exactly where they’re up to. That’s the thing I try to keep as high level as possible. I’m not naturally an organised person and I’m a bit clumsy so I have to work quite hard at it.
“I’ve got an upskill project going on in the background as well and that adds a bit of workload, but there’s lots of things I need to learn. So it’s a steep learning curve for me but it’s been good fun so far.”
Team GB has a fairly relentless schedule of racing coming up that will allow the sprint squad to get some international competition in their legs and their heads, as well as Kenny to get an idea of how things are going and what still needs doing.
“We’ve already done two UCI Nations Cups, we’ve got the Commonwealth Games coming up, Europeans and then World Champs after that,” he says.
“I picked up a system that was already running, really. I haven’t had a massive effect on the planning and obviously that will become more and more important as we move forward. But the lads are in a really good place, already very well drilled and well organised and know what they need to do. So it makes life a lot easier in that sense. I’m learning how to interact, tweak and move things forward. We’ve got a good support team behind us too. Physiologists, nutritionists, strength and conditioning coaches so it’s bringing all of that together.”
Has Kenny identified the next Jason Kenny or Chris Hoy (opens in new tab), the next British sprinter who’s going to win lots of gold medals?
“We’ve got a few coming through and we’ve got a strong pathway. We develop riders fairly well. Obviously we’ve still got Jack [Carlin] on the senior programme and the medals from Tokyo. And all the lads are at a really good level on the squad. I think any one of them if they get it right could turn up and pop in a gold medal-winning performance.
So we’ll try and tease that out of them, give them all the tools and hopefully someone will be on the top step by Paris.”
The main reason for the catch-up with Kenny is to ask him about his involvement with Reap (opens in new tab), a British bike brand that also makes its carbon bikes in the UK, something pretty unique nowadays, and is working on developing the Reap Raptor (opens in new tab), which it’s claiming will equal the world’s fastest track bike.
Kenny is on board not only as ‘performance partner’ but also as an investor. It sounds like a big commitment to a brand that only recently started work on a track bike?
“I’ve done some work with Huub [the brand produces his signature ‘JK9’ clothing collection] and Reap have a bit of a relationship with Huub. The two guys know each other - Dean Jackson [Huub’s CEO] and Martin Meir, Reap’s founder. And so I ended up having a conversation with Martin about what he’s doing and was really excited by it. I was surprised to see this place just down the road from where we live in Cheshire. They’re in Newcastle-under-Lyme and they’ve got this big factory set up ready to make all these bikes just here. I was really keen to get involved.”
What would Kenny’s role as performance partner involve?
“Being part of the decision making. So far it’s one of those things that we have to dive into and see what we can bring to the table. I’m not an aerodynamicist and I’m certainly not an engineer but I do know what feels good and what rides well. I know broadly what people want and expect of bikes. Also I’m quite good at breaking bikes,” he laughs.
Reap is working on a new prototype track bike that it claims is as fast as both the individual pursuit record holder’s bike (Ashton Lambie (opens in new tab)’s Argon 18 Electron Pro Pursuit) and the team pursuit record holder’s bikes (Italy (opens in new tab)’s Pinarello MAAT).
“The testing was done before I came on board,” says Kenny. “I know they’ve been in the wind tunnel and it’s quite a simple job to test against other bikes assuming you’ve got the other bikes.
“The prototype looks like it’s on the money at the moment. There’s a few improvements they want to make to it for the next version.”
Track bikes (opens in new tab) are often either astronomically expensive and in reality designed for national federations, or a little bit basic. That’s why, according to Kenny, the track market is untapped. “A lot of the big companies are not doing it because it’s not a massive market but if you do it well I think it’s still a reasonable market and there’s still a demand for a good track bike. I know from working with British Cycling that you can struggle sourcing good-quality bikes without spending the earth.”
Is there a possibility the new Reap bike could be used by British Cycling in the future?
“At the moment British Cycling are still with Hope and Lotus and I don’t see that relationship changing,” Kenny answers.
“And obviously the Hope x Lotus bikes (opens in new tab) are very, very high end but the Reap is at the Argon, Pinarello sort of level that’s available to everyone else who doesn’t want to spend 25 grand on a track bike.
“The idea is that anyone can buy a world class bike that most people will ride in track leagues, bunch races and things, so I think we need to make sure it’s available and adjustable - upright as well as a pursuit bike.”
Kenny says the pricing hasn’t yet been set, but “for something that’s made in Britain by hand they do a good job with the current bikes of pricing them quite competitively, so it will be competitive compared to other bikes available too.”
On the subject of availability, Reap has highlighted that since its bikes are made in Britain, it won't be affected by supply chain issues.
“Yes when you’re doing everything in house, assuming you can get the raw materials it’s just a case of training people up. They’ve got a massive facility there in Newcastle-under-Lyme and they’re ready to go to work. Also the fact that we’re making them here, you can go along and see how they’re being made - I’m into that. I like making things at home. And hopefully we can make it on a reasonable scale too.”
With his business commitments and the new job at British Cycling, how much riding is Kenny doing these days?
“Well I’m more exercising rather than training,” he says. “I commute by bike when I can. I’m not a massive fan of driving. At the minute we’re based over in Derby, not Manchester, so that’s become a bit more challenging. But I get out when I can and when we go away on camps we have a little morning running club because staff can’t always take our bikes. I’m really enjoying it. It’s nice to exercise for the sake of it and to feel good as opposed to because it says it in a training programme.”
“Only very slowly. Then I feel really good for the rest of the day. It’s nice just to be able to enjoy it.”
For someone who won nine Olympic medals over four Olympic Games is being able to enjoy it enough though? Does Kenny miss the structure of the training, the targets, the drive it takes to be really successful?
“Yeah I do miss it,” he admits. “It didn’t just come to a natural end. I decided to quit [in February] because the job came along. It was quite a quick decision to just go for it. So I do miss the racing: when I go to races and see it, I’d love to get stuck in again, but on the flipside I am enjoying the more relaxed lifestyle, not living by a training plan.”
Although for the average person being responsible for Team GB’s sprinters’ fortunes at the next Olympics doesn’t constitute a relaxed lifestyle by any stretch, it’s clear that Kenny, who has dealt with the pressure of competing at the very top level of track cycling for his whole adult life, is able to cruise off the front and win in whatever he does - just as he did in that incredible Keirin in Tokyo, his final and most memorable gold medal as a rider.
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