Pete Kennaugh: Dave Brailsford said to me, ‘trust me, normal life sucks’

The 32-year-old speaks on his struggles and how he is now plotting his return to the sport

 Pete Kennaugh
(Image credit: Wahoo)

Pete Kennaugh is back in the house he grew up in, leafing through scrapbooks he made as a teenager, a bike he drew sellotaped to the front. Inside lie his hopes and dreams for the future as he made the first steps towards his professional cycling career.

The pages contain mantras to guide him on his path to the top of the sport, short diary entries on his life as it was then as a teenager hoping to go pro. Now, reading it back in his early thirties for the first time since, Kennaugh almost shudders.

"I said it in the film, it was quite intense, it's quite serious stuff," Kennaugh tells Cycling Weekly, having teamed up with Wahoo for a mini-documentary reflecting on the life of the former Sky rider two years after he stepped away from the pro peloton to focus on "rediscovering happiness, motivation and enthusiasm". 

"Looking back on it...that was a part of the process of my journey to becoming a professional, I guess," he says of manifesting his dreams through the scrapbook into his reality. "I did feel like it was quite serious for a 15-year-old but obviously it helped get me to where I wanted to be."

A boy who was that obsessed with getting to the Olympics didn't care about missing out on the normal teenage stuff. Nights out, or the less glamorous past-time of tinnies in the park, were of little interest. He sat through endless school days waiting for the Saturday club run. At the weekend he would be in his element sprinting for the sign, stopping at the cafe for beans on toast. There was no pressure from his parents or anyone else who could sense his talent, he was allowed to just go out and enjoy riding his bike.

The first nights out for Kennaugh came when he moved to Manchester after making it onto the British Cycling Academy, living in Fallowfield, the epicentre of student life in the city. Kennaugh would ride with the other members of the academy back through central Manchester after dark from track league on a Tuesday night while the rest of their peers were going the other way out to the bars and clubs.

"The first year on the Academy I was really strict," Kennaugh says. "I've talked about complacency a lot recently and I really wasn't complacent at that age, I felt like I had to work to get to where I wanted to be. 

"The second year, once I got a few results and felt a bit more secure in my ability, then I enjoyed myself on a couple of nights. I remember going for a track session with Rob Hayles [after a night out], training for the World Cup Madison and I'd literally had one hour sleep.

"You know how you walk the line for team pursuit? We had to hold the line but in the Madison, so just me and rob on the track and I was absolutely swinging and just came off. I said, 'Rod [Ellingworth], I have to be honest with you mate, I went out last night, had two hours sleep'. I think he was just grateful for me being honest with it...he was pretty strict, Rod."

'It's just like a constant rollercoaster'

Pete Kennaugh

(Image credit: Getty)

In the intervening years since those early days, Kennaugh climbed to the top of the sport, Olympic glory at a home Games and a key lieutenant during Team Sky’s glory years. 

By 2019, however, Kennaugh admits he had lost touch with reality. He jammed on the brakes and brought his career to a complete halt.

“I felt like I just completely lost touch with reality to be honest, like the value of the pound, just everything,” Kennaugh admits of life inside the cycling bubble.

“Stopping was obviously something I had to do but it was also like a massive reality check. We just never had a chance to because the season is just so fast, you get a month [of off-season] where you go on holiday, go on nights out, all the stuff you can't do in the season, and then all of a sudden you're back training again, you don’t have that space or time to really sit down and gather your thoughts and work out where you’re at. It's just like a constant roller coaster.” 

Over the past three years Kennaugh has now taken the time and space to catch up, getting to grips with the learning curve of figuring life out, which is something everyone has to try eventually. But when you’re a sportsperson you can exist within a vacuum that provides you with very clear, defined goals and aims, that allows you to keep any existential crises at bay until cracks start appearing and everything comes tumbling down. 

Maybe it’s an Isle of Man thing but Kennaugh, like Mark Cavendish, is an intriguing character. Wide-eyed, unbreaking eye contact, he speaks between exasperated huffs from puffed-out cheeks as he relives the mental turmoil, recounting the journey from scrapbook hopes to the other side of realising those dreams and the emotional toll that has put on the man behind the rider. 

Pete Kennaugh

(Image credit: Wahoo)

So, after a reflective couple of years, what advice would he now give to the young man writing in that scrapbook all those years ago?

“I dunno, I feel like I'd probably have more advice for the 24-year-old version of myself,” he decides. “I feel like when I was 16, I’m really happy with how I lived my life and how everything developed. Yeah, I was serious, but I enjoyed it.

“But then, mid 20s, I'd gotten to this weird headspace where I was just never present. I'd go around my parents’ house and feel like I was a fly on the wall looking in at their conversations. Even when I went to races I was just always stressed without realising. It made it really hard to be present and just enjoy the moment. I was always preoccupied with what's next.

“The advice I'd say to my mid 20s self is just live in the moment and enjoy it. Just look around and look at what you're doing and take it in. I was always in this weird zone, not letting myself really enjoy or soak in what I was doing, I felt like I was on autopilot all the time.”

Soon after he quit Bora-Hansgrohe ITV reached out to Kennaugh to see if he’d be interested in becoming part of their Tour de France coverage. He was apprehensive, having only just stepped away from the sport he’d fallen out of love with, but knew it wasn’t an opportunity he could pass up. 

So he found himself in France once again during July, the subsequent years then spent in less glamorous surroundings in Maidstone due to the coronavirus pandemic, but that hasn’t stopped him from building his broadcasting skills and on-screen chemistry with Ned Boulting and David Millar.

“It’s something I really liked doing, commentating on the Tour de France,” Kennaugh says. “But I don't think I'd like to do it all year round, going from race to race to race. But it's been a great experience.”

Maybe it would be too much of a return to his old lifestyle.

“You basically just live out of a suitcase throughout your career,” he continues. “So many times you'd come home and wouldn't even unpack it. I mean, a lot of the time everything gets washed on the race anyway. So you've come home for two days and maybe take a couple of things out and then just re-pack it and go again.”

However, there are murmurings. In the film, Kennaugh starts getting his bike out again, having originally turned to running to sooth the soul, turning the pedals “re-ignited the fire” he says, and a return to the sport is now on the horizon.

“I think basically I got to the point two years ago where I was just not going back to the sport in any way, shape or form,” Kennaugh admits. 

“But I feel like I finally got to the point now where I'm passionate about it again and want to be involved. In what context? I don't know. The next couple of months I'm trying to figure out whether that's working for a team, riding in some way, or just literally going out on the bike to have a good time on the club run. But I think I've got to that point now, where [before] I was never there at all. There's always still a bit of a battle and a bit of a struggle."

Pete Kennaugh

(Image credit: Getty)

He continues to ponder, as if working through the thought process of deciding his future in real-time.

“I don't really know what direction next year is gonna take me, right here and now I'm gonna figure that out. I'll probably know in a month or two. But in my head, I want to have a direction and have a plan by December, know what I'm doing career-wise and then just really go for it. I've had three years now, had the ITV stuff but apart from that, it’s just pondering thoughts and ideas of what I want to do.”

Once you’re in the world of cycling it’s pretty hard to get out, and Kennaugh is no exception.

“When you stop you realise that you're actually pretty good at that, cycling,” he says. “And it's such a big world and there's so much stuff that you're just not good at,” he laughs.

“It's so true though!

“That's what I've realised like, Jesus Christ, even just writing an email with correct grammar, do you know what I mean?”

Kind of, but for all of us normal folk it’s much more inconceivable to ride up mountains pushing out the watts Kennaugh and his ilk do.

A father of four, a more relatable comparison to put things in perspective would be the question of what's harder, raising four children or riding the Tour de France?

"Riding the Tour de France every single day," Kennaugh answers without missing a beat. "Honestly, four kids, actually I'll have to thank Lauren [for that]. Honestly, it's a breeze.

"Obviously we had Alba [his fourth] in June, which was a surprise, my head fell off for about four months, but now she's here it's great. Love it."

There are few pretenses with Kennaugh, who has enough stories and the openness to share them that it's little surprise he's been such a hit as a pundit.

“Brailsford said to me once, probably in 2014, I think I went home around the Ardennes, I wasn't feeling great. And we were just talking about normal life and stuff and he was like, 'trust me normal life sucks. You don't want to go there'. And I was like, 'why?'

"I mean, that's his view on definitely doesn't suck, but I think what he was trying to get at is make the most of what you're good at in life because it goes quick.

"I'm 32 now, will be 40 before you know it and then 50. And all of a sudden, it's done, isn't it? I think that's the point that he was trying to make. So yeah, that's where I am at the minute."

Of all the superhuman athletic freaks to have ridden a bike competitively, maybe Pete Kennaugh is the most human.

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