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Peter Keen : Interview

Peter Keen interview
Mark Bailey
11 May 2015

As Chris Boardman's coach and former performance director of British Cycling, Peter Keen kickstarted the UK cycling revolution.

Cyclist: You played a key role in the British Cycling success story, but where did your own cycling journey begin?

Peter Keen: In 1980 I won the schoolboy 10-mile time-trial championships. That led to a letter from the British Cycling Federation telling me I’d been selected for the national track squad – even though I’d never ridden on the track before. My first experience came at Calshot, which was a steep and bumpy track so it was scary. But it didn’t work out. I spent two years playing catch-up to the other riders, crashing a lot and getting ill, and by 18 I had lost my way.

Cyc: When did you move into coaching?

PK: I did a sports studies degree [at University College Chichester] and became fascinated with human performance from an academic perspective. I devised a research programme on the physical limitations to pursuit racing and wrote to British Cycling asking if they wanted to get involved in the trials. They said yes and sent some junior riders for me to work with. I presented my findings to the annual coaching conference and was almost torn apart as a pariah because I was making all sorts of arrogant inferences about what my findings meant. But some coaches wanted to bring their riders into the lab. Before I knew it I was prescribing training, advising on diets and workloads. I earned my living in a clinic as a sports scientist but by night I seemed to be coaching half the national team. I later became national track coach [1989-1992] and that led to the performance director role at British Cycling [1997-2003].

Cyc: Where did you see the most potential for change in those early days?

PK: The first big question was: why do we work on the logic that more is better? Most athletes rode their bike as much as they could all year round. That struck me as odd because when you look at the intensity at which you race, why are you asking your body to do something different in training? I knew the human body adapted specifically to the loads placed on it – if a gymnast hangs from parallel bars, he gets larger muscles – and I questioned if cyclists were applying the right loads. Often I was halving riders’ training loads and doubling their intensity.

Cyc: Did you face much opposition to your revolutionary ideas?

PK: You start off as a zealot – you think you know everything and you want to change the world. That’s what I was like in the late 1980s and I can see why I upset people as I came across as quite threatening and arrogant. But I was probably driven by a desire to understand why I hadn’t made it and a desire to emphasise the importance of coaching. You start as a zealot, develop into an idealist and end up as a pragmatist, working in the real world, accepting limitations and working with those around you.

Peter Keen British Cycling

Cyc: You coached Chris Boardman to his gold medal at the 1992 Olympics. Was he your ideal guinea pig?

PK: There was definitely a meeting of minds, but we started working together in 1987 when he was 19 and I was 23 so we were very young and probably weren’t conscious of it. I was willing to question training wisdom and he was willing to try things out. Every week was an experiment. If I asked him to ride six times up this mountain in this gear and at this speed, he’d do it. He’d also give feedback incredibly effectively, which was essential to evolving my understanding of training.

Cyc: How important was Boardman’s victory in changing people’s minds?

PK: His win was a breakthrough in terms of aspiration because it was front page news. Remember the context: we hadn’t won a medal [at those games]. The biggest story in Britain was that two weightlifters had tested positive for Clenbuterol – a drug you give asthmatic sheep. So now we had something positive, the media leapt on it. You can also see the origins of what later transpired in British Cycling in terms of a mindset to reach the highest level and a willingness to engage in technology and new training ideas. Then Lottery funding came along [in 1998] and the process got amplified from what a few individuals could do to a full programme.

Cyc: Do you take pride in knowing the systems you set up as performance director still influence the success of British cyclists today?

PK: For me, the greatest reward is the broad appeal of the sport now. My daughter is 15 and went to the track in Welwyn. When I sat high in the stands out of sight – which is what I recommend any dad to do – I saw a small army of kids almost overwhelming the coaching team. That was astonishing. One of the better-kept secrets of this story is that if you look at the opening paragraph of the performance plan I submitted for funding in 1998 we said that we wanted to win medals because we think dominating the performance landscape is the best way to develop the sport. That is exactly what has happened.

Cyc: How different was the cycling scene when you were a kid?

PK: It was a minority sport and it wasn’t cool. When I rode time-trials I would get changed in a hedge. There was a strange, marginalised grassroots amateur scene and a small pro scene that was so esoteric and high-level that it was impossible to see the connection. Today cycling is a very mainstream and cool sport. There is even a bizarre fascination with retro kit. I put an awful lot of kit in skips over the years that would now be worth a fortune – Campag Super Record kit and old Cinelli stems are now sought after. It’s extraordinary.

Cyc: Who were your cycling idols?

PK: At world level the stand-out would be Bernard Hinault. I remember his win at the 1980 World Road Race Championships, which were savage, with riders going through snow and hail. Only about 14 riders finished. Domestically it was Tony Doyle, the World Pursuit Champion in 1980 and the dominant track rider of his generation.

Cyc: Do you still enjoy riding your bike?

PK: Riding a bike today is as rewarding a personal experience as it has ever been, partly for physical conditioning because it feels good to work hard, get tired and eat food without feeling guilty, but it’s also good for your head. I think better if I’m riding regularly.

Cyc: Since leaving British Cycling you have worked as performance director for UK Sport and are now director of sport at Loughborough University. Do you still speak to Chris Boardman and Dave Brailsford?

PK: I met Chris for a ride recently and he didn’t batter me. He’s carrying a bit more than me. Sadly I haven’t seen any of the British Cycling staff for years, but we’ve all been busy. When I left, I handed over to people who went further with it and achieved more things, so I still feel a very strong connection to what they do. Cut me in half and you will see ‘cyclist’ written through me. That doesn’t change.

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