Two years ago, a then 19-year old Nick Keough won the U23 overall at the 2008 Verge New England Championship Cyclo-Cross and seemed to be poised to take the world by storm. Then, the second-oldest of the five New England Keough brothers was challenged by crashes, injuries, an illness and bad luck.
Fast forward to now, where the now 21-year old who rides for Champion System p/b Keough Cyclocross is once again leading the Verge New England Championship Cyclo-Cross Series presented by Cycle-Smart.
For Keough it proves that he is back on track to reclaim his fitness. “Definitely coming into the season, the Verge NECCS series was one of my big goals, I won it two years ago and it’s kind of my benchmark of the season before.”
In 2009 on his way back to fitness, he was caught up in a crash at the start of the the Cycle-Smart International and was out once again with injury. This past weekend, a happy Keough claimed his first UCI podium this year, finishing third on day one of the 20th edition of the race.
I sat down with Nick on Sunday morning to discuss the last two years, the mental toll and how he’s coming back as a different and maybe better racer. After racing with the Kenda p/b GearGrinder Pro Cycling team in 2010, his plans for the road next year are in the works.
Three of the Keough brothers are now racing in the U23 category, Nick in his last year, Luke and younger Jesse with Nick and Luke have splitting up their focus. “We knew Luke was going to go out to Wisconsin and take it from there, he was holding the [USGP] jersey after that so we figured I would head up the Verge Series and he would go for the USGP and see if we could take down the big titles, so it’s kind of cool.”
Stay tuned for interview with Luke Keough.
From what I understand you’ve had a tough past two years.
The past two years have been kind of interesting. To sum it up, I had three neck injuries, I severed a ligament in my forearm here last year, that was just after on my way back from when I was out in Las Vegas I was in a car accident which was one of the neck injuries. That was about two hours before CrossVegas. And then just before that I came down with a bacterial infection in my stomach and I lost about twenty pounds. It’s been a tough time getting back to where I was two years ago.
I crashed in New Jersey two years ago and that wasn’t too bad. But then I crashed at Nature Valley the following summer and messed myself pretty good. Started to come back and all the same week, I got the stomach infection and was in a car accident out in Las Vegas. And I was started to come back even still and then hurt myself here in Northampton. It’s been a tough run, definitely it’s been mentally taxing trying to keep my motivation and momentum going through all of it.
Were you tempted to just say I’m taking a year off?
No I always wanted to keep on plugging through. There’s so much motivation in my house, I have Jake winning huge races, I have Luke tearing it up, Jesse and Ian are on the way up so there’s constant positive re-enforcement and motivation all around. As hard as it was to see everything going so well for them, it’s obviously there, it’s tough but it’s also great motivation to keep going and see that it is possible. I know I’ve been there so I know I can get back. Yesterday I really felt that I was taking a big step forward back to where I’ve been.
Where would you put yourself now compared to your form two years ago?
I think my form is approaching where I was, it’s not as solid, it’s a little bit fragile. It’s like I’m still building and expanding upon where I was but I think right now my form is there and the fitness base is coming along. It’s taking time but it’s coming which is definitely good to see.
You crashed here last year. Where you thinking about that yesterday at the start?
I actually wasn’t. My younger brother Ian the day before was like ‘oh you might be a little bit worried about the start here’ and I was like ‘no I’m not’. I’m not one for superstition, I’ve pretty much seen most of it as far as how injuries and illness go. It comes with the territory of racing and I was prepared for it, it’s another bike race.
Have you crashed this year at cross?
I actually haven’t crashed hard once. I actually crashed hard training worst that I crashed racing.
Okay so when you went down did you start mentally checking your body to see if everything was okay?
No, it’s pretty straightforward. I crashed on the road a couple of times this year and it kind of gets back into it. Once you hit the ground, you bounce back up and you’re back at it.
That is pretty tough mentally. Did you put milestones to know that you were progressing?
I was trying to but trying not to at the same time. I want to see improvement but I was trying not to let I get to me when it didn’t come as quickly as I would have liked. My road season didn’t go the way I had planned just as a result of my schedule and team dynamics and that sort of thing so I wasn’t able to make the steps on the road back. So my fitness is building but it’s hard to see at some point. Even the beginning of the cross season was tough so I’m starting to make improvements and getting better and better every weekend so it’s definitely promising, it’s good to see.
What do you want to do this year with the two months left in the cross season?
Basically I just want to keep expanding on the progression that I’ve had, coming into the season I just wanted to get solidly back into the top 10. In the past weekend, I’ve been in the top 10 at least one day every week so it’s been improving slowly and I definitely feel like I have a lot of room to improve left in the season and it’s almost learning all over again how to race. You know the skills, you know the people but learning where your body fits in and where your fitness is in the race is definitely something you have to re-learn even with every year, you have to figure out what your fitness is at that point and how to race that way.
Do you think that going through all of this has made you a better racer?
I definitely think it did because I wasn’t always the greatest junior and two years ago I had some really good success, you see all the hard work paying off but when you have it go wrong again you realize you don’t always have to be the best racer, you’re not always going to be the best racer, you have to keep working at it. You can still come back from pretty much anything.
So what did you learn about your body going through all this?
I definitely had to re-learn myself, I think I’m a completely different rider from where I was. I have different strengths and I have to race differently than I did that’s what I was saying about having to re-learn myself as far as racing. [In the past] I started off a lot harder and than kind of settled in a little bit more, I was a little bit more solid but now I have a little bit more of a steady race, race at my own speed and I’m not quite as punchy as I used to be which I attribute to losing a lot of muscle mass so it’s changed my style of riding.
Do you think that’s going to come back?
I think the snap and the strength are coming back but the style of riding is definitely different still. I think I’m climbing a little better from this road season from what I used to, maybe I don’t have as much of a top end sprint but my snap is still there and it’s coming back. It will probably change into the road season as I get more fitness and build upon that but there’s definitely slight differences that many not everyone can see but I can definitely see from before.
There are four of now racing cross [Jake is not racing cross this year]. Compare your skills and strengths to your brother Luke.
Luke is a powerhouse. We go out training and one thing that is interesting is that in training I usually end up smashing Luke and then we come out to the races and he pulls it pretty good, so I don’t know if that’s him getting better in racing or if I go worst in racing for some reason (laughs). He’s definitely more of a powerhouse, you’ll see him racing and not much gets to him. He can hammer through, if he has a problem he gets back into it. Sometimes maybe because of some of my mental stuff in the past couple of years, maybe my lack of confidence, I definitely race a little bit more tentatively than he might, I think in some cases it’s good as it helps me to conserve. As a style of rider, he’s definitely a lot more of a powerhouse, I’m a little bit more on the conservative side, he rolls through pretty much anything.
So who is better tactically?
I think I might be a little better technically, I got some more experience and it’s starting to rub off. He definitely has a good tactical sense, I think I have a little bit more experience and not being as strong, having to race a little smarter. I might say that I don’t know if he’ll agree.
Luke Keough: [nods] yeah.
Any plans for Europe this year? And where do you want to take it?
Yeah, I’m definitely looking at Worlds. See how the rest of the season plays out and see if I can continue building and kind of what I’m doing on the road next year. As for the future, the US cyclocross scene is definitely building, I love cross and it’s what I started doing as far as big wheel bikes, we raced BMX but cyclocross is where we got into it and I just love it. Ideally I’d like to race cross full-on.
So you consider yourself a cross racer?
A cross racer, you race the road season to keep it going, you race the big races with a focus on cross.
Is there a pro rider that you model your career after or style?
Not really. In Europe, that’s where I would like to see it go. Maybe do like Jonathan Page, he had a big road career and now he’s fazing it into cross. I definitely going to keep going on both of them full on and until one takes precedence or one becomes a little bit more clear cut.
Speaking of Jonathan Page, would you be willing or looking to move over to Europe then?
At this point I don’t see that as being beneficial for me. I really have always taken the mentality that until you’re winning and killing every UCI race here, you still have something to learn so there’s no reason to go live there until you’re clearly the best here. I figure I’ll take as much as I can here and learn and once I’m at a level where it’s week in and week out thing that I’m winning then I’ll take it over to Europe and see how it goes. Definitely dabble on the European stuff, do the World Championships, I’ve been over there a couple of times and keep it going over there but to make the full move, I definitely think you need to be clearly the best to make that step.
You’re racing road again this year.
Not definite yet. I rode for Kenda Pro Cycling last year and it’s up the air, still figuring things out. I should know on the next couple of weeks.
Road-wise what is your goal for next year?
Trying to get back to the level I was at in the past and it’s kind of a question mark for me, I really just want to make a solid progression, get some good results and take it as it comes.
If there was one race that you really want to go after and win, which one would it be?
Road or cross?
Both, that’s tough. I would say for cross this one would be get but maybe Nationals. This is my last year as a U23. Two years ago I was second at Nationals, I had a little bit of a bike problem, it was kind of a big ride, I wasn’t quite expecting it but I was right there for the win so it’s almost like I was robbed so I want some vengeance. Me and Luke are going to be there, we’re going to have a couple of cards to play with the two of us.
Road, really just to be consistent on the NRC scene. Play out in the sprints that way I used to be able to and be consistent.
Are you a sprinter too? No wait, you’re a climber right?
No, I can go uphill, kind of an all-rounder. I was probably classify myself, if I had to pin it down, as a breakaway sprinter in a criterium. I can sprint really well from a group of 10 to 15 or smaller and I can hold my own in a bunch sprint too. It’s just going to be over time, I think I will develop into more of a stage racer because of my build but at this point, that’s kind of the place where you make the money, going to crits and get the results without the huge miles in your legs which as a young guy is definitely good.