Talk to Luke Keough and you have a sense that he’s following a long-term plan for his cycling career, not putting pressure on himself to do well in any specific race but more a steady progression. As opposed to many of his age group, the 19-year old rider chooses to look at success over a season as opposed to the results of only one race.
The middle son of the 5 Keough brothers started racing when he was 5 years old, first BMX then cross and road. In 2006 he won the USA Jr National Championships and followed that up with a 10th place finish at the World Championships. He now races cross with the Champion System p/b Keough Cyclocross team which is basically all his brothers and raced road with the BikeReg.com/Cannondale team.
In his second year as a U23 rider, Keough is leading the Greenware US Gran Prix of Cyclocross U23 competition. He grabbed the leader’s jersey on the first weekend of the series in Madison, WI and has podiumed in every race since then. With one weekend and two races to go, Keough has a 60-point lead on the CalGiant teammates Cody Kaiser and Jeremy Ferguson.
We sat down prior to the third stop in the USGP to discuss cycling, his style of riding and rivalries with his brother. You see there are three Keoughs racing in the U23 field this year, older brother Nick and younger brother Jesse. Nick and Luke have split up their focus this year with Luke focusing on the USGP and Nick on the Verge New England Championship Cyclo-Cross Series p/by Cycle-Smart. Both will race once again together at the National Championships in Bend in December.
What were and are your goals for the cross season?
Basically build upon last year. Last year was just making the step into U23 and Elite category, it actually went pretty well and I was happy with the season but this year, I just want to keep building all the way through and improve the results and it’s come so far.
What do you mean by build up?
The form and skills and just experience in the races, just racing guys like Luca [Damiani] have tons of experience, and racing with them and racing against them is a lot of knowledge gained.
This is your second year in U23, did you notice a big difference or was it hard to move up to U23?
It was definitely a big step not only with more competition and a lot more riders obviously. It was same effort because you’re always going hard at cyclocross, but definitely more against other people, not just against yourself. It was a big step because in the Juniors you’re racing one guy maybe but here you’re racing all the guys, one hundred guys.
How does that change how you approach your racing?
They don’t really change it too much, it just kind of a mental thing you know, you have more guys to race so there’s a better spot for you to sit. It’s a good gauge too because you can see where you’re moving up and where you’re finishing and definitely moving through the ranks it’s hopefully going to continue.
After moving up to Elite and now stepping it up this year, did you notice a difference on how people treat you or are just another Keough brother?
Last year I got a little bit more respect than most people probably do just because I was a Keough brother but this year definitely I’ve tried to prove that I know how to race. I try to race a little more kindly, I guess, than most people would because you don’t really need to be aggressive until the last few laps and that’s where a lot of anger comes from, those first few laps where people are fighting for spots that don’t really matter in the first 15 minutes. I haven’t angered anyone that way because I don’t race that way.
That’s interesting because in cross everyone says that you could lose the race in the first few laps if you’re not at the front but you’re not worried. Is it because you start close to the front?
It could be, I have a very good start so I’m usually am up front and can let people by and I know where I need to be.
Brother Nick adds: You can lose it but you’re not going to win it.
Exactly, you can lose it and if he’s not fighting for it.
Oh I’m definitely fighting for it, I know where I need to be and I know where also I don’t need to be. I don’t need to be in front of maybe one guy but I can’t let five guys pass me so there’s a line that some people tend to cross most often than most. Rubbing’s racing, I don’t care, but I try not to do it too much to other people.
Aren’t you a sprinter too? Isn’t that part of the job? (laughs)
(laughs) I am. It’s definitely part of the job. Last few laps don’t get in my way.
Ah so you save the rubbing and elbowing for the end.
Oh absolutely, I know when to race and I know when not to race.
Have you always raced that way? Is that a trademark of all of you?
No, not really, it’s me I guess. Like I said I know who I need to race, I don’t need to fight with Tim Johnson for a wheel because I’m not really racing him right now.
Exactly when that time comes sure I’ll throw some elbows at Tim but that sort of thing I just don’t need to do. I guess I haven’t pissed anyone off too bad. (chuckles)
So you’re mostly focusing on other U23 riders now as your competitors or is it the whole field?
Basically the whole field but there’s a race inside the race, some days I just need to beat one U23, other days I’m trying to race for the win. It makes it interesting because either way I have to race someone.
Let’s talk about this. You go to Cycle-Smart International, tactics-wise it’s a smaller race and then you have USGP where it’s a full-on battle for U23 and the win. Do you approach these differently?
Yes, you definitely know if you’re going to race for the win or not, like in the USGPs, I’m racing for U23 because that’s the race I’m racing. At Cycle-Smart International, it can be either way, [on day 1] Jerome [Townsend] was up there early so there was a race for the U23s right away but then as the race progressed it turned into the whole race, the overall. The goals changed during the race.
And you have no problems adapting to that?
No, not at all.
I assume the overall U23 at USGP was a goal of yours this year.
Yes, definitely. We split up, Nick is doing the Verge Series and I’m going for the GP, and I’m leading right now. I’m going to try and keep it for the last two races, I have a pretty good lead because some of the guys were not at the first race. Hopefully my form keeps building and hopefully I can put some time into everyone.
Louisville was a pretty tight race for U23.
Yeah, me and Danny were together a couple of times, I pulled him back and then he kind of dropped me on the last few laps. It was good to be there with him because he’s definitely one of the faster guys out there, and to be able to race with him even for a couple of laps was a good show of where I was with my fitness.
How challenging is the U23 field right now?
Nationally it’s pretty big, there are a lot of juniors that came up, that made the jump from last year and it’s definitely growing as a field within the field. It’s getting faster, and as you can see, Danny is top 10, I’m top 10, Nick is top 10, the race is moving up and competition is getting harder.
You have two brothers now racing with you in the U23s. Are you ready to battle Nick to the line for the win?
I would be glad to be beaten by Nick any day, he’s definitely coming back, the last few years have been pretty tough and he’s definitely coming back strong.
Okay, let me ask again, are you willing to put him in the tape if it comes to the win?
(laughs) I do not need to put Nick into the tape. No, we’ll work together and we’ll put other people into the tape.
And then you’ll sprint him to the finish line if you have to?
It depends on the day. (laughs) I’ll say no.
So who’s got the better sprint?
I may have the better sprint, I’m a bit bigger.
And the better technical skills?
Equal on that.
How do you practice that?
We train every day, on-road and off-road. We just do the same things, get lost in the woods riding and it’s always fun. We never really compete against each other, we’re always competing with each other.
After USGP, you have USA National Cross Championships. How important are Nationals for you?
They’re a little over-hyped, it’s one race the whole year, it’s a big race but you can’t judge your whole season on it. Any mistake, any problems can cost you the race and if you bank your whole season on Nationals you’re going to be disappointed most of the time. As a one-day race it’s a big deal but for me my whole season has gone well, I’m leading the USGP series, I already have two UCI wins, that’s a good season so far. I’d love to do well there but if something happens it’s not a big deal.
What is a successful season for you then? Is it what you just said?
Progressing from last year was my big goal, moving up. I was top 10 last year and now I’m top 5, top 3 and that was really the goal for the season, just progressing, not really putting any pressure on one day, one race, even one year. It’s all just moving forwards.
That’s pretty mature mentally, where did you get that?
That’s everyone, we all think like that. It’s not one race that makes the season.
Racing is tough. Some days you mess up, you bobble, how do you recover from that mentally? What is your mental approach?
I try to forget about what happened if it’s not good, try and learn from it but don’t linger on it. And as far as getting anxious for races, I just try and not think about it until I’m doing it because you can over-think it so easily, every turn you can over-think, every mistake, you just have to go about it every pedal stroke.
And do you re-hash the races with your brothers after they’re done?
We always talk about what happened. If we’re not together, we don’t what went wrong, laugh about it if we crashed, if we do good it’s great. We definitely talk about how the race went, how we raced and if we need to improve on the way we raced.
As the middle child, do you feel extra pressure? You have some older brothers that have done some pretty neat things. Do you feel pressure that you need to be better?
I don’t know if there’s getting much better. Like I said we’re never really competing against each other, I love to see everyone do well and the same, they like to see me do well, it’s just been fun the whole time. It’s not about who does the best, it’s all about having fun.
Let’s talk future. Are you planning on going to Europe this year?
Hopefully, I’m going over for Worlds and possibly the World Cup before but I opted out of a trip that was for the World Cup just because the travel back and forth to the States hurts me pretty bad so I kind of wanted to make one trip that a few weeks towards Worlds.
And what do you think you need to do to get selected for Worlds?
I’m definitely not secured a spot, the U23 are getting pretty competitive. If they look at the whole season, I feel I’ve been up there but if they look at one race, you never know.
And then there is Worlds in 2013, how important is that for you?
It will be my last year as a U23, it’s a goal. Same thing though, it’s one race and that’s one race, one goal, I definitely want to do well, a podium would be nice but I’d like to progress through the ranks and be racing with guys like Tim Johnson, Jeremy [Powers] and Jamey [Driscoll] by that time. I want to be their competition, whether I’m competition for the Europeans or not, it’s a different story.
Where do you want to be in 2 to 5 years? Do you want to be a full-time cross racer, a cross/road racer or a road racer? Something else?
Astronaut? (laughs) I guess whatever comes, road or cross, I’ll try and do both as long as I can. Hopefully cross gets big enough that I can race cross full-time but right now it’s a cross/road combination in the States anyway. I love road racing, sprinting and hopefully I can get on a pro team that allows me as well to race cross, kind of like Tim Johnson.
Is that who you are modeling yourself after career-wise?
Sort of, we’re different type of riders. As a whole, he’s done it well, he’s one of the few riders who can handle a full road season and a full cross season. He did it this year with flying colors. Jamey too has done the same thing, I’d like to do that as long as I can but if the time comes that I need to decide, the decision will be made then.
Ideally if you had to pick one, could you right now?
I always say I love doing the one that I’m doing at the time, right now it’s cross and in a few months road, I can’t wait for road, the cycle continues.
Which road team will you be with?
Right now it looks like BikeReg.com/Cannondale again. I hope we can race against the pros and get some results. [Note: following the interview, Luke Keough has been linked with Team Mt Khakis for the 2011 road season.]
Looking at the road, what is your goal for next year?
Top 5 in NRC races. I was top 10 a couple of times, I’d love to be top 5 and win, that’s obviously a big goal. But just the same thing, a strong season overall and maybe get recognized by someone.