Focus on details like bike fit and setup has vaulted young Kaitie Keough onto the cyclocross World Cup podium.
BALTIMORE, Maryland (VN) — Eight years ago, a 17-year-old Kaitie Antonneau (now Keough) was driving around the U.S. in a minivan racing cyclocross for the Planet Bike team. She was young and having fun. While she gathered some impressive results for her age, she, admittedly, wasn’t concerned with what would come next. It was all jump on the bike and go.
Today, Keough is in her seventh season with Stu Thorne’s powerhouse Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com team. And she’s having her best season yet.
At both the Jingle Cross and Trek World Cup rounds, Keough finished second. In Waterloo, that second place came behind world champion Sanne Cant (Beobank-Corendon). As of this writing, she had five other race wins to her credit, including both days at the U.S. Cup-CX/Charm City.
It’s no longer jump on the bike and go. In the past seven seasons with the Cannondale team, and especially over the past year, Keough has become meticulous about the details, especially her bike setup. It’s a result of working closely with several influential people in her life, including new husband and coach Luke Keough.
“As I’ve gotten a little older and started to compete at a higher level — everyone is fast; everyone trains really hard — you need to start paying attention to those little extra details,” Keough said. “Those are the one or two extra percent over someone else.”
Keough has paid particular attention to her fit, down to the millimeter. While she’s still learning and experimenting with the details, including a recent change to her crank length (down to 165 millimeters), she says she’s learned a tremendous amount over the past year.
“It’s really been helping in how my season’s been going so far,” Keough said.
Assisting her in the minutiae is team mechanic Gary Wolff, who is in his first year with the Cannondale team. Wolff, however, is as experienced as they come, having spent the past 20 years working at the highest level for a host of talented mountain bike and ’cross stars, including Alison Sydor, Geoff Kabush, and Jamey Driscoll, among others.
“A normal human being wouldn’t notice at all,” Wolff said of Keough’s ability to feel subtle changes in position. “But because she and these riders are on their bikes so much, they notice every millimeter of change. A lot of people think that’s crazy, but they notice right away.”
As Wolff notes, not every athlete is the same, and it takes time to understand the character of a particular rider and what they like or dislike. Sometimes a mechanic can deliver too much information to a certain athlete. Wolff knows, for example, that current national champion Stephen Hyde is comfortable being told everything from bike setup changes to things that need to be repaired because they broke. While Wolff and Keough continue to hone their working relationship, his ability to make the former U23 national champion feel comfortable has already paid dividends.
“I like to say he’s my Buddha mechanic because he’s so calm, and he just doesn’t stress,” Keough said. “Being around him, it just kind of oozes out of him. That’s really good for me mentally and I really enjoy working with him. He’s awesome at what he does.”
Wolff pre-rides almost every course each weekend. It’s something Keough has never had with any previous mechanic. According to rider and mechanic, it makes any discussion about bike setup that much easier.
The final factor in her success this season, according to Keough, is working with a new coach, who also happens to be her new husband, Luke Keough. Luke’s brother Jake, is also helping with coaching duties. (Previously, 13-time national champion Katie Compton coached Kaitie Keough.)
The change has made a significant difference for the Wisconsin native. Luke and Jake grew up racing ’cross and know the sport well, she said. Thus, the brothers can relate to the demands of cyclocross, as well as the nuances that effect technique and training.
“They’re just dudes who love to ride their bikes and race so it’s nice to be in that environment. I’m having fun again racing my bike,” Keough said. “Last year was a big struggle for me. Now I’m having fun, I’m riding well, the team dynamic is amazing. Cyclocross is, like, my favorite thing ever, I just love it.”