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The long trail back: A conversation with Liam Killeen

Two years ago, Liam Killeen was just a small step away from joining the top ranks of cross-country mountain biking. After years of slow but steady improvement, Killeen had a breakthrough 2006, winning the Commonwealth Games and the Sea Otter Classic, and regularly duking it out with Julien Absalon, Jose Hermida and the other big dogs of the World Cup. The 25-year-old Brit, known for his shy, quiet demeanor, was riding a wave of newfound confidence.

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By Fred Dreier

Liam Killeen

Liam Killeen

Photo: Fred Dreier

Two years ago, Liam Killeen was just a small step away from joining the top ranks of cross-country mountain biking. After years of slow but steady improvement, Killeen had a breakthrough 2006, winning the Commonwealth Games and the Sea Otter Classic, and regularly duking it out with Julien Absalon, Jose Hermida and the other big dogs of the World Cup. The 25-year-old Brit, known for his shy, quiet demeanor, was riding a wave of newfound confidence.

But Killeen’s body had other ideas. In 2007 the Brit noticed his usual pre-season build up lagged due to a lack of energy. After a handful of disappointing races, Killeen barely had the energy to mount his bicycle. The big 2006 had left him with a case of chronic fatigue, and he retreated to his hometown of Malvern to sit out the season and recover.

The setback came as huge blow to Killeen, who has focused much of his childhood and the entirety of his adult life on racing bicycles.

For 2008 Killeen is back, again flying the big red S of his Specialized team. But he’s facing a long road back to the top. At Houffalize, Killeen finished 69th and at the World Cup in Offenburg, Killeen is again starting in the back.

VeloNews caught up with Killeen to see how the road to recovery is coming.

VeloNews: Losing all of that fitness must have been a major blow to your confidence. What did the fatigue do to your motivation?

Liam Killeen: Well I wasn’t too happy because I was so tired. It was showing on the bike, and I’m known as a fairly good bike rider and I just couldn’t be that. I was I think from the outside some other people had a hard time seeing that. I lost motivation. I’d feel good and do a hard day of training and the next day I would go into a depth. I would get a sore throat and really bad fatigue and would have to rest again. It was a vicious cycle and eventually would just have to take a sustained amount of time off. I had to give exercise a break.

VN: You came back at the end of the season for the world championships in Fort William and then the World Cup finals in Maribor. I know your results weren’t up what you’re used to, but how did it feel to be back racing?

LK: Fort William gave me a little stimulus for Maribor. I felt so much stronger [in Maribor]. I maybe have finished 30th but I started at 180th. That was my 2007 season right there. Then I actually went to check the course out in Beijing, I wasn’t racing, I just watched the race and rode some laps on it. From what I saw it was tough. You could compare it to the course at Madrid without the transition sections. Very short, sharp ups and downs with no rest. It’s physically very demanding. And the pollution really hindered the guys with breathing problems. You could definitely tell there was something abrasive in the air. When you’d breathe in after the efforts your chest would be very tight.

No, (Great Britain) has two spots and the selection is made in June. I just have to make sure I’m one off the top-two ranked British rider. It’s base don World Cups and the world champs. I just have to focus on being ranked No. 1 or No. 2. We have some young talent coming through. A guy named Phil Dixon is doing a good job, but at the moment it’s just me and Ollie [Beckinsale] getting the good World Cup results.

VN: I know a lot of Europeans have shrugged off racing the National Mountain Bike Series (NMBS), formerly called the NORBA series. You decided to start your season this year with the NMBS rounds in California and Arizona. Why?

LK: I like the ‘States, and it’s probably the only time I’ll get to go there this year. I was able to visit Specialized and some friends. And the NORBA races are really fun. I had my choice between some other races, like the Cape Epic, but I didn’t want to do something that demanding at that time of year. Yeah, the NORBA races are pretty low key, but I was very impressed with the standard of racing. The U.S. and Canadian guys are really strong at the moment, because they have their selection for the Olympics to worry about. They’re all in good race shape. I got some top-10 results, which felt good. I wasn’t 100-percent race fit, but to feel that good was uplifting.

VN: I noticed you took your first win in several years by winning the marathon race at the NMBS in Fountain Hills, Arizona. Why did you do that race?

LK: I didn’t really plan it. It was going on and I just thought I should do it. The field wasn’t world class, I mean there were really good riders there, but it wasn’t very deep. I used it as a training race, because I can’t make myself go that hard in training for four hours. But it was a challenge — four hours off road on technical singletrack was great for the handling skills. It really flattened my legs for the next few days, but it was a really good training load over three days. I got through it and didn’t get sick.

VN: I would think it could be daunting knowing how far much work you have in front of you to get back to the level you were at in 2006. How do you find your motivation?

LK: It’s addictive, isn’t it? You train and get the endorphins. It’s a good feeling. I can only be an elite athlete for a set amount of time and I want to make the most of that. It’ more of a personal thing, I suppose. I enjoy the challenge of trying to get better. If I have a bad day now, I know that it is nothing compared to what I have felt in the past. It’s made me stronger.