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An interview with Liam Killeen, September 6, 2006
Formula for success
By Steve Medcroft, MTB Editor
With only one more complete season of competition before the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, the riders that will be contenders in the cross country race are becoming apparent. One of the shiniest stars in the bunch is Great Britain's Liam Killeen, a rider that has shown natural ability and the kind of year-to-year growth that could put him firmly in the medal hunt.
The rise of Liam Killeen is not sudden, he was an under-23 superstar and won the under-23 World Cup. He was also runner-up in the 2004 under-23 World Championships. But when an under-23 rider finally makes it into the elite ranks, there is usually a slip back in results while they adjust to the intense pace of the upper ranks. But Killeen, in only his second year in the elite category, seems to have mixed together a formula that includes physical and mental training, solid equipment, loyal teammates.
He showed the results of that formula when he won the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne, Australia in March. He followed it up with a solo win at the Sea Otter Classic, two full minutes ahead of world-class riders including teammate Alban Lakata and European champion Jean Christoph Peraud (Orbea).
It didn't stop there. He finished third in his first World cup, just behind 2004 Olympic gold medallist and world champion Julien Absalon and Curacao course designer Bart Brentjens (Giant). He also came second in the world cup at Mont Sainte Anne and, most recently, placed tenth at the world championships in Rotorua, New Zealand. He's even taken the time to win a couple of hometown races.
Working on a formula
So just what is the formula that has Killeen placing himself in the lead groups of elite races just eighteen months after leaving the under-23 class? "Mostly, it's a result of the training programme that Gary Foord [Killeen's trainer ed.] and I have been working on," Killeen said to Cyclingnews one month prior to the world championships.
"Liam has worked all winter for [success like] this," Foord said after Killeen's recent win at round four of the British National Series. "[He's] turned every stone over and looked at everything he can to improve his performance."
Specifically, Killeen says he's focused more on the quality of his training rather than quantity. "It works well to have a series of small-step specific goals for each ride to break the ride up into blocks of different effort," he said. "I like long rides but effective training demands real attention to what you are asking your body to do on the target race day. You can't cover all the variables, but you can look carefully at the characteristics of the course and try to prepare in a way that will make you as ready as possible to match their demands."
Getting off to a fast start
One of the weaknesses Killeen wanted to improve on was his ability to start fast and not pay for the effort later in longer races. "Podium places seem to be significantly linked to performance over the first lap," he says. "I've concentrated more on riding a strong first lap, not just getting off the line quickly."
The ability to start strongly realises another benefit. "Certainly, being at the front when you go into singletrack boosts your confidence in the race and helps you avoid getting tangled up with other riders," said Killeen.
Killeen also says that some of his gains in performance are to do with the natural maturing process but, "I don't think natural progression is a reliable factor so you learn from previous years and I'm always looking to improve my training," he said.
Importance of team work
Being teamed with two of the MTB world's top performers has undeniably had an impact on Killeen's growth as a racer. "Although XC MTB is considered an individual sport - and it's true you are in competition with your own team mates during the race, team mates are important," said Killeen.
"Working with Christoph [Sauser] and Alban is very good. They are both excellent, professional athletes, who pay attention to every detail of training and equipment. Mentally it is good to be at the front of a major race with a teammate and it certainly gives the whole team, not just the riders, a boost when the riders have a great race."
Killeen has found himself in a winning position several times since joining the Specialized squad in 2005. At the Sea Otter classic, he rode with teammate Lakata for the first of three laps. "Alban was strong at Sea Otter and it was a fantastic feeling for us to head up that podium, since then of course he's won the marathon world cup in Mt St Anne, where Christoph won the XC event with me just 10 seconds behind," said Killeen.
"Not a new feeling for Christoph, it was his 11th, but I led for part of the race and I can tell you that it is one of the best feelings in the world to be on the front of a world cup race. So yes, teammates are important. It matters who they are, how they ride and apart from being able to work together during a race or some races, it is really mentally strengthening to be racing alongside Susi and Alban."
Then there's the equipment. Killeen is fanatical about the weight and performance of his bikes as we saw when the Specialized team mechanic took us through Killeen's S-Works Epic at Sea Otter. "Yes, the weight of the bike is important to me, but it is also important to balance weight and strength," he said.
"Undoubtedly, the standard Specialized Epic is a great machine but I lightened it a bit, reducing the amount of extra seat post in the frame and replaced steel bolts with titanium ones. Maybe that says more about my psychological preparation than essential equipment tweaking, I am not sure that it's crucial to performance."
The final key to the formula of success Killeen hopes will propel him to the top of the sport? Support from family and friends. "Yeah, my family do come and watch when they can. Several family members and friends travelled to watch me in the Commonwealth Games and friends living in Oz came to the race. That was fantastic. The extra support at big races is motivating-and it's more fun, especially when the race goes well," he said. Killeen's father has even acted as his team mechanic at times.
So with the 2006 season all but over Killeen will once again be tweaking his formula - addressing his weaknesses in training, tweaking the equipment, leaning on his support structure - and who knows, maybe the next Olympic gold medal in mountain biking will drape the shoulders of an Englishman.
British National Series XC #4 (GBR) - 1st
World Cup XC #8 - Fort William (GBR) - 14th
Olympic Games - 5th
1st Overall UCI World Cup (U23)
19th UCI U23 World Championships