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Continental divide: Daniel Whitehouse interview, part 2

Inside the career of a continental-level bike rider

At just 24 years of age, Daniel Whitehouse has racked up an impressive list of UCI road race wins and has consistently been one of the highest scoring British continental riders in the UCI World Rankings. And yet, despite this apparent success, his media profile in the UK is barely traceable.

To get to know Whitehouse better, we are running a multi-part interview. In the first part of our interview with him, we took a look at his palmares, his upbringing and how he got into cycling. The interview also covered his first year as an under-23 (in 2014) when he got signed by Rapha Condor JLT after an impressive ride in the New Zealand Cycle Classic, only to experience a difficult season. Things didn’t work out, and Whitehouse was left looking for another team for 2015.

In this second part, we hear about Daniel’s cycling career after he left Rapha Condor JLT. It’s a journey that took him to teams in Japan and Malaysia, where he rode, often successfully, in races on the UCI Asia Tour. But despite the numerous good results, Whitehouse explains that life was far from straightforward. In fact, it was often plain hard. He talks very openly, and sometimes cryptically, about the challenges of life as a continental-level bike rider plying his trade for Asian teams. We start the interview where we left off in Part 1, with Whitehouse searching for a new team after being let go by Rapha Condor JLT.

2015, Team UKYO

In his first season in Asia, 2015, Whitehouse rode for Team UKYO, a Japanese continental team set up in 2012, managed by the Japanese racing driver, Ukyo Katayama. As you’ll hear, his season was short, his last UCI race coming at the end of May. It wasn’t without success though. He finished 3rd overall in the Indonesian race, the International Tour de Banyuwangi Ijen (2.2), and then grabbed 4th in the youth classification at the Tour of Japan (2.1).

Whitehouse (left), with his Team UKYO teammates Photo: Hitoshi Omae

Before the season started, pivotal to securing a contract with a new team was a rider agent called Danny Feng.

Danny Feng. He’s been an important character in your career. How did you meet him in the first place? I’m curious to know how you ended up from going back home to New Zealand after being jettisoned from Rapha, to finding yourself riding for Team UKYO?

So we originally contacted Baden Cooke [a former rider turned rider agent – Ed]. Baden had his hands full with the World Tour and Pro Conti lads so he put us in touch with Danny of Pro Asia Sports Management. In the intervening times, Danny sorted me out. He was doing the rider finding for UKYO at the time, and was the general manager at Terengganu [Daniel’s team in 2016 and 2017 – Ed] as well.

A word of advice here. If you get on a plane home, as a Conti rider especially, without the team equipment, don’t expect a return contract or even contact

How did you find that season at Team UKYO?

It was rough. It was a long time away from home in a foreign land with foreign riders that only spoke English as a second language. They were nice people though, Ukyo himself especially.

However, one particular manager that he chose to employ was significantly more cut-throat. I picked up a knee problem, the root of which was as simple as a core strength imbalance, but was left in a house in the mountains for three weeks unable to ride more than 15 minutes without crippling pain; to the point where I was pedalling with one leg to get home. Then the team finally sent me home. And, as with Rapha Condor JLT, they didn’t contact me again after.

A word of advice here. If you get on a plane home, as a Conti rider especially, without the team equipment, don’t expect a return contract or even contact. 

Photo: Hideaki Takagi

What was it like living in Japan that first year?

We lived in Kanagawa, it was perfect for training. It was an old government building, previously a school for the local kids and surrounded by forest and 20 farmers that looked like they were octogenarians. It was a gorgeous spot, and an hour and a half ride from Mt Fuji. It’s almost right on the Tokyo 2020 course, I know every bend. It’s isolated like I’ve never seen in Japan, and half an hour from the nearest convenience store. Mind you, it did have a vending machine in the entrance. The team wouldn’t let me drive due to the insurance, apparently, so I didn’t get out much, to say the least.

Looking at your results, your season finished after the Mount Fuji hill climb in June, is that right?

Yes, so I did the Tour of Japan, didn’t get round Kumano and then did the Japan Pro Tour (domestic series) round of the Fuji hill climb. I was having a fairly tough time of it by that point and was keen to be home for a bit. I was meant to do another Japan Pro Tour race, a road race in Ishikawa. The manager said I could go home before the race if I wanted and they’d run someone else. I was all for it, I was pretty fried from living in the mountains by myself. You would think I’d have gone back pretty quick then, as it turned out; I flew back after the race. Turns out he just wanted me to say I’d give up my spot so he could run someone else. 

Why did they send you home?

I think it was for a bit of rest and relaxation. The Spanish lads had been back home a couple of times by then, I didn’t want to be a nuisance, or ask for too much, but by that point I was overdue. It was the middle of a rather bleak winter when I did get home, and it wasn’t the haven I had hoped for. 

And you never heard from them again. Did you try to contact them at all?

So while I was back in New Zealand for a couple of weeks, the floor fell out from under me in a way. It all caught up with me, I didn’t feel like I’d achieved anything and really felt like my career wasn’t worth the mental stress and loneliness life had been to that point. Training was patchy, to say the least. I went out one rather damp and cold day and my quad just pinged. That was the beginning of about a month’s worth of incredible pain.

And worst of all, the team brought me back to Japan and then left me in the mountains, I had informed them I couldn’t ride, and they needed to take me to see someone in the city because I can’t speak even enough Japanese to ask what time of day it is. Instead, they left me for two weeks in that house, I couldn’t ride more than 15 minutes without crippling pain so bad I would pedal back with one leg clipped in, oh and we lived on the crest of a 15 minute, one-legged climb. 

Ironically, in my frustration I started to do some strength stuff in the house, just lunges, squats and some stretches; more to just try and pass the time. It actually fixed it, or at least enough so that when I finally did get home, it was starting to be less of an issue and I could start riding again. I never raced for them again. They kept the bike in Japan and I cottoned on pretty quick to that this time. I was fairly cooked, but, by god, I was glad to be out of that isolated place. 

The world, not just cycling, is a better place having TSG in it as an institution

2016-17, Terengganu Cycling Team

The following season, 2016, Whitehouse moved to the Terengganu Cycling Team in Malaysia, a team he also started the season in 2017...

After [the contract with Team UKYO] dissolved, Danny contracted me to the Terengganu (TSG) Cycling Team in Malaysia. Danny is a bit of a Jack-of-all-trades. He’s not only a rider agent, but at the time was manager of TSG and also produces the amazing product that is Velotoze. 

The entire management, without exception, at TSG are good, genuine, caring people. They are one of the few establishments around that genuinely care for the athletes they employ. They have their own culture, sure, but they treated me as a real human. Something I didn’t quite grasp at the time. I do believe it now though. 

Whitehouse during the Tour de Filipinas, 2017
Photo: Tristan Tamayo/Inquirer.net

What made them ‘good, genuine, caring people’?

They weren’t malicious. They didn’t seem to think you were replaceable. I hold them in high regard because when they looked and acted on me they did so with an honour and respect befitting of someone above my station.
They were and are good people, in the way that Superman does good. The world, not just cycling, is a better place having TSG in it as an institution.

How did you adapt to life in Malaysia? 

Terengganu is a fairly simplistic place. It’s full name, Kuala Terengganu is the capital of the province of Terengganu within Malaysia. Kuala translates as estuary. It’s main economy, I believe, is fishing. There isn’t much outside of that. It’s vastly flat, if a little lumpy, and there are 400,000 people in the city with no cinema or proper shopping mall. It’s a different speed of life.

So my Malaysian expedition started off a little rocky. I had real trouble adjusting to life in Terengganu.

I didn’t help myself though, I isolated myself a little too much, I think that’s the danger when things get tough, withdrawing leads into an ever-devolving cycle of more removal from other people. It’s a gorgeous place, just challenging to make the most of conditioning in those, well, conditions. It’s hot and humid too, but that’s good for the conditioning so I didn’t complain too much about that, but my father might have got the brunt of those complaints when they did arise!

On the bike though, things went well. At least to begin with…

I got myself together though and had a good run in the middle of the year winning the Tour de Flores [2.2] and then the best young rider jersey in the Tour of Japan (2.1), where I was also 4th on GC.

My year didn’t end the best. I was at the Tour of China I, and the inhumane amount of travel caused some sort of issue with the chain of muscles through my posterior right side. It was entirely my fault, I wasn’t educated in ways to mitigate the 4:1 travel-to-bike riding ratio that the Tour of China I and II involve. 

Whitehouse wins stage 1 of the Tour de Filipinas, 2017
Photo: Tristan Tamayo/Inquirer.net

The team offered me a contract the following year and I took it. I had a good spell preparing for the 2017 season and I started off in the best way possible. I won the opening stage of the Tour de Filipinas, finshing second overall.

However, as seems to be par for the course with me, I came back down to Earth, and with what seemed like a thump; the ground came up to meet me emphatically. For a month after the race, I struggled with the looming phantom of gastrointestinal troubles. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t drink some days and I was beset by persistent pain. I don’t know what caused it, I don’t know what sorted it. All I know is that when Tour de Tochigi rolled around I panicked. I was in no fit condition and it was obvious.

I was done, mentally and physically, by the strain of what I was beset by. So I changed my ticket and came home. I didn’t give the team enough notice to change a rider out on the roster. They still traveled to the race, and did very well, just without me. I realised this was in violation of my contract, and I accept the responsibility for that, and I am far from proud of my actions. I was desperate to get back to somewhere that resembled home. But I did that at the expense of good people, and for that, I am profoundly sorry. 

After losing the contract with TSG, came a short stint at the CCN Club Team…

I raced at the Tour de Flores [6th overall and a stage win] and Tour of Singkarak [finishing 2nd overall] with them. They were good blokes too, and they gave me a free ride and free reign. My performance there was good enough to attract the attention of a fair few suitors for 2018.

Whitehouse wins stage 2 of the Tour de Singarak
Photo: Tour de Singarak

We didn’t have race food, wheels, or tools. That’s not an exaggeration. We had to go round hat-in-hand asking for bits from other teams

2018, Interpro Stradalli

And the chosen suitor was Interpro Stradalli…

So 2018 started with the Tour of Indonesia [finishing 5th overall] and Sun Tour [14th overall]. I arrived in Indonesia, already slightly dubious. I’d been burnt before and there were discrepancies, hints of something that didn’t add up. They were 2.1 races, so had full fields of pro riders. We didn’t have race food, wheels, or tools. That’s not an exaggeration. We had to go round hat-in-hand asking for bits from other teams, towing a line of ‘it’s early in the year, it hasn’t arrived yet’.

Across the two races I didn’t feel myself, just limp, and I didn’t even come close to what I had been knocking out of the park even just a week earlier. Appendicitis is a funny thing like that; I spent Valentine’s Day in A&E getting that festering, burst, vestigial organ cut out.

Four weeks later was my home race [called ‘Le race’], and I went out with focus and determination to add that to my palmares. It went well, I won, and I was so proud to do it at home.

Then I embarked on my year overseas. The Tour of Thailand came up, another 2.1 race [17th overall]. Same story, one staff member, no spares, no race food, no nothing. 

Photo: Daniel Whitehouse

Meeting John Dam…

Allow me to break this depressing rendition with something a little more positive. At the Sun Tour, I had the absolute pleasure of meeting John Dam. An Aussie bloke who has been DS for the New Zealand national team in the past and I have never seen anyone act as selflessly, as honestly, and as often, to help young lads like myself either side of the Tasman make it in this sport. He is, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the only reasons I survived last season and am still riding today. He’s the reason I signed with Evo, and, unlike so many other people in this profession, John Dam is good for the sport of cycling. 

John was our one staff member in Thailand, and let me tell you no one could have done a better job than him, but he never should have been put in such a position. Better yet, he was there on his own dime.

The manager blew my confidence to bits the day before the race over a couple of spare kilograms

Racing in Europe and Canada…

After that, was Castilla y Leon and Vuelta Aragon split by Paris-Mantes. At Castilla I won the mountains jersey, I spent about two-thirds of that race in the break, I bloody loved it. And at Aragon I ran a 10th place on the hill finish. In between though, Paris-Mantes was a disaster. I’m not quite sure what it was but I’m fairly certain I had a severe reaction to the pollen cropping up that time of year. In any case, it didn’t go well [Daniel finished over the time limit]

After that block, around the turn of May, I headed to the UK to be a nuisance to my grandparents in Wilmslow and finally get some integrity back in the foundations. The legs came back by the time Tour de Beauce rolled around. It was a tough time there in Wilmslow, I’ll spare the finer details of my time but my days wained down to consist of waking up, having breakfast, going training and then having dinner before falling asleep. It was bearing down on me, and I just told myself to persevere, to endure and get something from this hardship. 

Whitehouse (left) at Castilla y Leon 2018
Photo: Zikoland

I arrived in Beauce, and immediately my physical appearance was commented on [by the team manager]. It doesn’t matter I’m smacking 290 watts out for 5 hours, or 380 watts at threshold. The manager blew my confidence to bits the day before the race over a couple of spare kilograms. I had eyed up the second and third stages as the GC days, a hill finish and a TT. Excuses aside, you can see the result sheet. It didn’t go well, or at least,  not to my expectation. I was sitting in 8th rolling into the last, arduous day. 

Now, again to preface this day, I should mention everything wasn’t swell at home. I viewed my life as a wheel. With each spoke consisting of a facet of myself that held me aloft. Slowly, ever since I left New Zealand, those spokes bent and buckled. And the last one, the one I lent on the most, gave way during that tour on the night of the first day. I slept for 5 hours a night. I was irritable. I was done. I wondered to myself why I do this. When I, for the first time in my existence, had been genuinely happy, why would I trade that for where I found myself at that moment. This sport demands sacrifice, but that was the one thing I didn’t want to let go. What I came to find out was, everything burns if you aren’t careful, and I, unbeknownst to myself at the time, had thrown it on the fire to keep myself going. 

That final stage I barely wanted to ride. Other blokes were on turbos warming up and I was sat in the car. Feeling sorry for myself. Looking back I feel sorry for him, and in the same moment I despise myself for being so broken down. I ran second that day, and moved to second overall, finishing a mere handful of seconds away from a lovely yellow jumper. Imagine what could have been. And that thought haunts me. John Herety was there, and the first few days he really was quite pleasant. After that turn around and rise up the result sheet, he wouldn’t even make eye contact with me across the dinner hall. 

Despite all the doom and gloom about Interpro, I should mention hat Sebastien Pilotte, the CEO, always was quite lovely to be around, and the next time I see him I will be genuinely happy to have done so. He paid for a new front mech for me when the airline trashed mine in Canada. He put me up in a spot and brought me into his home when Hokkaido was cancelled for an earthquake. He is a good man. The team was at times a victim of circumstance and Sebastien was not the one making false promises. 

Whitehouse (left) on the podium at the Tour de Beauce
Photo: Tour de Beauce / Brian Black Hodes

I pulled the pin, I wanted out. I wanted to go back and I was in agony over where I found myself

After Beauce…

I was supposed to ride British Nationals after that. But I got back to Wilmslow and it just looked bleak, like someone had taken the colour out of it. I pulled the pin, I wanted out. I wanted to go back and I was in agony over where I found myself. I ended up going to Cornwall to stay with my cousin and I slowly came around. I was supposed to do Qinghai Lake in China in July, and I traveled to Val Thorens to prepare. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t act on the visa soon enough and I’ll share that blame, but I’m not the manager who promised to help get it done and then didn’t act either. 

In any case, I missed the window. So I went back home. Back to the city I thought I knew, back to the places that I was so fond of. Only to see the colour had been drained out of them too. Only to see they had become cruel reminders of a life so full of colour, so short a time ago. It was horrific and it all culminated one day when I drove up to the top of hill. To somewhere that used to mean something. And I realised, that, in that moment, there was no escaping this, there was nowhere that felt like home. 

I persevered. In the depths of my despair, do you know what I found? I looked around, and I found nothing. No easy solution, no ladder to climb out with, no door to lead me on. No, I ground that out, and with every passing moment I built my way back up. But I was still broken. And it showed in Kazakhstan, I arrived in as best a condition I could. And on the promise of contract talks and talking with bigger teams I saw through the bullshit. I am no fool, but I was made to be one by someone I had the foolishness to trust. When I came home from there I was done. I was disenchanted. 

But, this story doesn’t end here. It would have been easy to hang it up there. It would perhaps have even been wise. But if there is one thing I’ve learned, it is that perseverance and hard work alone are omnipotent. I am not talented, you’d know that if you had met 13 year old me. I am obsessed, and I have come to far, through too much pain, and too dissapointment to not see this through. 

Not all dreams are meant to be lived. But, if we just have the courage, perhaps, just maybe the wildest one might. 

The way this sport seems to behave and take the wind from your sails is something special at times

You’ve described a very bumpy career so far as a cyclist. What has kept you motivated to continue?

I have been at the bottom, on the canvas, arms and legs akimbo by this sport more times than I have fingers to count. The way this sport seems to behave and take the wind from your sails is something special at times. But, the thing is, in the depths of that despair, it’s not true. When you’re at the bottom looking up it all seems so hard. If you get yourself up, because only you can, and you climb out of that godforsaken place every rung up the ladder the task seems more achievable.

That is all to say that my motivation has run far away from me at times. It’s a wild dog, it doesn’t come when I call it, I have to grab hold and wrestle until it stops clamouring. But it has abandoned me before. Sitting around idle however is only good for making things worse. So, I persist because I must. Because the people on the top of the mountain didn’t fall there and instead of complaining about the locked doors, I devote my time to making keys. And, if you keep hammering, one day you’ll crack it. That isn’t true for only me, that’s true for everyone. One day I hope to look back and say, despite it all, I made it, I climbed out of the hole that I fell in to, some of it my own construction, and I rode out of that. And if I was to lie down in defeat, that is the surest way it’s never going to happen. So every day I get myself closer, be it an inch or a mile, I’m climbing out. 

Postscript

Part 3 of our interview with Daniel will focus on his switch to EvoPro Racing, his early season races in New Zealand and Australia, and his goals and hopes for the future.

Read Part 1 of the interview here.

Feature photo: ANTARA FOTO

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