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Continental divide: Daniel Whitehouse interview, part 4

Inside the career of a continental-level bike rider

British-born but New Zealand based, Daniel Whitehouse has had plenty of success in his short cycling career, winning races, and racking up high overall stage race placings, across the world. His palmares is one that many a rider would be very proud of. This season, he has finished 4th overall at the New Zealand Cycle Classic (2.2) and followed that up with 12th overall at the Herald Sun Tour (2.1).

But his ‘on paper’ results hide a much more challenging career. At the beginning of the year, I published a series of three interviews with Whitehouse which documented his journey from his boyhood days when he first discovered cycling, to his with first Continental-level contract with Rapha Condor, to his stints Japan and Malaysia, where he rode, often successfully, in races on the UCI Asia Tour. The series ended positively, with Daniel excited about the season ahead with Evo Pro Racing, a team he felt very much at home with. These have been the most-read posts on The British Continental in its short internet life so far.

Over the ensuing 6 months I kept a keen look-out for Daniel on race start lists and results sheets. But all was quiet. Concerned, I dropped him a line. The result is another interview, this time published in two parts.

The good news is that Daniel is back to racing. The second part of this interview – to be published later this week – covers his return at the Tour of Qinghai Lake in July, and his plans for the rest of season.

In this first part, however, Daniel talks frankly his period off the bike and his sometimes fragile mental health. He is more open than ever. Open about feeling hopeless. About wanting to quit racing. About family fall-outs, his weaknesses and his frailties. He also talks hopefully. About how his team has supported him this season and helped him to feel valued. And how he is learning to deal with setbacks and to take a step back and get perspective on things. I really value Daniel’s honesty and hope you, the readers, do too…

I sat there on the side of the road. Bike draped over the guardrail. Helmet off. Shoulders slumped and head in hands. Wondering why I do this

Daniel Whitehouse at Le Race 2019. Photo: rickoshayphotos

The last time we caught up, you’d just completed the Herald Sun Tour and you were optimistic about your new team and the season ahead. How have things been since then?  

That first chunk of racing with the team was promising. The whole block across New Zealand and Australia with Evo was really good. That’s not to say that it was all plain sailing, or that everything was perfect. But I liked what I saw. We had a couple troubles, and the way they were resolved inspired confidence.

Personal problems aside, I got it sorted eventually, the year honestly did look promising. But it wasn’t an easy time for me, and it continued to be that way for a while, despite what I wanted others, and myself, to believe. 

It’s a funny thing, I knew there would be some difficulty when I got back home. I couldn’t really explain why, I just knew that whenever I would return home from a race I seemed to struggle with getting back to what I was doing before. That was true again this time. It was exactly as I had left it, but that there was the problem I suppose.

Why was that?

I was burnt out I suppose. I believed all I had to do was persevere. Just keep going and the things I didn’t like about my life I would be able to change when it got ‘better’. 

On March 23 I won Le Race at home in Christchurch. The year before I had done the same off of the back of my appendix surgery. This time around I made it pretty clear what my intentions were. I wanted to win and in record time. We had a delayed start where they kept the speed neutralised, that perhaps cost me an extra minute, I lost the head unit after 15 km. Then I punctured from the main group half way through on the flat, 10 km or so out from the crucial second set of hills. Thankfully I had a spare training wheel set in a follow car. Oh, and everyone rode against me. 

I did it, I got the record. It was glorious. It felt like I couldn’t have been beaten that day. That was some feeling, with what I had to overcome and what was thrown at me. I devoured it all. It is the epitome of why I ride a bike. From 6.00 when I was up, to 5.00 that evening, it was exactly how I imagined being a bike racer should be. 

Before I started work I checked my bank account. $1.52. That was the balance of my account. Back to reality

My sister and her boyfriend drove me home that afternoon. They shouted me a burger and chips as a celebration dinner before I started work that night at 6. Before I did, I checked my bank account. $1.52. That was the balance of my account. Back to reality. No one at work had any idea what I had done that day. And that morning the race had actually rolled right outside the front window. 

The two days before were manic. I fell out badly with both my parents. My mother ended up not coming to watch, which was the last chance to see me race before I was due to head overseas for the season. And my father was choking back all sorts of feelings of anger when I needed to see him the day before to organise things and take me out in the morning. I had parts turn up, worn out wooshing-sounding bottom bracket bearings that needed replacing, and they didn’t fit. And the manager wouldn’t give me the night off from the work the day before. So I had to drive half an hour each way to do two hours in a restaurant that, quite frankly, did not need me there that night. I tried not to itch as I repolished glassware while contemplating how I was going to get everything done that night before. It’s not always as easy as it seems. 

Daniel Whitehouse wins Le Race, 2019. Photo: Le Race

So when I did break that record, that’s why it felt like an achievement. My magnum opus. For what was overcome, for what would have hindered me in the past. I had conquered it that day.

I had given myself pleuritis from training perhaps a little hard before. I would start getting a little dizzy if I pushed and leaned on the pedals too hard. It also meant I got phlegmy during the efforts. I beat it all. I wrestled with it and I came out emphatically victorious. There was no better feeling than that. 

It did little to quell the feelings at 11.00 that night though. And I went out to the car after tidying up the restaurant and I sat there, contemplating where it had led me, what it all amounted to. It takes a toll. 

How did things go from there?

I had a fairly easy week following. I’d gone pretty deep building into the race to stack the fitness before heading overseas. The Friday following, I’d been seeing this girl, a doctor; I was punching above my weight perhaps. She had been away for a couple of weeks but she was back and I got to see her that night. I went out that day, eager to get the ride done. I blew it off the water. The bit of rest had done me a world of good and I was setting all time power bests. It all boded well. 

When I saw her that night, I could tell something was off. She seemed closed up, distant standing and walking right next to me. She told me that she thought it best not to be involved anymore, because of my lifestyle. Lifestyle. She believed that. And there wasn’t any changing her mind. 

I went out the next day, and I just really was not present. I sailed round bends and miraculously got through them upright. On Governors Bay Road there is a hairpin. Every local knows it. It’s tight, it’s rutted, and it’s off camber. Everyone knows it’s an issue. I passed a lady at the top, someone I didn’t know, and I remember wishing for her to just be out of the way. On that bend the front wheel went on me and the road came up and punched me right in the mouth. I even popped the lens from my glasses frame. The lady behind me came around the bend and as I was dragging myself off of the road she came to a halt and gave me a few bits that were scattered about. I told her, sternly, ‘thank you for stopping, but you can go now’. Lip the size of a cherry and about as red too. That was the politest I was for the next few minutes. I just wanted wallow. I was lucky that day to not have had a worse crash. But, in all honesty, I don’t things could have been much worse for me. 

I felt like the world had punched me in the mouth one too many times and I hated how little I had

I sat there on the side of the road. Bike draped over the guardrail. Helmet off. Shoulders slumped and head in hands. Wondering why I do this. Wondering why do I keep riding a bike, working in the restaurant, sacrificing everything to pursue this lifestyle. To have so little. 

Daniel Whitehouse (foreground) and Evo Pro Racing team mates at the Tour of Qinghai 2019. Photo: Tour of Qinghai Lake

I say this for context. I didn’t just wake up in the morning, or hang out at some flat party, or find something new. I felt like the world had punched me in the mouth one too many times and I hated how little I had. I felt so alone, like there was no floor under me anymore. I had nothing, I didn’t have something better to go to. I did at some point in past but I had given that up a long time ago. I chose nothing, because all I knew the something I had was not much to be had. I was unequivocally broken.

What followed was 5 weeks of nothing. 5 weeks of only making the situation worse. 5 weeks of hating myself for doing what I was. In that time, I couldn’t pick myself up. In all honesty I didn’t want to. Even though I would find myself all of sudden filled with a rush of feeling that I should never have climbed off the bike. I did everything I could to forget, and none of it worked, and it ate at me. 

In that time, it’s amazing how close I was to properly being done. I applied for full time work, got accepted, and had the position rescinded. Applied somewhere else, was about to start, had the other place call back saying it was open again, and then I turned them down. I had some circumstances change, financially, my biggest burden was lifted, and I stood in a car park crying with my father because I didn’t think I had another chance.

How have the team and those around you handle things during this period?

In those 5 weeks, when I didn’t want to be me, I found good people. My sister and her partner would take me out to do things, and get me involved, and gave me somewhere to stay. My father supported me financially when I couldn’t and just let me be without any questions asked. 

The management at Evo, Morgan and PJ, they kept by me all the way through and gave me enough time to find my feet. If it wasn’t for them I guarantee you I would be working 40 hours a week in an upscale bar in Christchurch right now. I know, because I had the contract signed. 

They responded in the best possible way, and it made it really hard to do anything stupid

It would have been so much easier if Morgan had just said I was done. When I sent him an email saying ‘I’m done and I’ll send the bike back’, that ‘I’m sorry, it’s not professional, but I don’t want this anymore’, he made life really hard for me. Hard in the best possible way. Instead of being done with me, I got emails from PJ, the CEO of the team, and Morgan, saying, ‘hey, we don’t care if you ride a bike. We want you to be alright, and if that involves riding a bike, great, if not, so be it.’ But it was very clear that bike racing was not the priority here. That was breathtaking. Literally.

That was a first for me in cycling. The first time I had anyone respond like that. For the first time I wasn’t just discounted, treated as expendable and rifled out the door. They responded in the best possible way, and it made it really hard to do anything stupid. 

So, after 5 torrid weeks, when the best weather was behind me and I had to start from literal zero, I got going again. With the odd stutter mind you, but I got going none the less. 

Daniel Whitehouse at Le Race 2019. Photo: rickoshayphotos

That’s the long story, the short one is I did the arithmetic and I didn’t like the sum total of my life. My difficulties were too much, for too long and I checked out. I wish I hadn’t. But I had to, I was unequivocally defeated. I used to tell myself that I had to, just to get by. But it had been bad, real bad for a long time. That was just the straw that broke this camel’s back. 

For a time at least. 

I hope you don’t mind me asking, but have you thought about whether you suffer from, or have suffered from, depression? Is that something you’ve ever been to see a GP about?

Perhaps, but I don’t know if identifying it that way actually helps. I’ve been in some really dark places. Picked up some even worse coping mechanisms. But I think it best to try and work with the tools I have. 

I sat on it for a long time, not wanting to recognise how bad things were. Whether that actually helped or not I don’t know. It got me through a lot, a whole mess of things. But it meant that I didn’t really move on, I carried it around with me, and as I developed, it shifted about and hung in there too. In some ways it’s a part of who I am, the way I react and feel toward things. And I need to make do with that. But that doesn’t mean that I perceive everything as it is; I would think no one does. And having your world coloured by feelings of anxiety, depression or anything else makes monsters out of shadows. Which they are not. 

Although it is hard to see in the dark.

I have been to see a few psychologists over the years. Some just filled me up with kind words, of which I didn’t believe. I almost walked out of one once who said that positivity attracts positive things. All I can say about that is those people who behave in a positive manner no matter the weather have their heads buried in the sand as much as someone who only sees despair. Believing the weather will change isn’t any way to deal with a problem when its torrid. I prefer to deal with what is on hand, and, if need be, pack a jacket.

Alan Heary. Photo: https://alanheary.com

Although, one of the things about Evo is the involvement of Alan Heary. He is a mental performance coach. Everyone I’ve seen previously seemed to just speak about how it’s a mindset. As if you could change the way you are by believing differently. Don’t get me wrong, you need to have self-belief. But you need to believe in reality. Not some skewed depiction of it or either end of the positivity spectrum.

So, with Alan, he prefers to be prepared and not need it, rather than giddily assume that everything will fall into place. I can’t tell you how much relief I felt when I first spoke to him. My entire life has been built on a principal of preparation. Work hard. Get better. Account for everything I can. So, when you have someone turn up and say, actually, that’s the way to be. To weather a storm – as it is – because you’re prepared for it, that was tremendous. 

A couple of pennies dropped for me back home before I came to China. Don’t get me wrong, getting sick in China was hard. Devastating even, because I really wanted to perform, not only for me, but for the people that showed faith in me. I’m not perfect with doubts, they do come and linger, but I am markedly better. Anyway, back to those two pennies. 

Some context for the first one. I have long believed that I get what I deserve. That if I put the work in, I get a just reward for it. But my mind can be cruel. That was contorted and twisted. When terrible things would happen, I would find a way to blame myself. As if I caused every bad thing that happened to me. The good ones too, but it bent itself in such a way that I would look for the bad ones. And I found them, polished them to a gleaming finish and put them in my pocket to think about whenever the next one came along. 

Slicing the other three tyres just because I got one puncture isn’t really a good strategy

The revelation, if you can call it that, was that I came to understand that ‘deserved’ is a funny thing. People, not just me, don’t deserve everything that happens to them. That just can’t be true. You don’t deserve to win the lottery. Just like you don’t deserve to be in a car crash. And what I was doing was finding a way to make everything my fault. It dawned on me, in between some efforts – perhaps I had to be slightly delirious to be enlightened – that I haven’t deserved to be treated that way. That I am worth more than that. It may sound silly, but that really mattered. That, yes, some rubbish things happened. But one day something rubbish won’t happen and I’ll get what I’m worth, because I made it so.

The second was that days pass. Some days pass to worse ones, sure, but everything clears. And slicing the other three tyres just because I got one puncture isn’t really a good strategy. That’s the funny thing about depression, or whatever you may like to call it, I suppose. You never think it will end. As if this is the way it is always to be. As if you have seen behind the curtain as to how the world really is. All the hard work for nought. That feeling lingers though. I’m not peddling an instant fix, it takes work and I still do feel the wind going from my sails more emphatically than it actually does. It is work too, to be better. Better in this way is the only better that matters. A better me. And having some resolution that, alright, today wasn’t great, tomorrow, in all honesty looks like custard too, but that won’t carry on, and I’ll have my day one of these days. 

Daniel Whitehouse at Le Race 2019. Photo: rickoshayphotos

If I had any advice to give to someone in my position, it would be two pieces. Don’t lose hope and do your best to step out of your head and see what the situation presenting itself actually is, and then from there do what best you can about it. The only thing for it is action. Wallowing doesn’t help, I’ve tried enough of that to know.

The action has to be constructive. Coping in better ways, building something to feel the achievement and know you’re doing what you can are powerful things. To not lose hope is easier said than accomplished. I don’t mean be positive all the time. Some things are going to suck, and they will continue to suck until they’re finished. Some things will be pointless, some things will hurt, and some things will continue to get inexplicably worse despite the best of your intentions. There will come a time when it gets better. When you’re looking out at the world and it is a comfortable place to be again, that is the hope I mean. That one day it will work out, and the best way to make sure of that is to act as you can, when you can to make it so.

I’ve learnt that I need to steady myself and rationally think about what has just transpired when I get setbacks

The second part, to see the situation for what it is, is perhaps even more difficult. Everyone is a victim of their senses; you can’t help but be. Emotion colours things in funny ways and it is easy to get carried away when things are going well, or to burn the house down when they aren’t. I’ve learnt that I need to steady myself and rationally think about what has just transpired when I get setbacks. To try and see it for what it is, what it means and what I can do about it, without tangling emotions as well. Sticking to that plan is then something else, but persistence and compounded effort sure do get you places, that much can be said.

I know I am prone to bouts of hopelessness. I know I panic sometimes when presented with compounding setbacks and unexpected events. I know these things about me so I strategise as best I can to make sure that I don’t let them buckle me when they may have opportunity to. They have in the past. Emphatically so at times. I carry on as best I can, as much as I am able, and I hope that anyone reading this who identifies with it realises it is okay to really fuck some things up at times. Everyone does. 

There is something to be admired in the people that get back up from being broken.

Read more

Part 1, 23 January 2019

Part 2, 3 February 2019

Part 3, 22 February 2019

Part 5, 25 August 2019