Features Interviews Riders

Continental divide: Daniel Whitehouse interview, part 5

Inside the career of a continental-level bike rider

EvoPro Racing’s New Zealand-based Daniel Whitehouse has faced a rocky road both on and off the bike in his time as bike racer. He talked openly about his travails in a series of three interviews with The British Continental earlier this year. These followed his journey from his boyhood days, when he first discovered cycling, to his with first Continental-level contract with Rapha Condor, to his tumultuous stints Japan and Malaysia on the UCI Asia Tour.

Then, earlier this week, Daniel opened up about why he nearly quit cycling this year, his sometimes fragile mental health, how his team has supported him this season and how he is learning to deal with setbacks.

The mountain days had me properly battling with the altitude and the lap of the lake was 130km of crosswind that had me emptied

In this final part of the interview (for now), Daniel talks about his return to racing at the one-day Halle – Ingooigem in Belgium, his experiences of China’s own ‘Grand Tour’ – the high-altitude Tour of Qinghai Lake – his determination to get back to full fitness and his racing plans looking forward.

Let’s talk about your return to racing this season. You started with a short trip to Europe and raced Halle – Ingooigem. How was your return to Europe and your first competitive race for a while? 

I was playing dice with the weather back home, the priority was definitely Qinghai, and in terms of climactic conditions, Christchurch in winter isn’t the best place to be. Obviously that time change and travel isn’t ideal, but it was a pro/con comparison that won out.

Halle itself was nice to be involved in. That’s all it was really. It wasn’t flash, but I did what I could. Having said that, it still felt like 3 in the morning for me on the race day as I had only arrived a couple of days before. 

I got to see what this Belgian racing I keep hearing about was like and I’m glad I did. I’m sure there’s more to come. 

Then you did the Tour of Qinghai Lake, a race you have done before. How had it been the first time around? What’s it like riding a race like that, for those that don’t know much about it?

When I was there 3 years ago, I came from the UK off of a fairly disastrous nationals just 4 days before.  They lost the bike at the airport. It turned up the day before and that night I was viciously sick and didn’t think I could start the next day. 

My legs wouldn’t obey and I seemed to have gaps in consciousness as if I was fighting off jet lag

The tour itself was properly grim. The first city circuit day I barely stayed in the wheels. The mountain days after that had me properly battling with the altitude and the lap of the lake was 130km of crosswind that had me emptied. The day before the rest day I was losing the peloton in the neutral on a slight rise. I can remember it so vividly. Like I just couldn’t go, my legs wouldn’t obey and I seemed to have gaps in consciousness as if I was fighting off jet lag. The tour ended that day.

The next we dropped down to 1600 metres. I swear I nearly choked on the air. Aerobic power is around 90% at that altitude. But at 3000 metres, sometimes 3800 metres, it can be below 80%. Worse yet is how when you make an effort you seem to just run aground. You don’t tie up, you just sort of go limp, in rapid fashion. And if you’re properly bad, you’ll be feeling like you’re fighting to stay focused, take 10 normal breaths and then 5 sharp ones as you gasp for air. 

It is not a fun place to be going poorly at, I can tell you that much. Whenever I had gone to altitude before I had always done poorly. However, there was each time a fairly clear reason for that. First time I was overdone beforehand. This recounted Qinghai experience was the second outing. The third was last year at Val Thorens for altitude prep where the management with Interpro had me at my wits end. 

Each experience made me increasingly fearful. But Morgan [Fox, at EvoPro Racing] had given me enough time to get right. A long way off and no pressure. The plan was to come over to Europe, avoid the worst of the weather back home, and get some altitude in before Qinghai. 

And how was it this year?

I arrived on Europe on June 21, did Halle-Ingooigem June 23 and headed for Val Thorens immediately after. 

I was the best I had been all season. Jetlagged or not I was flying and I knew what I was coming to Qinghai for. I recall speaking with my Dad on the balcony of our little apartment. I couldn’t believe how well I was going. 12 months previous I couldn’t walk up the hill without needing to actually sit to stop my head from spinning. This time around I leaned on the pedals and I pushed down harder than they pushed back. I did make the remark though that this too probably wouldn’t last. I had a sneaking suspicion that something would bring me back down to earth. 

When we got to China, as if summoned from some dwelling place lying in wait for me there, I was congested and full of something immediately from the plane. The three days before I kept trying to tell myself it would clear up, it’s just from the flight and I would be fine. 

The day of the team time trial arrived and that was, up until that point in my life, the worst hour I’ve ever had on a bike. We started off in the pouring rain. I was already freezing, and I couldn’t get my heart rate anywhere close to what I should be able to sustain for the length of effort. The boys waited for me in the first 10 km. At that point it became pretty clear that I wasn’t even able to manage that. I lost 10 minutes that day, and worst of all, the lads were only 25 seconds from the podium. There’s no doubt I cost them that. I got to the finish and that just broke me, that I had let them down. 

Guys I normally climbed with and beyond came screaming by and I was just empty

Two days later was the first mountain day, one ‘HC’ KOM and a spotty jersey was on the line for the first over it. Being so far down we chanced our luck in the break. I had one local fellow and Cyrus for company. I made it 4 km out before I got passed. Guys I normally climbed with and beyond came screaming by and I was just empty, I had been that whole day. We tried again the next day, but the legs properly fell off of me. The rest of the tour just became increasingly about surviving. And each day that became more of an ask. 

Stage 9, the day before the rest day, was the biggest battle I have ever fought with myself. The same again as three years before. Losing the peloton on the valleys, trouble maintaining coherent focus, and an inability to shift with any meaning. We started at 2800 metres, finished at 2400 metres, but rode at an average of 3200 metres that day. I made it through, and I can attest again to how ruthless the toll this race takes on the riders is. I was flying before I arrived. But if you catch the wrong side of it here you’re not going to be getting through at a saunter. 

We came to China with a lot of ambition. We’ve got a really class sprinter [Wouter Wippert], and the other lads too are really something as bike riders. I can’t help but feel like it’s an opportunity missed. I had reason to be confident coming there. I knew, it was quantified. But that’s bike racing, so I believe and so I’m told. And I’m doing as much as I can, as little as it is, to help the rest of Evo achieve something. 

There will be other opportunities in the season still, and beyond that with Evo. People ask me what the team is like. Here’s what I tell them: it’s the first team where the manager treats me like a person.

What’s happened since Qinghai? And what’s next for Daniel Whitehouse?

Being ill at the race seems to have really taken some getting over. I drove myself into the ground until the wheels came off proper. I got back here to the UK after, adamant to get going again, which probably wasn’t the best strategy. I suffered for quite a while with the ear infection. That eventually cleared up. It was a funny pattern, I’d have a couple of good days and then feel absolutely horrendous for the next two.

There was a lot of personal dissatisfaction about the way Qinghai went, I really wanted to do well and I had put every thing I could muster into achieving that. ‘That’s life’, so I’m told. But I’m sure you have cottoned on to the fact that I’m still pretty cut up about it all.

Like Sisyphus and his boulder I get up each morning and make my way up hill

So, after a couple of tumultuous weeks I’m back at it properly. Albeit painfully far from where I was 6 weeks ago. But, like Sisyphus and his boulder I get up each morning and make my way up hill, except one day I know that boulder will roll down the other side, and that’ll be the day. That’s the nature of the game I play, it feels like hard work at times, and I’m also proud that it is something to be earned. It would have been nice to have at least had a fighting chance in China, it felt almost cruel how it went, but that wasn’t the story I was writing in the end, and now it requires courage to move on from that. Perhaps it is a little vain to bestow a notion of courageous deeds upon myself, but that is what it requires, and nothing less.

So, consider that the beating around the bush, and enough of it done; on to what is next. We have a series of one day races to finish the season here in Europe. There may be more, but that I can’t say for certain. I’ve never thought of myself as much of a one-day racer. But perhaps that is a little unfair, there is evidence to the contrary and at the very least I’ll do whatever I can and what is asked of me.

I’ll bring the curtain down with the fourth grand tour of the year in NZ. That’s phrased like sarcasm but if you were there and talked to the lads about Southland, you would swear it’s the most important bike race on the planet, and to them it is. To me, it’s a chance to race in front of friends and in some way for them, as well as my own personal ambitions of course too. It should be fun, at least in retrospect. It generally snows, and I’m hopeful it’s a marquee edition, one that is a joy to have a battled through. It’s been my white whale of sorts, I’ve been in line to start around 3 times now and never have, it’s myth only grows as a result. You may possibly say I’m keen.

It’s remarkable what actually is trivial when in retrospect. Much can be calmed and made malleable with a few moments to think.

I’m in Wilmslow for the time being, in case anyone was wondering. I try and get out of the house in the evenings, walk to the cafe and read books that make me look somewhat cultured. Getting out of the house for a while sure does help things, even if it’s just to see a different face that day, I’m glad I go and do that. There is a nice wide window to look out of at the cafe, and people-watching can be quite the past time. I’ve taken to heading up to Manchester on the odd day for a wander. I feel like the small town lad in the big city there. There’s so much life, not of all of it friendly, but definitely colourful and vibrant.

So, until next time, remember there is more to life than riding a bike or whatever else may seem like the world hinges upon it. It’s remarkable what actually is trivial when in retrospect. Much can be calmed and made malleable with a few moments to think.

Read more

Part 1, 23 January 2019

Part 2, 3 February 2019

Part 3, 22 February 2019

Part 4, 19 August 2019