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Want to be like Cadel Evans? What it takes to be an elite cyclist

If you’ve ever sprinted around a velodrome or flung your two wheels across the finish line of an amateur road race, you’ve likely daydreamed about winning the pinnacle of all cycling contests – the Tour de France.

For most people, the fantasy of gracing the podium in the famous yellow jersey will remain just that.

But for the chosen few, what does it actually take to reach the elite level?

International cycling commentator and Deakin alumnus Matt Keenan has first-hand experience, having attempted to fulfil his long-held dream of competing in the Tour de France.

The hard race to the top

As a teenager, Keenan trained alongside Cadel Evans at Northcote Cycling Club, getting an early schooling into what it takes to be a world champion.

‘I was good for his confidence early in his career,’ the now-42-year-old quips.

At one stage Keenan was among Australia’s top cyclists. He won the under-23 category at the 1996 Australian Championships, and spent his early 20s racing professionally in Europe and Australia.

During his second season in Europe, he set himself a target.

‘To justify continuing down this path to being a professional cyclist I needed to win four races. But I didn’t win four, I only won two,’ Keenan says.

‘It wasn’t a lack of effort, it wasn’t a lack of opportunity – I simply wasn’t good enough.

‘And growing up with the opportunity to ride at the same club as Cadel Evans and see what good enough is, you work out pretty quickly where you sit in the food chain.’

A different direction

Keenan shifted his athlete’s discipline to a new goal, studying a Bachelor of Arts in Public Relations at Deakin in Geelong.

While working full-time in his new career in 2003, Keenan spotted an advertisement for a volunteer commentary position at a Melbourne cycling event.

Keenan, whose commentary of the Tour de France and other races can now be heard on SBS and around the world, quickly got a taste for being on the other side of the microphone.

‘I spent five years where I didn’t take a single day of holiday; every bit of holiday leave that I had I’d commentate on a bike race,’ he says.

Now he spends about six months a year on the road, commentating the world’s top cycling races.

So from his experience, what does it actually take to be among the world’s best?

Cadel Evans being interviewed by Matt Keenan

Cadel Evans being interviewed by Deakin alumnus Matt Keenan. 

The makings of an elite cyclist

Citing Cadel Evans, who won the Tour de France in 2011, Keenan says natural ability is only one factor.

‘Cadel’s got plenty of natural gifts, you don’t choose how talented you are physically,’ Keenan says.

‘He’s got a great cardiovascular system – he can turn oxygen into energy better than just about anybody in the country, but his greatest strength is from his shoulders up.’

Even as a 15-year-old, Keenan says Evans was incredibly disciplined.

‘It would be 60, 65 kilometres before school and then at lunchtime everybody else is out in the playground and he’d be in the gym.’

In an average year, an elite cyclist would ride between 26,000 and 30,000 kilometres – or around 30 hours a week, Keenan says.

However it’s not just about time on the bike.

‘It’s a 24/7 program being a professional cyclist,’ Keenan says. ‘That’s just simple stuff like eating the right food at the right time, going to bed at the right time, doing the right stretching, doing the core strength exercises, getting a massage.

‘Doing all those other elements that don’t require any talent, that only require discipline – they’re the things that set the great that are in amongst that elite group.’

The Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race

This January, Keenan will commentate the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race.

In the women’s race, he is tipping defending champion Annemiek van Vleuten to win. ‘She’s the world’s number one [women’s] cyclist at the moment, and she’s just fantastic. She’s as tough as they come.’

As for the men’s winner, that’s a tricky one to predict at this stage, he says.

Meanwhile Keenan has made it to the top of cycling ranks – as a commentator.

‘I’d rather be able to say that I’ve ridden the Tour de France than commentated the Tour de France, but I worked out there’s more than one way to skin a cat,’ he says.

Keenan has now taken the role of fronting international Tour de France coverage alongside Robbie McEwen – a position held by renowned commentator Phil Liggett for the past 43 years.

‘He was the voice that I grew up listening to; he was the soundtrack of the Tour de France. So to follow in those footsteps is pretty cool.’

The Deakin University Elite Women’s Race is a part of the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race series.

Interested in pursuing a career in sport? Check out the sport courses offered by Deakin University.

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