On the train down to meet Rouleur, a man taps Kristian House on the shoulder. “I love watching you race,” he says excitedly, and they share a brief conversation before the chap heads off to find his seat, happy to have spotted a celeb on the journey to London.
“Who are you, then?” the woman sat next to House enquires. Just a bloke who races bikes, our man explains.
“Oh,” she says, clearly disappointed. “I thought perhaps you might be famous…”
The thing is, House is kind of famous, depending on where you draw the line between fame and obscurity. Readers of Rouleur abroad may not have heard of him, but since finishing second in the Junior Tour of Wales as a teenager, through to getting in the break at last year’s Het Nieuwsblad, via winning the national championships in 2009, House has been a prominent proponent of the UK racing scene for almost two decades.
Now the 37-year-old otherwise known as ‘The Dude’, with his mid-Atlantic accent a result of a Texan childhood followed by Belgium then Britain, is starting one last blast of a season before hanging up his racing wheels for good.
It is fair to say he will be missed. The fan on the train most likely spotted House racing the Tour of Britain in the last few years since it’s enjoyed extensive TV coverage. And the chances are, he’d have seen House up the road. Attacking seems to be in his DNA, riding round in the bunch anathema.
At the 2012 Tour of Britain, House spent six of the eight stages in breaks, picking up the king of the mountains jersey in the process. As sponsors of the combativity competition, Rouleur rather assumed House would be awarded that too. The organisers decided otherwise, and a rather bemused Mark Cavendish, having spent all of 200 metres with his nose in the wind, collected the framed print from our Richard Mitchelson.
Richard kindly agreed to produce another print for the rightful recipient. “That has pride of place in my living room,” House says. “I don’t keep trophies on display often, but that means a lot. Winning the jersey was great, but that recognition from the crowd and the presentation from Rich made it extra special.”
The Tour of Britain organisers awarded House the combativity prize the following year, seen below, as if compensating for the oversight in 2012. These days, the man with the record number of appearances in the race – 12 we think – has reined in his attacking instincts somewhat. “The last two years, I have changed my tactics. Now I am more targeting.”
Why so much attacking? “I do it because it’s what the sponsors want, and it’s fun. It beats sitting in the bunch, only to get spat out on the final climb. That year I won the jersey was bloody hard, though: six out of eight days in the break… By the last day, down in Guildford, I was foddered,” he says, adopting the peculiarly British cycling vernacular for exhausted.
Moving from Kent to first New Jersey, then Austin, Texas, as a boy, House acquired the nickname of “British” at high school, which helped form his national identity and would have ramifications on his cycling career later down the line. He bought an old Maruishi “for $150 from a girl in a car park” – not as sordid as it might sound – and starting racing for the Whole Food Markets team, then an Austin-only store, now worldwide.
“Then I joined the big team in Austin, which was basically a bunch of hippies. They would ride outside the city limits so they could smoke pot! I didn’t know about it until years later. Three of them would ‘puncture’ at the same time and say: ‘It’s okay, you keep riding…’ But that team was good for me, they had a junior squad, eight of us.”
House progressed rapidly, showing ability, particularly in time-trials. “I guess I had that cardio from running, and that ability to hurt myself. I went to the Olympic training centre in Colorado Springs. It was before they knew I was British – it hadn’t come up in conversation. They asked if I wanted to switch nationality, but I didn’t. So that was the end of that, and I had to re-think my plans.”
His plans included representing GB at the World Championships. How does a 17-year-old kid in Texas go about it? The advice House received was to get himself to the Junior Tour of Wales, so off he went. “I was on my own, but did well,” he remembers. “Won the first stage and the time-trial, and finished second overall. I found out afterwards that it was almost a complete waste of time. Over there, I was ‘the American’. I didn’t realise it was pretty much a closed shop.”
House returned to Texas for his final school year. The Welsh trip may been a waste of time regarding selection for the Worlds, but it did bring him to the attention of John Barclay, whose legendary racing trips to Belgium have given many an aspiring young rider their introduction to proper hardcore Flandrian action. “First race, I lasted literally 200 metres: first corner, crosswind, out the ass, that was it. I think I got fifth on my third race.
“I got invited to ride for a small Belgian team, and I could live in the family’s house. So I phoned my Mum and said I’m not coming home. I stayed there two and a half years, and won a lot of races for them in the second year – eight.”
John Herety, then the GB road manager, noticed the Brit kid with the Texan accent doing rather well over in Belgium. Returning to the UK for the first of three selection races for the World Championships and winning it, House was now on the squad, gaining selection for 2000 in Plouay and 2001 in Lisbon.
“I didn’t get to ride in 2000 because I crashed in Paris-Tours and dislocated my shoulder. Ironically, it was the same corner that Jan Ullrich crashed. As I was lying in hospital, his manager Rudy [Pévenage] opened the curtain and said, ‘Oh, wrong rider…’”
House was progressing nicely, but that pro contract remained elusive. A ride with German team Wiesenhof fell through at the last minute, “all political,” says House. “That was one of the reasons I almost stopped racing at the age of 23.”
He had seemingly reached an impasse in his cycling career, until Herety introduced House to Simon Jones, then in charge of the GB track endurance squad. Lottery funding provided an income at least, but the new boy to track racing never really took to the discipline. House’s heart – and his talent – remained on the road.
Herety, now installed as manager at British team Recycling, signed House for 2006 and his mojo returned, with a win at the Lincoln GP the highlight of a fine season.
“I went from being on the verge of hanging up my wheels to winning a stage of the Ruban Granitier, the Lincoln GP, so many UK races, and races in New Zealand, America… such a great year.”
US-registered Pro Conti team Navigators signed the newly-invigorated House for the following season. It turned out to be a brief interlude, however, as the team folded at the end of the year.
House returned to UK racing with Herety and Rapha-Condor-Recycling. British domestic road racing was undergoing something of a transformation at this time, with Herety at the fore. Traditionally, northern hardmen would smash the bunch into submission within minutes of the flag being dropped, never to be seen again, while the remaining pack fodder limped round as best they could. Whilst effective within the confines of the narrow UK scene, transferring this rudimentary tactic abroad would produce little success.
Herety’s squads rode as teams should and produced results, both at home and abroad, inspiring other UK teams to follow their example. “John was always adament that we race properly and do it right,” House says, “because you can’t expect to race on the Continent and do well if you aren’t organised.”
This brings us neatly to the highlight of House’s career, becoming national champion in Abergavenny in 2009. All talk before the race centred on Wiggins and Froome, Stannard and Kennaugh, Cavendish and Millar. Kristian who?
“I always knew I had it in me. I’d had six top-fives before, I was always there. But I didn’t expect it to be that year. I had finished the Tour Series, twelve rounds, three days before. And that really takes it out of you – late nights, travelling, eating shit. But I trained hard around it.”
Under Herety’s instructions, House’s job that day was to join the break and wait for the day’s nominated team leaders to get across – Chris Newton and Tom Southam. They never made it. House switched from worker bee mode to possible podium man. With Ian Stannard, Dan Lloyd and Peter Kennaugh for company on the finishing circuit, and Froome away up the road, he’d need to pull an extraordinary ride out of the bag to take the title.
“Bradley or Froome should have won. They were by far the strongest riders. Stannard was strong, but he cramped. I cramped too, but not in such a bad place.”
Froome was reeled in by what was now a trio, but was understandably reluctant to let it go to a sprint. “Froome was hitting us constantly, but every time he went, it was a bit less convincing, a bit slower. I knew I could beat Dan Lloyd in a sprint, so knew I had a podium, but thought Kennaugh had it.
“We caught Froome with 800 metres to go, then Kennaugh hit us. I never quite got on his wheel, but the momentum on the last corner got me on his wheel. I think he gave up once I came past him.
“Everything came together on that one day.”
That perfect day resulted in an opportunity to join a bigger team for the following year. “I had an offer to go to Vaconsoleil, but I was uncomfortable with it because of some of the riders there. In hindsight, maybe it was dumb, but I didn’t want to be tarred with that brush. All it takes is for one rider to test positive.”
House stayed with Rapha-Condor, a consistent performer during eight years of racing under Herety’s tutelage, always reaching a gentleman’s agreement – no contract required between trusting colleagues – until 2016 when House upped sticks and moved to One Pro Cycling. It came as something of a surprise, to me at least. Why change at this point in your career? “It was a hard decision. But I needed to do it for me.”
Coach Steve Benton, in place with the team since its inception in 2015, was key. “I ended up moving to One Pro because of Steve, to let him get everything out of me. It was like a coach’s wet dream. I put complete trust in him because I’d seen what he had done with other riders I didn’t think were that good.
“He changed me a lot. I used to go out and ride had for eight hours, so he cut that back. He kept my strengths, but also worked on my weaknesses. He knew I had a good kick on me, but I never worked on it. In the crit in Sheffield, I put Blythey [Adam Blythe] away in a sprint, and that was a direct result of what Steve got out of me – beating an actual sprinter.”
The fact that the team raced at Pro Conti level last year came as an unexpected bonus: House had no idea when he signed for the team.
“I knew it was the right call. It was a great year. When we did Het Nieuwsblad, I was in the break – typical me. I started my real European racing in Belgium, so we were racing on the same roads where I first started proper racing but 16 years later – the Kwaremont and all that. Incredible.”
One Pro took a step back down again this year, a case of too much, too soon perhaps. “I don’t think everyone realised what a big challenge it was. That step from Conti to Pro Conti is huge. The step from Pro Conti to WorldTour is actually not so big – that is essentially about money, infrastructure – but it’s the same process. I feel sorry for them. They were fucked over. Most teams would have pulled out.”
Under the circumstances, some riders might be tempted to take the money for this final year and mull over their future with only one eye on the racing. House says it’s not his style. “I don’t think I could do it to go through the motions, just out of respect for the people who support me.
“I would love to finish like Paul Manning. His last road race was the last stage of the Tour of Britain in Glasgow, and he won it solo. His last track race ever was the Olympics, and he won it. You can’t think of a better way to go out.
“And the Tour of Britain is the one for me. But everything has got to fall in place on one day. It’s not the one thing driving me this last year, but it’s certainly up there.”
As for the future, House is considering his options. He’d like to remain in the sport in some capacity – he does some coaching currently – but does not want to rush into a role that does not fit with his lifestyle.
He does, however, have one useful trick up his sleeve for whenever he visits the Capital: his very own get-out-of-jail-free card. Grant Young of Condor Cycles nominated House for the Freedom of the City of London in 2014, in recognition of his role in promoting cycle sport.
“I have got a certificate in old English that, if it was taken out of the frame, you would fold up and carry in your pocket in the old days. If you were drunk and disorderly in the City, it would get you off the hook!”
It’s hard to see House taking advantage of the privilege, to be honest. Drunk and disorderly is not his style. But he’ll be coming to a race near you, for one last time, real soon. Get out there and say hello.
Because The Dude abides.