Liam Phillips: A mistake and you're gone – in 40 seconds

He has learnt to take the pain of BMX and is aiming for 2012 gold to further his sport's rise

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The Independent Online

Chris Hoy is said to have been inspired to start pedalling on the road to Olympic gold, knighthoods and cereal success after watching ET. When Liam Phillips was asked whether a generation's favourite alien played any part in getting him on to a bike he looked baffled. It was more than a decade after the film's release that Phillips took his first ride on a BMX and it was simply through peer pressure that he began his own journey that is now plotted to include a podium stop in London in late August.

The ET question was posed inside the spacecraft-shaped velodrome during a tour of the Olympic Park for a selected handful of Britain's young hopefuls. Through one window, the BMX track is visible. Some of the humps are covered with black plastic, bits of which have come loose to flap vigorously in the winter wind. Above the course stands the ramp down which the riders launch themselves to initiate 40 seconds of frantic, frenetic and frequently – too frequently in Phillips' case – painful racing. "You don't get a second bite of the cherry," says Phillips. "If you make a mistake, the day's done. That's probably what appeals to the public – the crashes."

Phillips is from a different generation to Hoy – he is 13 years his junior – and where the Scot used BMX as a gateway to more orthodox cycling achievement, the elevation of the sport to the Olympic ranks in Beijing means Phillips can stay in the same saddle. That is not to say he will not switch as Hoy and Jamie Staff, a Beijing gold medallist in the team sprint and a former BMX world champion, did so successfully.

Phillips has already flirted with the velodrome, having been identified by the formidable brains trust behind British cycling's sustained achievements as a natural successor to Staff – the lead man in the sprint needs to be able to accelerate from a standing start, a brutal skill in which BMX riders are well practised. A summer spent training with Hoy and Co did not convince either party, Phillips (who has described breaking into the track team as equivalent to trying to get into the Barcelona side) or the coaching staff, that now is the right time for the move. What it has certainly, and crucially, done is reconnect Phillips with his original sport.

Part of the attraction for Phillips in considering a change was a waning enthusiasm for BMX. He had come to stand at the top of the ramp and wonder where on the undulating course below his next broken bone would come; in four years he had not completed a season. Wrist and elbow surgery in February had followed two shoulder operations, broken wrists and collarbones.

"I don't think I could have [dealt with the fear factor] if I hadn't had time away from the sport," says Phillips. "I really don't. In February if someone had said to me if you want to race again then you are going to get hurt, I'd rather not. My injuries wore me down but time away has enabled me to face up to the fact that if I want to succeed then that is part of the process.

"I enjoyed my time on the track but I missed BMX. It's part of me, it's what I've done since I was five. [Being on the track] taught me lessons – there were things I took for granted and it has given me some form of rejuvenation."

His reassignment, and injury, meant that Phillips' world ranking slipped outside the top 10 – twice a world championship runner-up, he has been as high as fifth – but Britain as host nation have one man's and woman's spot guaranteed for the Games. It means Phillips is excused a scramble to qualify and can instead use the World Cup circuit that starts in March and the world championships in Birmingham in May as a "trial run" for August. "My focus is not about selection," he says, "it is to be one of the best in the world. I'm looking at guys from New Zealand, Australia and America, guys that are at the top of the sport. They have a target on their back."

As a 19-year-old, Phillips reached the quarter-finals of the inaugural Olympic event – the Latvian winner, Maris Strombergs, will be back in London as well. It was a personal disappointment, but a breakthrough for a sport that had been dismissed by critics as child's play. "Going into Beijing there was a lot of negativity towards the sport and the fact it was a kids' sports etc," says Phillips. "Beijing did a hell of a lot to change that and the further we have come away from Beijing, BMX racing has been seen as more of a professional sport and I hope that London kicks that into another gear. Numbers in the UK have doubled since Beijing – the sport's on an up."

All 6,000 tickets have been sold for each of the three days of competition and a late afternoon live TV slot will introduce the sport to a whole new audience. "It's a big moment for BMX in this country," says the 22-year-old, who was born in Taunton. "Definitely. I've been passionate about that since Beijing."

Phillips and Shanaze Reade, Britain's best female rider and another medal contender, are based in Manchester, where they train alongside their track counterparts. They also have the use of the only purpose-built indoor training facility in the world, constructed at a cost of £24m next door to the velodrome, an investment for the good of the wider British cycling family, not just its youngest sibling, according to Phillips. "The amount of money that has been spent has been a huge boost," he says. "It's a great feeder for all forms of cycling. In years to come that will be seen. You could have a kid coming through the doors of the indoor now and in 10 years' time be an Olympic champion in the velodrome or in other forms of cycling. We train side by side with the track sprint guys. It's nice to be surrounded by the likes of Chris and Vicky [Pendleton], people who have been there and done it. They are normal people who have come from exactly the same situation – they had aspirations to go to an Olympics and succeed and they found a way of doing it. They are more than happy to help you do that."

It keeps coming back to them indoors. It remains a long-term ambition to master the larger bikes – BMX bikes have wheels two-thirds of the size – but Phillips wants to do so, with himself and Reade having become the rough-riding equivalent of Chris Boardman, whose gold in Barcelona in 1992 did so much to begin the British cycling boom.

"In 10 years' time, hopefully, we can be looked on as a force like the guys on the track. There was a time when they had one or two who were carrying the torch and, hopefully, this is the first step to making the changes. We already have the best support staff anybody could ask for. There's no excuses."