Cyclo-Cross: Dunes help you breathe less easily: Buckinghamshire's versatile young buck scents a stern test in Sunday's World Championships. Roger Hammond aims to build castles in the sand. Robin Nicholl reports

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IT WAS like asking Ryan Giggs why he played football. Roger Hammond took it as a compliment, however, when someone enquired why he bothered with cyclo-cross.

He can produce seven golden reasons, six British and one world title, why he still does, and on Sunday Hammond will spend his 20th birthday in the sand dunes of the Belgian coast where the world championships will be settled within pedalling distance of Ostend.

When he last visited Belgium it was his versatility that provoked the observation: 'You are a much better road racer - why do you bother with cyclo-cross?' 'I was chuffed with that remark. I am better known there as a road rider,' Hammond said, pointing to four wins in seven Belgian road races against internationals last year. As the British circuit racing champion and the winner of an international race in Paris, it is not surprising that he finds himself in the Olympic squad for Atlanta.

His sporting ability has spread into football, cross-country running, judo and table tennis, and until he settled for cycling, Hammond earned county recognition for Buckinghamshire with each of those talents.

'Before last year's British cyclo- cross championship I sharpened my reactions by playing table tennis. It's a great game for that,' he said. His experience as a judo blue belt, moreover, helps break those falls which are inevitable in cyclo-cross. His sister, Sandra, reached brown-belt status and enjoyed a fierce rivalry with the British international, Nicola Fairbrother, and it is the competitiveness of judo that Hammond misses most of all.

There was no pressure on him to follow his father, Stuart, into bike racing. 'I was careful to let him make the choice, and he was encouraged to do other things,' Hammond Snr said, admitting to his own 'mediocre' career in cyclo- cross.

In cyclo-cross - where as much time can be spent running as riding - Hammond's other skills helped develop his technique from his first race at eight to a world triumph at Leeds in 1992, which in turn helped him in the exam room.

Twenty-four hours after winning the world junior title, he faced another nervy ordeal - his A-level French oral test. Even selecting a subject for the conversational section seemed tough until the examiner asked him to discuss his victory. 'That made it just like talking with a friend,' Hammond said. He now counts French among the three A-levels that took him to Brunel University to study material science.

On Sunday, the world's best will shuffle through the dunes of Koksijde instead of splashing over boggy fields as tradition dictates. Sand is more a strength-sapper than a soft option in cyclo-cross, and Hammond is not entirely happy.

'Racing in sand concerns me a lot. It's not a course I would choose. I prefer hard climbs. Still, if all courses were the same it would be boring, and I have trained hard for it.

'I would have hoped to finish in the top eight in the amateur championship, but now that the amateurs and professionals are merged in one race it is difficult to know what to expect.'

He could be the youngest starter in an 'open' line-up that throws together Adri van der Poel, of the Netherlands, who has won five silvers and a bronze, the Dane Henrik Djernis, last year's amateur No 1, and Germany's Mike Kluge, the 1992 professional champion, both of whom are world-class mountain bikers.

The versatility Hammond admires is that of the Tour de France rider Dominique Arnould who, apart from being the defending champion, is also 'a tremendous road racer'.

Hammond wants his career to follow a similar pattern, but only after he has gained a good degree. Studies take first place even if it necessitates agonising decisions such as turning down an Olympic training camp in the United States in March because of exams.

'My dream always has been to win a mountain stage in the Tour de France,' Hammond said. For now he will have to make do with the sandy peaks of the Belgian dunes.

(Photograph omitted)