A ride on the wild side

Andrew Longmore finds every split second will count at Sydney 2000's newest cycling event
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Barring the 100m sprinters or the first-round fall guys in the boxing ring, no one is scheduled to have a faster, briefer, more explosive acquaintance with the XXVIIth Olympiad than Chris Hoy. If all goes according to plan, 54 seconds will be the outer limit of Hoy's athletic contribution to the Games.

A blink of an eye more and the Scot will be contemplating a year of wasted effort, a click of the fingers shorter and a gold medal will be dangling from his neck. The Olympic Sprint, the newest and most spectacular event on the cycling track in Sydney, deals in such slide-rule measurements.

The beauty of the Olympic Sprint is its devastating simplicity. Three men, three laps of the track, quickest time. Three start, only one finishes; at the end of each lap, the front man peels off. Like the pursuit, two teams start on opposite sides of the track, but the true enemy is the clock. The world record, held by the French, stands at just over 44 seconds. Speeds touch 75kph, barely a centimetre separates the back wheel of one rider and the front of the next, so the choreography is dangerously precise. This is not a sport where the armchair viewer has time to adjust the television set.

"At one of the World Cup events last year, I wasn't riding and so I watched from the stands," Hoy says. "And even I thought, 'Jeez, this is great'. It's exciting, it's over very quickly and it's usually very close. But the great thing is that it's very easy for a crowd who don't know much about cycling to understand."

Hoy explains the requirements of a three-man Olympic Sprint team, the combination of power, speed and endurance, in terms of track athletes. "The lead-out man is the 100m sprinter, the second guy is a 200m runner and the finisher has the stamina and speed of a 400m runner." For the British world champion silver medallists, Hoy is the lead-out man, Craig Maclean the middle man and Jason Queally the anchor man. "Hoy, Queally, Maclean" as the boxing-style poster advertises them for the traditional Herne Hill meeting on Good Friday, the team's one and only domestic appearance before the Olympics.

Looking back, Hoy's career has been moving irresistibly, if at times a little haphazardly, towards the fulfilment of his current role. His obsession with bikes took him to the junior BMX world championships in Florida at the age of 10, television, big crowd, the Full Monty. At 14, he tried mountain biking, without marked success, before moving on to time trialling and some road racing, but only when he hit his local track in his home town of Edinburgh did he begin to understand his potential. "I did some one-kilometre time trials and came fifth in the Under-23 European championships, then I thought, 'Well, what are my best chances of getting a ride at the Olympics?' I looked at the Olympic Sprint and knew I had a good start, so I decided to concentrate on that."

To say he is built like a brick outhouse does less than justice to the outhouse. He has an ideal sprinter's frame: 14st 2lb, 6ft 1in, legs like motorway pillars, capable of generating extraordinary forces through the mighty single gear on his brakeless carbon-fibre track bike. Put you or me on the thing and, Hoy reckons, we would barely be able to turn the wheel.

"You'd feel as if you were starting in your highest gear at the bottom of Ben Nevis," he says. Yet, it is not quite that straightforward. In his 18-second opening lap, from a standing start, Hoy has to balance flexibility of leg movement with pure power. "All my work is done on acceleration and trying to get the team up to speed as quickly as possible. You could get a real muscleman in, but he wouldn't go very fast on a bike because it's all about producing power at high speed."

The other members of the team, fellow Edinburian Maclean and Queally, a refugee from water polo and an athletic "freak", according to Steve Paulding, the team manager, fell in around him so neatly that the team quickly emerged as an international force, winning a World Cup event last season and becoming the first team to launch a serious challenge to the invincible French.

At the world championships in Berlin, the British trio beat the Germans and the Australians to the silver behind the French team, though less than a 10th of a second - or one bike length - separated the silver medallists from the fifth-placed team.

Competition promises to be even tighter on the Bankstown track in Sydney where a number of the Games' earliest medals will be earned. Unwittingly, the track squad will be flagbearers for the rest of the British Olympic team, with Queally a live medal prospect on the opening day in the 1km time trial and the Olympic Sprint team, another product of the highly progressive world-class performance programme established by Peter Keen at the British Cycling Federation, following on the second day. Keen guided Chris Boardman to Britain's first Olympic gold for 72 years in Barcelona and his acute understanding of the concept of élite has pushed cycling to the forefront of the Lottery-funded sports.

"When I was riding," Paulding says, "the budget for training and competition was £80,000 and there was a staff of one. Now, for the track, we have a full-time staff of five and a budget of £300,000. The only excuse we have is that not enough talented kids are coming into the sport."

The introduction of the Start programme should address that problem in the long-term, but Paulding knows as well as anyone that medals at the Olympics will be the most treasured currency when the next round of bargaining begins. A glimpse of Hoy, Maclean and Queally in full flight could not only bring wider recognition of the sport but pitch cycling into the imaginations of countless talented kids who only have eyes for Manchester United.

Hoy will be oblivious to such pressures. His Olympics will pass in hypnotic pursuit of the black line which guides him round the track. Fifty-four seconds-worth of distance pedalled, if the British team reach the last of the three rounds. He laughs. "Only 18 seconds if I make a mess of it."