Crash course in slings and arrows

The Rob Hayles interview: New world beckons for rider whose Olympic triumph disappeared in a split second

Rob Hayles catapulted across our Olympic consciousness at the end of a harum scarum event called the Madison. Think of Beijing High Street, then translate it to the cycling track, then fast forward the speeds to 50mph and you have an approximation of the Madison, a chaotic, quixotic and utterly thrilling hour's action which involves 14 riders hurtling round a velodrome at impossible speeds while, every other lap or so, their team partners descend like Stukas from the banking to be hurled manually into the fray. Each changeover is as complex as the baton change in a sprint relay and there is an etiquette in the transfer that we will come to later.

Rob Hayles catapulted across our Olympic consciousness at the end of a harum scarum event called the Madison. Think of Beijing High Street, then translate it to the cycling track, then fast forward the speeds to 50mph and you have an approximation of the Madison, a chaotic, quixotic and utterly thrilling hour's action which involves 14 riders hurtling round a velodrome at impossible speeds while, every other lap or so, their team partners descend like Stukas from the banking to be hurled manually into the fray. Each changeover is as complex as the baton change in a sprint relay and there is an etiquette in the transfer that we will come to later.

Only a particular sort of mind enjoys the Madison, the same sort that would relish bungee-jumping into the Grand Canyon. Madison riders are regarded as mad by road-racers, who themselves barely register on the normal scale of sanity. But Hayles can recall one particular moment of the race. "I'd just pulled up the banking at the end of my stint when I saw the Spanish world champion was clinging to our wheel and I thought: 'yes, we're doing some kicking here, this is brilliant'."

It is a source of wry amusement to a rider as laidback as Hayles that, after 12 years of relative obscurity, the one image which has propelled him if not to fame or fortune then at least to vague recognition is one without his bike. At the time, that was in the middle of the track, a twisted wreck, which looked sure to be the fate of the rider too as he spun crazily down the inner lane of the Dunc Gray Velodrome and a host of BBC viewers winced in their armchairs at the force of the crash. The video will doubtless be replayed at the Sports Personality of the Year awards at the end of the year and it will still make the eyes narrow and the mouth pucker in shock.

Three weeks on, as the newly fêted British cycling squad prepare for an encore at the world track championships in Manchester this week and Hayles himself contemplates a new future as David Millar's henchman in the French-based Cofidis team, Hayles can summon the sequence of events with the clarity of photographic freeze frames. It was inside the last kilometre of the race when speeds were high, heads were down and the British team of Hayles and Bradley Wiggins were in silver medal position.

All Hayles could see was the back wheel of the Spanish rider and he was instinctively following the movement. Coming off the bend in the back straight, the Austrian team in front of them went for a change, which traditionally means the riders behind pull out to avoid the replaced rider, who drifts to the inside of the track. But, inside the last kilometre of the Madison, etiquette becomes an optional extra. Left with the narrowest of gaps, the Spaniard dived down the inside with Hayles in split-second pursuit. The impact launched him into a body slam that even his father, who wrestled for 30 years under the pseudonym John "Killer" Kowalski, could barely have experienced. By rights, his next logical thought should have been: "Am I dead?" Actually, it was: "Shit, we've just lost silver."

"Heidi, the team physio, was holding my head and I was saying to her, 'Heidi, you don't want to know what's going through my head right now'. She asked if anything was broken, but I didn't care. We'd contributed so much to that race, chasing down the Swiss and working on the front and we'd got nothing from it. That's what hurt the most." Nor was that quite the end of it. In a cameo of Hayles' 2000 Olympic experience, the Australians eased up over the last lap, the gold medal won, and allowed the Italian team to pip them on the line for the last points which eased Hayles and Wiggins out of the bronze medal position. "I saw Brad McGee, one of the Australians yesterday, and told him," Hayles says. "He was gutted.''

Hayles is still not sure whether those who congratulate him on his bronze are more in tune with his mental state than those who shake their heads and say: "Unlucky". His recent engagement, to Vicky Horner, an Olympic swimmer, further stirs the emotional backwash; some of the congratulations have nothing to do with cycling.

Hayles came back from Sydney with a bronze in the team pursuit - and there is a story attached to that too - which was more than he had anticipated and very much less than he deserved. Had his saddle not slipped in the semi-final of the individual pursuit, had he not crashed in the Madison, had the Australians not celebrated prematurely, had he been allowed to ride the points race, had he found one last ounce of energy to claim the bronze he lost by a click of the fingers in the individual pursuit? "The whole thing was a rollercoaster ride," he says before apologising, "I know that sounds corny, but I can't think of any other way of describing those 10 days in Sydney."

The bare facts are that the British team returned with a gold for Jason Queally in the kilo, a silver for the Olympic sprint team and bronzes in the team pursuit and for Yvonne McGregor in the individual pursuit. But it was the overall level of competitiveness which had rivals scurrying to the team's trackside enclosure in bewilderment. This was not a young team, yet suddenly they were at the races every day, and, at the age of 27, Hayles was the revelation, the man whose ride on the opening night proved the inspiration for Queally's gold and by a strange sort of osmosis for the rest of the British Olympic team.

"Yeah, Jason was in a shocking state," Hayles recalls. "He had the cleats off his shoes and was adjusting his pedals and I was watching and thinking, 'Jason, man, what are you doing?' This was two hours before his race. He was in pieces. But I went out and by the time I'd come back, I was still qualifying in first place and Jason had a big grin on his face. He felt the pressure was off him a bit and it had geed him up. If I could do it, he could."

Initially, Hayles was not scheduled to be part of the pursuit team, but so sharp was his form that the selectors changed the team for the semi-final, which Britain lost to a world record ride by the unheralded Ukrainians. Back in the original formation, without Hayles, the team won bronze, but it was not until Steve Paulding, one of the coaches, pointed out their own rules to Olympic officials that Hayles and Jon Clay were awarded their bronze medals at a special presentation ceremony conducted by Princess Anne at Darling Harbour. "It was actually better than the real ceremony," Hayles laughs.

Now, Hayles is moving on, to join the growing ranks of British riders in the peloton, forsaking his neat Stockport home for the chaos of Millar's flat in Biarritz and the suitcase life of a real pro.

The graduation has taken time, from the day he rode his first bike at the age of 11 on the estate in Cowplain, near Portsmouth, where he was brought up, through the junior ranks and, in partnership with Tony Doyle, one of the greatest of all track riders, to a professional career as a six-day track rider and a decent road-racer. At times, he has been too relaxed about life, happy to bob along without fully exploring the extent of his talent. Doyle has taught him to be more assertive and the Olympic experience, he admits, has heightened his confidence so that the peloton, the toughest of all sporting classrooms, does not seem such a forbidding place after all. He will have a decent tutor in Millar, the winner of the Tour prologue whose influence was critical to Hayles' arrival at Cofidis.

"I suppose I'm a little bit apprehensive about it," he says. "Not so much about whether I'll be able to handle the racing, more about the amount of racing they do and the general lifestyle, the language and so on. My French is not the best."

This week, he will bid farewell to the track at the world championships, though it is a source of frustration to him that he and Wiggins have been instructed not to enter the Madison. The paying public might have something forceful to say about that as well. Hayles, more than anyone, has earned the right to become a champion.

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