Cycling: Hoy is ready to dig deep again and raid Olympic gold mine
Demise of the kilo will not stop inspirational memories of Athens
"My blood was turned into battery acid... I would commonly ride that fine line of losing consciousness." It was a former member of the US national cycling team, Sky Christopherson, who perhaps came as close as anyone to describing adequately the final moments of track cycling's most brutally demanding event. He was talking of the kilo, a benign-sounding epithet for the 1,000m time trial for which there is no ready analgesic; only the belief that the pain is the down payment you make for ultimate triumph. It requires an exceptional kind of individual; and it yielded a special kind of winner four years ago in Athens.
Olympic gold medallist Chris Hoy admits he regularly recalls that zenith of his career. But for the Scot it is far more than just a fond snapshot in time. He remembers an evening in which he confronted a multitude of conspirators emerging to gang up on him, and sneered at them as a psychological tool, a source of inspiration.
"Of course, it was such a significant moment in my life. I'll remember it for ever," says the Edinburgh-born rider who shares a birthdate, 23 March, and an iron inner will with Sir Steve Redgrave – albeit, at 32, he is 14 years younger than the great Olympian. "It's always nice to have the video to watch, which I've seen now a few times as you might imagine. But in other ways I use it, when I feel pressure, when I go to an event, preparing for a race and I'm feeling nerves inside. I can recall Athens and remind myself that I've been through something and I will never experience pressure like that again. When you've been through it once, you know anything is possible."
Pressure. In sport the word tends to be employed far too cheaply. But when in Athens, on 20 August 2004, at the Olympic velodrome, Hoy was the final competitor to race against the clock, and had to wait and watch the world record being lowered before him not once but three times, it was extraordinary pressure, in anyone's terms.
As the four-time world champion in the discipline waited, the Australian Shane Kelly set a new Olympic record. German Stefan Nimk reduced it further, before Frenchman Arnaud Tournant, arguably the kilo's finest ever exponent, crossed the line in 1min 0.896sec, the first sub-61-second time at sea level. Hoy had to assimilate that reality – swiftly.
A lesser man could have been submerged beneath a torrent of hostile emotions. In a new book on his career and his part in Britain's track cycling ascendancy he says: "It's like the gallows. That's what it feels like: an execution. In the last few minutes, it's the last place in the world you want to be."
At Manchester's Velodrome, he says: "When you've been training for the last four years for this one event, to have the goalposts moved like that, and you're no longer aiming at a time you thought you were aiming for, but at a time that nobody's ever gone faster than before, it's hard to put into words how difficult it is not to panic at that stage, and not think: 'Oh my God. How am I going to deal with this?'
"It's not like you've become aware a few months before, a few weeks before, even a day before that you're going to have to perform at a higher level. It's just a few seconds before that you suddenly find it's happening." It was pressure he overcame, and he flashed over the line in a time of 1min 0.711sec. The winning margin was 0.185sec.
Hoy was not to know then that it was his one and only chance of a gold in the kilo. The sport's governing body, the Union Cycliste Internationale, perversely dropped the kilo as an Olympic discipline to accommodate BMX. The irony here is that it was on a BMX bike where it all began for Hoy. He became hooked on cycling as a schoolboy after watching the famous BMX scene in the film ET.
But if anyone believed that his potency as a cycling champion may, in part, die because of it, they would be sorely mistaken. "It's been a blessing in disguise, really," says Hoy. "I've had this opportunity now to go for two new individual events, and I've relished it. I've achieved way more than I ever thought was possible. I never dreamt that I was going to become world sprint champion and world keirin champion, but that's the situation we're in now."
The keirin, to the uninitiated, has as its origins a gambling sport in Japan. Riders follow a motorcycle at an ever increasing pace until the pacesetter peels off and then it's a straight sprint for two and a half laps.
Is he entitled to be confident that there will be further gold a-Hoy at Beijing, in the keirin, sprint and team events? He laughs. "I'm confident as I can be. I'm better than I've ever been, physically and mentally. I feel I'm in the best shape I've been in my life and if I'm right about that I know there's not many people who can touch me."
And, most crucially, should that potential gold mine threaten to collapse around him, he has all his experience of Athens as solid pit-props.
Life and times
Born: 23 March 1976, Edinburgh.
Vital statistics: 6ft 1in, 14st 3lb.
Olympic medals: Gold in 1km time trial, Athens 2004; silver in team sprint, Sydney 2000.
World Championship gold: 1km time trial, Ballerup, Denmark 2002, Melbourne 2004, Bordeaux 2006 and Palma De Mallorca 2007; team sprint, Ballerup 2002 and Los Angeles 2005; keirin, Palma De Mallorca 2007 and Manchester 2008; sprint, Manchester 2008
Extras: Raced in junior Scottish BMX teams, awarded honorary doctorates from the University of Edinburgh in July 2005 and Heriot-Watt University in November 2005. Holds the world record for the fastest 1km at sea level in 2004. Awarded MBE 2005.
'Heroes, Villains & Velodromes' by Richard Moore (Harper Sport, £15.99)
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