There is an anecdote that neatly sums up the British sprint cyclist Jason Kenny's attitude to training – not to mention Olympic success, and being tipped, even though he is just 20, as the next Chris Hoy. After winning gold and silver medals in Beijing the Bolton-born rider was invited, along with the rest of the GB cycling team, to visit Gordon Brown. But Kenny refused to go. "I had had a bad cold so I had to get back into the swing of things," Kenny explains, as if blowing out an appointment with the PM in order to go training was the most normal thing in the world.
His fearsomely single-minded dedication to his sport, rather than basking in the post-Beijing limelight as most 20-year-olds would do, has impressed many, including Hoy, who rode to gold with Kenny in the team sprint. Even pre-Beijing the Scot predicted Kenny would provide the biggest surprise there in track cycling: "He's got a good head on his shoulders and he can deal with pressure."
Kenny proved Hoy completely right when British Cycling officials decided just days before the Games that Kenny was replacing the established rider Ross Edgar in the team sprint as man No 2, with Hoy at No 3. The try-out worked, so well that Kenny briefly rode Hoy off his back wheel on the way to their joint gold. All this on the first night of the track racing, and in Kenny's first Olympics.
Typically refusing to play up his contribution, Kenny insists that "[British team sprint man No 1] Jamie Staff's laps [in the qualifying round] were the fastest anyone's ever gone, so that kind of gave me something to follow". His deadpan voice and gift for understatement make this sound logical. It is only a few seconds later that you realise following the quickest lap ever recorded in sprint history must have been quite hard to do. Unless you are Jason Kenny, that is.
His unusually high level of resistance to pain probably helps him get there. Hoy has said that one training exercise ends with him regularly screaming in agony, and Kenny, as matter-of-fact as ever, says: "Oh, I did that one, too... We sometimes do training with the aim of going so hard we end up throwing up too. But that's normal for most athletes."
A few days after their team effort in Beijing, Hoy and Kenny were not grimacing in pain but raising their arms in triumph as they took gold and silver in the individual sprint. Kenny was only narrowly defeated in the first round of the final, before Hoy's considerable experience crushed him in the second. But the Scot stated: "Kenny will be the rider to beat in 2012."
"Chris won't be saying that in London," Kenny shoots back. "I'll be givingit my best shot and so will he."
Taking gold as a team so early on in the Games, Kenny says, was a key foundation stone to his subsequently taking silver in the individual sprint. "That and seeing Stephen Burke [also 20 years old] taking bronze in the individual pursuit. I wanted to follow suit.
"When I went to the Olympics I would have been happy with anything inside the top five in the individual sprint, because that's what I'd done in the World Championships in Manchester. But when we [he and Hoy] qualified first and second, I started thinking about how high I could go. I did want to beat Chris even if I have massive respect for him. That first ride I was getting close, but he just came past me on the home straight."
What does he respect most about Hoy? "More than his talent, perhaps, his ability for hard work." It took Hoy over a decade to dominate the sport, but Kenny seems to be moving a whole lot faster – in three years he has gone straight from taking a string of golds in the Junior World Championships to success at Beijing. "It's an unusual path to take to the Olympics, I know, without that [senior] World Championships success" he admits. "It was a massive leap forward. But having Chris there in Beijing was a big advantage, too. All the pressure was on him, I could move forward at my own pace. It's even the same now. Because of Chris and Victoria [Pendleton] and Bradley [Wiggins] being so high-profile, my phone's still not falling off the wall with journalists calling me."
But for all Kenny tries to play down his achievements, with such a high standard of performance on display at Beijing the pressure was on. His trainers concur that while his physical talent is plain to see, it is his sheer cool-headedness that has given him the edge over riders many years his senior.
"Being so laid-back off the bike was a definite strength at the Olympics, he didn't get too stressed out even though it was his first," says British Cycling's sprint coach, Iain Dyer, who has overseen much of Kenny's progress on the track. "It's not hard to tell he's naturally a calm sort of guy. I remember at Newport velodrome in the immediate build-up to the Olympics he was rooming with Jamie Staff, and Jason said that he had had to learn to walk faster to keep up with Jamie!"
"Don't be deceived by Jason," adds British Cycling's performance manager, Dave Brailsford. "Just because he's so quiet doesn't mean he's any less interested in winning."
Kenny confirms there is rock-hard ambition cloaked inside his easygoingapproach, saying quietly but plainly: "Taking all three golds in 2012 is the ultimate goal for any sprinter like me. It's been proved it's definitely possible physically. It's what I want to do." Chris Hoy – and whoever is Prime Minister in 2012 – you have been warned.
Alasdair Fotheringham also writes for cyclingweekly.co.ukReuse content