McGregor primed for hot pursuit

Tom Wyeth meets a Yorkshire-born cyclist who did not mount a bike until she was 29 but will be chasing gold on Sunday
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Chris Brasher in Melbourne, Don Thompson in Rome, Bob Braithwaite in Mexico. The hockey team not good enough for an invite but good enough for a bronze at Los Angeles. Mike McIntyre and Bryn Vaile tacking into history at Pusan, the Searle brothers drowning Italian dreams at Banyoles. There's usually a shock somewhere in the Olympics.

Yvonne McGregor has gone almost unnoticed at these Games. While Christie snubs and Gunnell anguishes and Redgrave roars on, McGregor avoids the headlines, indeed almost misses a mention. Such are the media demands on the 35-year-old from Bradford that preparation for the Games has been almost uninterrupted.

That's surprising, for McGregor's is a compelling tale. She only sat seriously on a racing bike at the age of 29 and, on Sunday, when the individual pursuit final takes place at Stone Mountain Park, it would not be outrageous to find her winning it.

On the face of it, McGregor looks as if she has bounced, like a bagatelle, from sport to sport, but that's only half the truth. The cross-country running at school and county level, the fell running, the triathlon and the world one-hour record last year all tapped her richest resource, her remarkable aerobic power.

The fell running career first took her to a world stage; in 1989 she finished eighth in the world championships, four places behind Britain's top finisher, the former marathon international Sarah Rowell. A club runner since she was 12 years old, she might still be running were it not for a pair of dodgy Achilles tendons.

A switch to the triathlon gave no relief to the problem, though she was strong enough at both the running and the cycling disciplines to place 18th in the European Long Course Championships. In 1991, the year her father died, she took to the bicycle properly.

It was a short apprenticeship. In her second full season she won two bronzes at the National Road Race Championships. The following year she was national champion at 10, 50 and 100 miles, and the year after the almost vertical ascent continued with a Commonwealth gold medal in the points race. "I got a lead of 50 metres on the group and they thought, 'Oh, she's nobody' and they let me go. In the end, I lapped them all and won."

McGregor had created the time to take the sport seriously by opting to work part-time at her job as a youth worker for Bradford council. Her qualifications include a degree in leisure and recreation at Ilkley College, but she lists among her jobs work in a psychiatric hospital, residential care and helping the physically and mentally handicapped.

Last year, the Yorkshirewoman hauled herself into the top bracket of racers when she took the world one-hour record. If anybody questioned the merit of that record, the answer came later in the year. Twice, once at altitude in Colombia and again in France, Jeannie Longo-Ciprelli tried and failed to break the record. Longo-Ciprelli has three times won the world pursuit title and five times claimed the world road race crown. Last Sunday, she reinforced her standing as the world's greatest female cyclist when she won the Olympic road race title. But she could not break McGregor's record.

Three weeks after the record, McGregor hit a pothole in the national 10 mile and performed a somersault that might have got her into the gymnastics team here except that she fractured her collarbone and scapula in the process. Hard work on the turbo (static bike) put her in some sort of shape for the world championships, but her experience in Bogota was not sweet. "I missed out on the semi-final by five-hundredths of a second. I really believed I could come back with a medal and I was desperately disappointed," she said.

McGregor has prepared for the Games assiduously. Now part of North Wirral Velo (Chris Boardman's club), she is being monitored by Boardman's physiologist, Peter Keen.

Using the test chamber at Eastbourne, where Keen works, they carried out acclimatisation trials before Atlanta. The controls were set to 34 degrees of heat with 90 per cent humidity. Cycling on rollers in the chamber, she took her body core temperature up to 40.3C and, in one hour, lost 2.7 litres in sweat. The results pleased her. "I'm a good sweater," she said, "and that's important. According to Peter, I'm fairly heat resistant."

The pursuit form book is well documented: she lists the American Rebecca Twigg, the Italian Antonella Bellutti and the Frenchwoman Marion Clignet as the obstacles. At the national championships this year, McGregor did the second- and third-fastest pursuit times in history, so she knows her own standing, too.

"I'll probably be shaking like a leaf when I get there," she admitted. "But it's all right to be like that. Chris [Boardman] said that he was almost physically sick before the ride in Barcelona." And for Boardman, the result couldn't have been better.