McGregor suffers for finest hour

Andrew Longmore talks to the cycling heroine homing in on a world record
The Mickey Mouse watch on the wrist of Yvonne McGregor is not totally misleading. McGregor, at the age of 36, has the twinkling enthusiasm of a child at the door of the Magic Kingdom. She laughs readily, smiles with her eyes and talks with a refreshing lack of rancour about her own impoverished state. Because success has come late in her sporting life, no time need be wasted wondering what she might have missed.

There is nothing Mickey Mouse about the record McGregor will attempt to break in the Manchester Velodrome next Wednesday. Though the British have yet to give cycling's world hour record due reverence, on the continent it is accorded a status second only to victory in the Tour. Olympic golds you can take or leave, but the holder of the hour record is someone to respect, man or woman.

McGregor has broken the record once and the fact that Jenny Longo, the Miguel Indurain of women's cycling, only regained it by riding at altitude in the stretched out "Superman" position (now banned by the authorities) on a special bike bore testimony to the natural talent of the British rider, who had to make do with ground-level Manchester and a beat-up bike. The following morning, as part of the festivities marking National Cycle Week, the new hour record-holder was bicycling around the local park with the Mayor of Bradford. She was celebrated loudly in her home town, but the national press paid scant attention. It was all very understated, a little slapdash and rather British.

On a custom-built Boardman-designed Hotta bike this time, McGregor aims to add the women's record to the men's "hour" shattered by Chris Boardman last year. It would be a double to cherish, given the scorn traditionally heaped on Les rosbifs by continental riders. To beat Longo, she has to add an extra 748 metres - three laps of the Manchester track - on to her old record. That means 193 laps at an average speed of just over 48 kilometres an hour. Stamina and guts are paramount, along with a mind-numbing ability to pin the front wheel on to a black line about two inches thick and a natural imperviousness to pain.

"Last time, the main problem was saddle soreness. The last 15 minutes were agony, but I feel stronger this time and more confident. I know what I'm letting myself in for," she said. And last time, she vowed never to let herself in for it again, though the reminder brings only a pitying smile. You don't understand, do you?

"I've always been competitive. Once I lost the record, I wanted it back again. It was the way I was brought up. I was always outside playing sport and in every school team. I began running at 12 and together with one of my two sisters and a brother would head off for the schools running championships. The clan McGregor."

Just to flesh out this modest history, McGregor was an international fell-runner and triathlete before she won gold in her first ever cycling points race at the 1994 Commonwealth Games, lapping a field which included the Olympic champion. This season, she went to the Spanish Saunier Duval team to gain some experience in road-racing, won her first stage race, finished second and third (twice) in three of the major women's tours and shot to fourth in the world road rankings. A week ago, having just returned from the Tour of Finisterre, she won the the national 25-mile time trial championships by the unbelievable margin of four and a half minutes. A late developer and a fast learner. Heaven knows what heights the feisty northerner might have reached had cycling grabbed her full attention before the age of 30.

"I've no regrets about starting so late," she said. "I've travelled around the world, doing the backpacking thing and enjoying myself. If you start concentrating on sport full-time too young, you miss out on experiences like that. Now, I've got all that out of the way, I can concentrate totally on my cycling. I've found my niche, had a bit of success and now I want more."

Progress has come in every form other than the figure on her bank balance. A part-time youth worker, McGregor has relied on odd grants and sponsorships to survive. She rides for the Adidas Sci-Con team, run by Level Four, Chris Boardman's company. But retrieving the hour record will not be the passport to riches it once was for Boardman, who advertised his services to professional teams by beating the hour in Bordeaux when the Tour was in town. McGregor, in other words, is doing this for love.

"I'm under no illusion about how hard it will be," she added. "You're riding at over 30mph for an hour. But my form is good and I'm prepared to suffer to get it. It could be a few metres or 100 metres. It'll be close." Too close for Mickey Mouse to measure most probably.