Cycling: the man who started Britain's gold rush

Jason Queally began a new era at the Sydney Olympics. Now 39, he's making a comeback, convinced he can fly the flag in 2012. He tells Robin Scott-Elliot about his plans
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The Independent Online

It was 10 years ago, on a close Saturday evening in the Dunc Gray Velodrome on the first Saturday of the Sydney Games, that Jason Queally started Britain's Olympic gold rush. From that moment a path can be traced directly towards London 2012, with a country's passion for the Games rediscovered along the way. It is a path that the man himself can still not bring himself to abandon: London is calling.

Queally was once an accidental cyclist, now he cannot put down his bike. "I will never completely hang up my wheels," he says from this hotel room in Copenhagen where he is preparing to make his comeback in a Great Britain jersey at the track cycling world championships this week, two months shy of his 40th birthday.

He will be 42 by the time the Olympic flame is lit in the capital's East End. It may not be an age that threatens the record books – Oscar Swahn competed in an Olympics aged 72 – but endurance athletes the wrong side of 40 are a rarity. Swahn did, though, manage to achieve something Queally would dearly love to match; he won Olympic gold in London (the Swede, however, had to kill to win his – it was in deer shooting in 1908) and it is the looming prospect of a home Olympics that has got the man from Chorley back on his bike.

"Just to be in London," he says. "It is a privilege to compete in any Olympic Games but to potentially take part in one on home soil... that is a big draw and it has pulled me in. It is the opportunity of a lifetime to compete on home soil."

That opportunity had seemingly disappeared when he failed to make the team for Beijing, missing out by one tenth of a second. "My avenue with the elite team was over," he said a few weeks later as he announced his retirement. "I am getting too old."

Instead, keen to keep those wheels turning, he switched to the Paralympics and began riding in tandem with Anthony Kappes, who is partially sighted. Together they broke the British record, an achievement not lost on the men behind Britain's able-bodied track team.

"It was in January that a few people said that I could still make the team for 2012," said Queally. "A few people" turn out to be Shane Sutton and Matt Parker, the coach and endurance coach of the British team – that is, people in the know.

But it was not to the sprint, the event in which he triumphed in Sydney, that he has returned. Instead he will be competing in the team pursuit, an endurance event. It is a move he describes as like a "200m runner switching to the 800m".

"It is very different," he says. "The sprint is short, sharp bursts. The training for the pursuit is very different, spending four to five hours in the saddle." It is a switch he has taken to readily and less than two months after his return he was named in the five-strong squad. Only four will make the line up on Friday, and Bradley Wiggins and Geraint Thomas, half the gold-medal winning quartet from Beijing, may yet return from road racing – competition for places for London will be tough.

"I have a lot to learn and it will be really difficult to make the team," says Queally. "But I'm very competitive, and the chance to compete in these Games – I'm driven by these things in life."

Queally's life changed forever in the course of little more than a minute in Sydney a decade ago and, while the success on the track satisfied his competitive desire, it bought another side, too, and one that he has always struggled with.

"I still find doing things like this [interview] difficult," he says. "I was – and still am, I think – a Regular Joe and I found it difficult to deal with. Even now I find it really, really draining. I only really took up cycling aged 25 and four years later I was an Olympic champion. I never expected it. Most of them [the British team] had been through this all their lives, they were used to the media, the exposure and the expectations. It was a difficult time. I was thrown into the spotlight and did not know how to deal with it. I made a little money out of it and I was – am – being paid to do something I love, but it was sometimes tough to handle."

A London finale – and it is one that is far from assured – would neatly round off a tale of two cities. Until he was 25, Queally had never ridden competitively. He swam and played water polo, representing British Universities, and worked as a research technician at Lancaster University.

He was persuaded to try out a time trial as he explored taking up the triathlon and on the back of that was invited down to the Manchester Velodrome, the home of British cycling. "If it had been in London, I would have never gone down there," says Queally, "and I would probably have never got into cycling."

It was not long before he became a cornerstone of Britain's fast improving – and, crucially, heavily invested in – cycling team. "Yeah, I was one of the tunnel rats," says Queally, who spent hour after hour in Chris Boardman's wind tunnel as every last detail was checked in the quest for an edge.

The success of Britain's cyclists at three Games has become the success story of British sport and Queally's gold was where it all began. Chris Hoy, who has a knighthood and four golds to show for his Olympic exploits, has called him an inspiration, and Wiggins too has placed Queally's achievements on top of the podium.

"When one person does well," said Wiggins, "it makes you think it's achievable, just like when Jason took gold on the track at Sydney. That set things up for the next 10 years."

Britain expects a good return in Denmark this week, but, whatever happens, it is one more step down a path that Queally hopes will finally lead home. "If Paris had won the Games I wouldn't be here," he says. "It is because it is in London that I am doing this."

Saddle up: When to watch Britain's medal hopes in Copenhagen

Today

"It still means a lot to be a world champion," says Sir Chris Hoy, who will be chasing a British record 10th world title – to go with four Olympic golds – when the championship begins in the Ballerup Super Arena in Copenhagen. Hoy will be competing in the team sprint on a day that could see Britain claim three medals. First up is Olympic champion Victoria Pendleton in the 500m time trial – anything other than a gold would be a disappointment – while Wendy Houvenaghel has a medal chance in the women's individual pursuit. TV: 18.00-21.00, BBC2

Tomorrow

Pendleton and Hoy are back in action. The 29-year-old Pendleton goes in the team sprint while Hoy contests the keirin. Other British interest will centre around the women's pursuit team of Lizzie Armitstead, Houvenaghel and Joanna Roswell. They are the defending champions. TV: 18.00-20.30, BBC 2

Friday

Anna Blyth, the 22-year-old prospect, could win a medal in the scratch, but the focus will be on the men's team pursuit and a possible comeback by Jason Queally. Pendleton's intense schedule continues in the sprint. TV: 18.00-21.30, BBC 2

Saturday

Pendleton defends her sprint title and Hoy begins the defence of the male version. The omnium, a new event for 2012, begins – riders compete in a number of disciplines. TV: 14.00-15.30, BBC 1

Sunday

A grand finale? Pendleton chases her third medal in the keirin and Hoy will be favourite in the sprint. TV: 13.50-17.30, BBC 2

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