In a sport that is all about rough rides, Liam Phillips has had more than his fair share and yesterday was another one to add to the list. That he even made the Olympic Games was a minor victory in itself – he broke his collarbone just three months ago – and he seemed on course to turn that into a major one, when he was two-thirds of the way through yesterday afternoon's final of the men's BMX.
The 23-year-old reached the penultimate bend in third place, pushing for a medal, but as the field swung round the banking, he made one slip and was gone. He sat on the track head in his hands while the rest of the field bounced away down the undulating course. As the medallists celebrated, he clambered back on to his bike and pedalled the rest of the course to finish in eighth and last place. Another enthusiastic crowd, whose passion had not been quelled either by the heat or the South African MC who upped the irritation levels with every utterance, applauded the beaten Briton to the finish.
Maris Strombergs of Latvia won gold, successfully defending his title from Beijing, Sam Willoughby of Australia silver and Carlos Oquendo Zabala made it two Colombians on the BMX podium across the men's and women's events.
"I am still just speechless as to the sort of reception that both Shanaze [Reade] and I have had," said Phillips. "There are 6,000 people here that have put their hands in their pockets to come and watch the sport that I have been involved with since I was five years old. It really is special. I am really thinking about Rio. It's mad considering last year I thought my BMX days were over."
For Phillips, this was a triumph of nerve as much as anything. Earlier this year he had wondered about ever getting back on a BMX again.
This is a sport that hurts – as one rider skidded over the track in an early semi-final there was an "ooohhh" from a crowd collectively imagining skin shredding off their elbows – and it is one that has hurt Phillips more than most.
There was a moment earlier this year, following wrist and elbow surgery in February which in turn had followed two shoulder operations, broken wrists and collarbones, that he worried he had lost his nerve to ever race again. He spent some time with the British track squad – from BMX to Olympic track gold is a route taken by Chris Hoy and Jamie Staff – but did not have sufficient power to take the lead role in the team sprint as Staff did for the Scot in Beijing.
So he got back on his BMX and when the collarbone went at the world championships in Birmingham this summer it did not phase him. He arrived in London claiming to be in the form of his life and rode his semi-finals with confident efficiency, finishing second, third and fourth to qualify sixth of the eight finalists.
Combine Reade's and Phillips's races yesterday and there would have been a British medal. Phillips had the flying start Reade is unlikely to have squandered. It is a lottery of an event – unlike many Olympic events any rider can win any race. The Rumsfeldian take would be that it is the most level unlevel playing field in sport.
"I had the best start probably of my life – that's what you aim to do at the Olympics," Phillips said. "But I overshot the second jump and you can't compete with those guys if you make a mistake like that."