Queasy does it as Queally faces big race

Cycling: Rider in readiness
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It had been a long, interminably long, journey up the M6 to the Manchester Velodrome. Time enough to ponder the fact that had Jason Queally completed my 320- kilometre journey by cycle, at his Sydney gold-medal time of 1min 1.609sec per km, it would have taken barely any longer than the five hours it took me.

It had been a long, interminably long, journey up the M6 to the Manchester Velodrome. Time enough to ponder the fact that had Jason Queally completed my 320- kilometre journey by cycle, at his Sydney gold-medal time of 1min 1.609sec per km, it would have taken barely any longer than the five hours it took me.

Anyway, my tardiness was probably just as well, because a little earlier the man whose Olympic feat four years ago provoked such headlines as "The Fastest Man on Earth" had been in no state to address an interviewer's inquiries. "I came down today just to do some training for the team sprint, and I was that close to throwing up," he says. "It took me about half an hour to recover, I was in such a bad way."

He reassures you swiftly: "It's only in the last four or five weeks, in the immediate build-up to a major event, that we start to really hurt ourselves. It needs to be done. But it's a very daunting period. We're all the same. You come down and watch Chris Hoy [the current world champion and favourite for Athens]. He'll be physically feeling sick. Fortunately, Chris is very good at putting himself through the mill. He's a very strong character like that."

Back in 2000, Queally appeared from virtually nowhere to astonish everyone, but particularly himself, by becoming the kilometre time-trial gold medallist in Sydney. It was Britain's first gold of those Games, and it instigated a flurry of enquiries from sports newsdesks throughout the nation: who the hell is this guy?

"When I won, I was in shock. It was like being in a dream," says the character raised in Lancaster, whose gentle tones are reminiscent of Mark Lawrenson. "I'd simply never thought about it. When I got home, I put my medal on a shelf, and kept going back to have a look at it, just to make sure it was real. I couldn't believe it. Still can't."

He adds, as we talk against a backdrop of enthusiastic novices who have come along for a drop-in session at the velodrome: "There had been virtually zilch interest in me beforehand. I liked to keep myself to myself. Suddenly there were people trying to dig up anything on me, even going over to Ireland to find out about my family background. Fortunately, I hadn't been a bad lad in my youth."

Fame lasted somewhat longer than the obligatory 15 minutes. But not by much. His marriage to Victoria, a psychiatrist, a couple of years ago, was not photographed for the pages of Hello! Though Queally acknowledges "a bit of an upsurge" of interest in cycling immediately after the Olympics, he attributes that, with his droll sense of humour, more to an obliging fuel strike which encouraged people to find an eco-friendly form of transport.

Now, only days before the Athens Olympics, he is not even certain of defending his Olympic title in the "kilo", as it is known. World champion Hoy has usurped Queally's role as Britain's top rider in the event. With a maximum two competitors permitted from each country, Hoy's Scottish compatriot Craig MacLean is likely to secure the second place, leaving Queally to confine himself to the team sprint, a three-man, three-lap relay, an event in which Britain has been among the medals in every major championship since 1999.

Yet Queally remains the easy rider of the velodrome, a man who appears incredibly insouciant about the prospect of missing out on the individual test. "I'm 34 years of age," he says. "If I start worrying about it, that'll give me negative thoughts. That won't help at all."

The rider, who claims that the advent of an Aussie coach (yes, another one), Shane Sutton, in 2002 has helped produce some crucial team bonding, adds: "I still don't know 100 per cent what's happening. I've tried hard, but haven't been quick enough and it's all down to form. But I do know, if there's something wrong with someone, I'm next in line. Because we're all so good, there's only a tiny difference between us. We've all got a chance of a gold."

Overall, Britain's medal prospects in cycling are excellent; probably on a par with sailing and rowing. He nods. "Chris will be one of the favourites, and Nicole Cooke is awesome. She's got the road, in which she'll be hot favourite, the individual time- trial and she may do a track event. David Millar would have been a favourite, too."

A mention of the banned Millar reminded me that another legacy of arriving late to meet Queally was that it had provided the opportunity to hear some trenchant observations on Radio 5 Live from Dick Pound, the head of the World Anti-Doping Agency. Pound concluded that drug-taking in cycling is "endemic", and he has subsequently opined that as "the most drug-ridden Olympic sport", it needs to be policed by independent drug-testers.

Though drug-taking in the sport most notoriously concerns Le Tour, there is no doubt it taints the entire bicycling brotherhood. "It's not good," agrees Queally. "It's guilt by association, to a degree. Fortunately, the road scene is totally separate from the track scene. David's a multi-millionaire. I make £20,000 a year from Lottery funding. There just isn't the same incentive to do it for us."

However, as Queally accepts, track cyclists have been found guilty as well. For him, there is only one response. "If you test positive for a steroid, EPO, human growth hormone, anything like that, you should get banned for life. No second chance. You shouldn't get two years, and then come back."

Queally, who was a university research technician in biological sciences before "stumbling across cycling" when he actually intended to concentrate on the triathlon, had a near-fatal accident in 1997, when an 18in splinter pierced his back and his chest when he fell during a race at the Meadowbank Velodrome. It has not deterred him. Such a two-wheel fanatic is he that Queally even goes cycling on his holidays.

As the pressure intensifies, he knows that the next month in Athens will be anything but a vacation.