Sir Chris Hoy: Pain spurs on man with the one-track mind
He has been around the block many times but triple gold medallist is already gearing up for London 2012. Alasdair Fotheringham speaks to... Sir Chris Hoy
Sunday 08 February 2009
If ever a top athlete was tempted to lose focus, becoming Britain's most successful Olympian for a century, Scotland's most successful Olympian ever and BBC Sports Personality of the Year, with a knighthood to boot, would sound like the ideal formula.
Not so, though, for Sir Chris Hoy.
"A lot of people ask me what the challenges are after everything I've won," the triple gold-medallist says as he nears completion of a training camp in Perth, Western Australia. "But I enjoy the problem-solving process that's behind it, what to do and how to structure it. It keeps me going."
Hoy's decision to go for a month-long training camp on the other side of the planet is, he concedes, an attempt to put distance between himself and Beijing. Or rather, what came after Beijing. "Perth's definitely a place where you can focus 100 per cent on training, because there's nothing but training and resting to do. It's very different from the UK, where there are always distractions.
"To be honest, life after the Olympics was a whole lot of fun but I missed the cycling. Starting here with three or four weeks' great training is ideal."
When he says "starting", he means getting ready for the 2012 Olympics. "The World Championships [in March] and other races are goals and it would be nice to be successful, but it's all about London from here on in. When I stepped up in Beijing not many people remembered the gold medals from the Worlds, and it'll be the same in 2012."
Four years after China, one thing will be different, though. Hoy will be 36, an age at which many cyclists are thinking about retirement. He admits age is a "factor", but says: "The biggest thing is my motivation, which is still in place. Stepping up day after day and coming back to those tasks with real enthusiasm. It's all about enjoyment and planning in as much detail as possible, every little area. Squeezing out that extra half per cent."
It turns out Hoy is using the fact that he is the "wrong side" of 30 as yet another motivator, one of hundreds you suspect he has rolling round his mind as he rolls round the velodrome for the umpteenth time. "There is less pressure because of what you've achieved, but you keep going because you know it's an opportunity you won't have again, these are the last few years you can do it. Look at [fellow team sprinter and gold medallist] Jamie Staff, he's 35 and still raisingthe bar to a whole new level."
Hoy doesn't really do role models, but he admits the athletes he most admires are those who have achieved success over a long period of time, such as Sir Steve Redgrave and Roger Federer – "The way Federer handles himself is amazing".
Hoy's fellow athletes in British cycling know the old cliché about him "living for the sport" has a deafening ring of truth. "Chris is full of surprises,"says Bradley Wiggins, a double gold medallist in the individual and team pursuit in Beijing, "but ultimately training hard is what he's driven by. He'll always go back to that and keep wanting to repeat that as long as he can. He'll slot back in like he always did, because he just loves it."
Wiggins was sitting on a deckchair in a car park in the middle of Doha, waiting for the start of the Tour of Qatar, but if the Londoner has opted to compete almost entirely on the road in 2009, he understands Hoy's insistence on sticking with the track. "That's why he took himself off to Australia," Wiggins says. "He's totally driven by what he does. He relishes it.
"He might not be on top form at the Worlds but come London he'll be the man to beat. Jason [Kenny, gold medallist] will be stomping but Chris will be setting out to do it all over again. The medals [he has already got] are immaterial. It's the same for me and London, you just want to feel that joy of standing on the podium again."
Wiggins also agrees with Hoy that there are no stars in the British team, just a lot of dedication. "A lot of the guys there are like it, Jason Kenny's incredibly mature and driven for his age, made a lot of sacrifices. Paul Manning, too. Look at [Olympic sprint gold medallist] Vicky Pendleton, she's never spent more than two weeks off the bike in her entire career. It's across the board."
So for all that the tiny sticker on his bike has now been changed from Chris Hoy to "Sir Chris Hoy", the man riding it has changed very little. After all, it should not be forgotten that Hoy was a gold medallist prior to Beijing, after taking the now-defunct kilo event in Athens. When it comes to getting back to basics, he has already been round the block more than once.
"You never get the chance to lose perspective with British cycling," he says. "You're not a star, you're one of a number of other athletes, all of whom are fighting to get the chance to be where you are now and knock you off your perch. The younger guys want to come through and beat you. You're not allowed to become complacent."
It is typical of how seriously Hoy takes those challenges when he says one of his current worries is qualifying for the team sprint at the World Championships. But given the way the British sprint trio – Hoy, Staff and Kenny – trounced the field in Beijing, surely there is no need for him to worry that he might not be picked?
"We have trials," he says, sounding genuinely worried. "Though I can't expect to be at the same level as I was at Beijing, the team sprint in Poland remains a specific target. The training's gone well, so well in fact there was only one day which didn't work out as expected. That's pretty amazing, considering I was getting steadily more and more tired."
If there is any chance of acquiring new techniques, Hoy is sure to find them. And fast. "He's a real quick learner," says Theo Bos, the Dutch former world sprint champion. "I remember when we were racing together in Japan in the keirins [the mass dash for the line which earned Hoy another gold in Beijing]. Once I told Chris that he kept too rigid a position in his upper arms and, after thanking me, he changed it in the next race, beating me. After that, I saidto myself I would never tell him anything he could benefit from!"
Hoy's ability to handle a steep learning curve is exemplified by his performances in the individual sprint. "When I started it, it wasn't something I took so seriously, it was more as a way of having a back-up event just in case there was a dead heat with somebody else in the trials.
"That way I'd be sure that I could get selected, it was an extra string to my bow. But in many ways it's been Jan [van Eijden] and Iain [Dyer, the team sprint coaches] who've broken it all down into very simple components and shown me what I can do with the individual sprint." The consequence: a gold medal in Beijing, and perhaps another in London.
"You work on your strengths and weaknesses, there are so many different issues, like the acceleration, where, for example, Jason [Kenny] is stronger than me. But my top-end speed is better than his, so that's a strength. It's a question of getting the balance exactly right."
Clearly a lot if not all of the components for success are already in place for Hoy, including that openness to new ideas, new disciplines. But one thing that Hoy will never escape and which could affect his focus in the latter part of his career is the sheer degree of pain and agony his body has to go through to race at such a high level.
Hoy's training can involve riding so hard that he sometimes finishes curled up in the foetal position. If you know that it is going to hurt that much, it must be tempting just to call it a day? "We don't do that training exercise too often, and events which I no longer do, like the kilo, were worse," Hoy says. "And track cycling – if you don't crash badly – is a low-risk injury sport. But as [the Great Britain coach] Shane Sutton says, 'we are in the business of pain'."
"I don't enjoy it but I know that I have got to live with [myself] if I'm not going to give it 100 per cent. The key thing is getting to the start line and knowing that I couldn't have done any more, that I didn't back off. You accept the pain, because if you didn't there would always be that element of doubt."
His desire to always try to find that extra "half per cent", the fact that he conquers any element of doubt, and his meticulous search for the tiniest details to improve: all these things sum up Hoy.
And they are perhaps what ultimately give him the edge, and what help him blaze a path from a lonely velodrome in Australia early in 2009 to the bright lights of London in 2012. To say that Hoy has a one-trackmind does his incredible dedication hardly any justice at all.
Life and times
Name: Sir Christopher Andrew Hoy.
Born: 23 March 1976, Edinburgh.
Nickname: The Real McHoy.
Height: 6ft 1in.
Weight: 14st 7lb.
fascinating facts: Inspired to cycle aged six by 1982 film 'ET: The Extra-Terrestrial'. Raced BMX from ages 7 to 14 and was ranked second in Britain. Rowed for Scottish juniors, finishing second in 1993 British Championship in coxless pairs. Also played rugby at school.
Personal life: Lives in Salford (close to a velodrome) with his girlfriend Sarra Kemp, a 28-year-old lawyer from Edinburgh.
Beijing: At last year's Olympics, Hoy became the first Briton to win three gold medals in a single Games since Henry Taylor in 1908.
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