Best of Velo No. 9: The gentleman
Editor’s note: As we ring out 2013, we look at 13 of our favorite stories of the year. Richard Moore’s examination of Sir Chris Hoy originally appeared in the May 2013 issue of Velo magazine, our special Personalities Issue.
It was the evening of the 2012 Olympic Games opening ceremony in London and two old friends were reunited. National squad teammates since 1997, they had rarely seen each other, so they took the opportunity to dine together.
Sir Chris Hoy and Bradley Wiggins sat in the dining hall of the athletes’ village. In an hour, they would step into the Olympic Stadium, each to fulfill an important job, Hoy as British team flag bearer, and Wiggins to ring the bell to get the Games under way. But before any of that, they were approached by another athlete neither of them knew.
“Photo?” he asked. Wiggins and Hoy both turned, but the athlete shuffled up to Wiggins, and handed the camera to Hoy. Hoy said nothing, but dutifully took the picture and handed the camera back with a smile.
Hoy would not be the first athlete to be fazed in such a way, or to suffer a dent to his ego, despite being a more decorated Olympic athlete than Wiggins, whose fame had skyrocketed after his Tour de France win just five days earlier.
Hoy would go on to win two gold medals in London, taking his total to six and edging past Sir Steve Redgrave, the rower who could previously claim the title of Great Britain’s greatest Olympian.
Yet the medal tally doesn’t fully explain Hoy’s appeal or his status as British sporting royalty. He has something else. In London’s cauldron-like velodrome, this was apparent whenever he was introduced and the atmosphere, already charged, crackled with renewed intensity.
Perhaps it owes something to his imposing physique: he has the bulk of a heavyweight boxer, with the sculpted muscles of a bodybuilder. The knighthood probably helps, too. There aren’t many knights of the velodrome.
But there is something else to Hoy. He has an everyman charm and humility, and is so unerringly polite that he can resemble a throwback to a different time, when the “gentleman-athlete” prevailed. That gracious hero is indelibly associated with the amateur era, referring to an ethos rooted in the Olympic ideals of sportsmanship and fair play, and embodied through the years in athletes such as Harold Abrahams, Roger Bannister, Sebastian Coe — and now Hoy.
Each is British; if the notion of the gentleman-athlete has geographical roots, they would surely be located in the land of hope and glory. And yet the paradox with Hoy is that although he exudes decency, he also possesses a ferocious hunger and burning desire to win.
It was evident in London in the event that gave him his sixth Olympic gold medal, the keirin. Victory seemed to be slipping away on the last lap as he held the inside line, and the German Max Levy attacked over the top. Levy almost gained a bike length and began to bear down on the back straight, only for Hoy to dig deeper, to somehow find an extra gear, and kick back.
They were head-to-head as they entered the final bend but Hoy broke Levy — there can be no other word. It seemed less a victory than a stubborn refusal to allow defeat, the kind of performance you imagine can only be summoned by an athlete’s inner demons and fueled by rage.
Hoy is a lion on the track, and a pussycat off it. His rivals regard him with affection and something close to reverence. Simon van Velthooven, the New Zealander and Olympic bronze medalist in the keirin, spoke of the “honor of being on the same track as Sir Chris.”
“Everyone asks me who my sporting hero is,” says Victoria Pendleton, the British sprinter and double Olympic champion. “They think I’ll choose someone from history, but I say: ‘It’s Chris Hoy.’”
For Dave Brailsford, the British Cycling performance director, Hoy “does genuinely embody those Olympic values of fair play and working hard. He is the leader of the pack. Whenever there’s a wobble in our team, people stop and you can see all the heads look at Chris. Like a pack of wolves, when something spooks them, they all stop and turn and look at the leader — Chris Hoy.”
Steve Peters, the British team psychiatrist who likes to compare all his athletes to dogs, describes Hoy as a German shepherd: “Intelligent. Will work for himself and for you; a team player. The perfect athlete.”
Speak to any of the backroom staff at the National Cycling Centre in Manchester, where 36-year-old Hoy has been a daily visitor for almost 15 years, and they all say the same: “Lovely boy. Has time for everyone.”
He had a comfortable middle class upbringing in the Scottish capital, Edinburgh, and attended one of the city’s private schools, where he excelled in different sports — rugby, rowing, and cycling. Perhaps he didn’t have the struggle some athletes endure, but he has hardly been handed his successes.
When Hoy was starting out, there was no funding and little support for track cycling in a country that then UCI president, Hein Verbruggen, described as “a black spot in the international cycling market.”
That was 1996, when Hoy was 20 and he and his fellow Scottish sprinter, Craig MacLean, were groping in the dark, experimenting with wacky training techniques: filling the tubes of their bikes with lead, sprinting with their brakes tightened on a local stretch of road, and generally improvising whenever their local track, the outdoor Meadowbank Velodrome, was closed because of rain. And it rains a lot in Edinburgh.
“Some of the training we did was absolute nonsense,” Hoy said. “We trained very hard, but a lot of it was counterproductive.”
When the National Lottery began funding the British cycling team in 1997, Hoy and MacLean were among the first recipients, along with Wiggins. Yet while Wiggins was the golden boy, with most of the funding directed towards the team pursuiters, Hoy and MacLean had to plow their own furrow for a few more years.
They had the funding, but not the support, though this began to slowly change after the Sydney Olympics, where they won silver in the team sprint. Eight years later, when Hoy scored the grand slam at the Beijing Games — sprint, team sprint, and keirin gold — it was his crowning achievement, one that many thought he couldn’t repeat.
The doubters included Shane Sutton, the British head coach, who said, “If Chris Hoy makes it to the London Olympics, we won’t have been doing our jobs properly.”
Hoy almost didn’t. Eight weeks before London, at a training camp in Cottbus, Germany, he suffered a serious back injury. He knew he needed to return home to Manchester, so he arranged a flight. But after hobbling to the check-in desk at Frankfurt airport he realized that he had booked for the wrong day. So he flew instead to Glasgow, where his wife, Sarra, met him and drove the four hours home to Manchester.
The same evening, he took a call from his father, David. He had been ready to offload his problems, but then his dad hit him with his own: he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer.
“It hits you like a sledgehammer,” Hoy said. He called the British Cycling doctor, Richard Freeman. “I broke down and couldn’t speak. I just couldn’t get the words out and had to hang up.”
Later, his father’s diagnosis was more encouraging, but Hoy didn’t know that when, the next morning, he was called into a meeting with Sutton and Brailsford. With his customary directness, Sutton told him: “We’re going with Jason [Kenny] in the sprint and the way things stand right now we’ll put him in the keirin, too. Because you’re going shit. And your head’s in the bucket.”
Hoy didn’t mention his father. He left the meeting, found Kenny, tapped him on the shoulder, and said, “Well done, mate, you deserve it.” But he was devastated; he considered pulling out of the team, and going back to Edinburgh to be with his father. He discussed it with Sarra, and they agreed. “It was my final Olympics. Everything in these last few weeks would be geared towards performance.” He dug his heels in, trained hard, went to bed early, didn’t even watch television, and ate only the superfood meals that Sarra prepared for him.
And his form returned. In the end, Sutton and Brailsford had no choice but to pick him for the keirin. Watch that last lap again, as Levy, with momentum and speed behind him, bears down on Hoy, and something rockets him into the final bend, where Hoy wins the battle of wills and Levy breaks.
Afterward, as he circles the track cooling down and accepting the applause of the crowd, the British support staff form a guard of honor, a gesture not afforded any other rider. And on the podium, the gentleman-athlete cried.
What had driven the mild-mannered lion of the track to that victory seemed, at the time, a mystery. But now, perhaps, we know.