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A racer’s view: How I won the Track Champions League, and what it means to me

Often, the best laid plans go awry. This happened to me and others in London. Getting a win alongside world champions and Olympic medalists brought a groundswell of emotions.

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Gavin Hoover is an American Tokyo Olympian who won the UCI’s new Track Champions League series, which had rounds in Mallorca, Lithuania, and London. He has been sharing his experiences here in A Racer’s View.

I’ll be honest, when I pitched the idea of showcasing my time at The Track Champions League here on VeloNews, what I had in mind was mainly photos. They’re something I enjoy and it’s a nice distraction from racing to be able to pause and snap a photo. But the best laid plans still go awry — and walking into the London Velodrome for the final round of Champions League I knew I wouldn’t be taking a single photo.

Previously from A Racer’s View:

Throughout the series I’d been shockingly consistent, only missing the top five once and I was sitting comfortably in third on the overall heading into two nights of racing in London. But the first night in London I’d finally captured the elusive win, picking up the elimination race and enjoying a few laps as the only person left on the track in front of a sold-out crowd.

Finally getting to punch the air and let out a scream as the crowd rose to their feet was a feeling I’ve been chasing for so long and I soaked it in. I savored the noise — and then quickly trying to catch my breath before being interviewed by Sir Chris Hoy, up there as one of my biggest childhood heroes.

With the win, I’d vaulted myself into second, just a few points behind Sebastian Mora, and I could feel the momentum swinging in my direction.

The next day, I walked to the track on Saturday morning, skipping the shuttle in favor of fifteen minutes alone to try and compose my thoughts and breathe a little. I was planning to go in and do a light spin to flush out the previous night, hopefully only spending a little over an hour at the track before I was able to return to the hotel and relax until the evening.

Everyone else had different plans and as soon as I walked in the door various media teams descended. I did an interview in the atrium, then did an interview standing on the track, then someone grabbed me and we did an interview in one of the makeshift studios. I finally got on the rollers and more cameras descended, a boom mic hovering precariously close to my head while the production crew asked me question after question about my chances of taking the overall win.

I’d love to say it wasn’t stressful, that I’d been there before and it was all normal, but it really wasn’t and I regretted not paying more attention to the media training I’d done before the Olympics.

USA’s Gavin Hoover (third from left) in the elimination race. (Photo: John Walton/PA Images via Getty Images)

The men’s endurance category was the only category where there was still potential for the lead to change hands on the last day, and it was clear that everyone wanted to capture that excitement in case it did happen.

The production value of The Champions League increased round after round and the final night was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in track cycling. Especially in London where the crowd is passionate about track cycling the atmosphere was electric, the sheer noise of that many people cheering at the start of the racing was enough to raise everyone’s heart rate. I’d based my entire year around the Olympics and while that had been special, I hadn’t realized how much racing in front of a crowd would change the energy and bring me up.

As the clock counted down before our first scratch race, I heard my name echoing from the stands. Just five points separated me and Mora, and people were picking sides. I started from the first spot on the bottom of the track and stood on the pedals through the first neutral lap, trying to get the big gear on my bike up to speed and rolling fast enough to prevent anyone else hitting out over the top from the gun.

I swung up the track and looked behind me — Mora was glued to my wheel. It was clear he’d be there the whole night, tracking up and down with me instead of taking his turn in the wind.

Racing without pressure was the biggest thing I wanted out of Champion’s League, to just enjoy racing my bike after the stress and pressure of the Olympic build. Looking back at Mora, who was clearly only thinking about the overall, I decided I didn’t care. I was here to race my bike and I’d race this one to try and win, regardless of what it meant for the overall. I did, and the Spaniard stuck to my rear wheel.

Winning makes me feel a few things — including a big sense of relief. (Photo: Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

The short scratch race is almost more of a tactical game than it is physical. There’s so little time to make a plan and every decision is happening while laps tick past at a rapid 60kph+. The whole game is trying to be in position when the speed goes on with four or five laps to go. After that, the effort to move out and around is simply not possible.

I picked my line and went for it, dipping low and cutting under a few riders before finding a hole to step out and over the top. Going through the line with one to go, I heard the sickening crunch of carbon snapping behind me, but I kept trying to fight my way farther forward. Rolling around afterwards I saw the replay on the big screen. Trying to follow my wheel through the gap, Mora collided with two other riders and caused a crash, relegating him to the back of the group. I was suddenly leading The Champions League with one race remaining.

My plan of not caring, of taking each race individually, was gone. I wanted to win the overall and with a lead in the points, I knew all I had to do was make sure I beat Mora in the final elimination race. The best way to do that was still to ride the best race I could to win, but maybe try and pay extra attention to where he was.

It was chaotic from the start, everyone knew this was the end, their last chance to get something from the series and put on a show. I found myself in the swirl, constantly pushing forward to try and avoid elimination at the back every other lap. As the field whittled down, Mora was still there, riding hard to give himself one last chance to save the overall lead.

When we got down to the final five riders, I saw my chance, taking the front and pinning him behind me while the remaining riders swept over the top. He was out, and it didn’t matter that I went out immediately after him, I’d done enough to win The Champions League.

The Champions League had two competitions — endurance and sprint — for men and women. Harrie Lavreysen, Katie Archibald, and Emma Hinze had won their respective series.

Katie Archibald of United Kingdom, Harrie Lavreysen of Netherlands, Emma Hinze of Germany and Gavin Hoover of United States celebrate on the podium with their winners trophies at the UCI Track Champions League. (Photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images)

Standing in the Champions Gate waiting to go on stage to receive our trophies, Lavreysen looked at me. “First time?” he asked with a smile. I couldn’t help but laugh. Standing there with him, Archibald and Hinze, I was the only winner who wasn’t also a world champion or Olympic medalist. We walked out as fireworks erupted behind us and I hefted the solid metal replica of the track into the air, already wondering how on earth I was going to get it home. Taking cues from the other, far more experienced three, I tried to take in the wall of photographers and cameras in front of me, a giant smile taking up more and more of my face as I tried to appreciate the moment.

It’s not easy to describe what winning feels like. I’ve never had a win that feels as good as a loss feels bad. It’s usually more a relief than anything, a brief respite from thinking about the future before you get back to planning, the goal posts retreating forever farther into the distance. This felt different and I sat for a long time just holding the trophy, enjoying a beer with the two New Zealand riders that someone graciously supplied, and letting the emotion wash over me.

The hardest part of sport is not losing but failing to actualize the work and the process that you’ve put into trying to win. It’s a rejection of a life philosophy when you put your personhood into something and it doesn’t work, it fundamentally challenges how you go through the world.

In theory, over time, with each failure you refine that philosophy and adapt it until you figure out what works. But it isn’t always easy to tell if you’re moving in the right direction; sometimes it’s hard to tell which way is up.

I’ve believed, and for a long time I’ve asked other people to believe, that I can be good at this sport. I’ve shown markers of that but the one big win has always been just out of reach. I’ve functioned on faith that the things I’m doing will all align at some point down the road. So while winning is amazing, and the payout from Champions League doesn’t hurt either, self actualizing and seeing all the pieces I’ve laid over the last five years click into place was a deeply gratifying moment, if for no other reason than to convince myself I’m not that crazy.

I’ve deeply enjoyed doing this series for VeloNews and I’d like to say thank you to them for giving me the platform to express myself off the bike and hopefully show everyone how cool track cycling is. For now it’s time for a rest, and while my future is still a bit ambiguous, I’m very excited by what’s to come.