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Chris Hoy: Knight rider

Mark Bailey
27 Jul 2016

Track cycling legend Sir Chris Hoy tells Cyclist of his renewed passion for road cycling and Britain’s medal hopes for Rio 2016.

One day last year Sarra Hoy wandered into the garage of her Cheshire home and found her husband lying in a crumpled heap on the floor. As the wife of the most successful British Olympic athlete in history, the 34-year-old lawyer knew better than to react with panic or horror. Instead, she greeted this domestic spectacle with the weary familiarity of a wife who has just come home to find her husband clutching a hammer and standing guiltily next to a broken washing machine.   

‘I had been doing a turbo session in my garage,’ confesses Sir Chris, 40, relaxing in the cosy Merlin pub in Alderley Edge, not far from his home. ‘When my wife came in, I was just lying on the floor.’

The rain lashing against the window behind him adds sinister portent to his story, but he looks both amused and abashed at revealing the truth. ‘I had tried to do a similar effort to the old lactate sessions I used to do as an athlete and I pushed myself too hard. It was horrible. My wife just looked at me and said, “What have you done?” I said, “I can’t speak!”’

Since retiring from track cycling in 2013, after a career that yielded six Olympic gold medals, 11 track world titles and a knighthood, Hoy is finally able to associate cycling with pleasure again rather than pain. But he can’t resist the occasional foray back into the delicious darkness of a savage turbo session or heavy squat workout. 

‘Those lactate sessions were the worst,’ he recalls. ‘I’d be in a lab on a turbo trainer and I’d do four 30-second efforts at 100% effort. It sounds so innocuous but the difference between 99% and 100% is huge. You can finish at 99% and you’ll be hurting but if you push a tiny bit more – and that’s the bit that makes the difference to your training – your legs just grind to a halt. It’s like your engine is seizing up. My coach would unclip my feet and pull my leg over the saddle so I could just slide off onto a mat and curl up in a ball.

‘The real problem is that the pain actually gets worse,’ he adds. ‘You have created massive acidosis in your muscles so there is a huge quantity of hydrogen ions and the pH in your blood changes. For 15 minutes you lie there thinking, “God, this is really bad. I’m going to die. It has never been this bad before.” And every time you think exactly the same thing. You have to lie to yourself by saying you’re not doing a second set. Then, without moving for 15 minutes, almost to the second, I would roll over and think, “OK, I think I can do a second set now.” During those sessions I have never felt more alive or so close to death.’

Old passions, new roads

Diabolical pain and exhilarating highs were the norm for Hoy during his gold-tinted career. The 6ft 1in, 92kg Scot could blast around a velodrome at 80kmh, crank out 2,500 watts of power, and unleash 700Nm of torque – higher than that of a Ferrari Enzo. Self-flagellating lactate sessions, track sprints and gym workouts (those 27-inch thighs could squat 240kg) were just part of his quotidian existence. No wonder, then, that after a lifetime dedicated to achieving perfection, retirement can pose a serious psychological challenge for many athletes. Bliss can bleed into boredom, and newfound freedom into fear. 

‘It’s weird because you go from being the best in the world at something to not being the best in the world, and you often define yourself by what you are good at,’ Hoy says. ‘All of a sudden you are the guy who used to be good at this. And it’s not like being a tennis player or a golfer where you are still better than 99% of the population. If you stop cycling, you won’t be as quick. That takes time getting used to. Even being physically fit is something you take for granted as a professional athlete. I mean, you’re knackered all the time, you get out of bed exhausted, and you grumble because your back and knees and legs are always sore. But underneath it you’re incredibly fit, then that all goes away.’

Clearly in Hoy’s case, it didn’t disappear for long. After pictures from a recent shirtless photo shoot – revealing a rock-hewn physique and full xylophone of abdominal muscles – were released online, Mark Cavendish tweeted, ‘When I grow up, I want to be Chris Hoy.’ 

‘You have a period after retiring when you don’t even look at a bike, and don’t go to the gym,’ Hoy admits. ‘But it didn’t take me long before I wanted to get back – not because I wanted to be the best in the world, but just to feel fit again, and just because I missed riding my bike.’

Hoy still thrashes himself in the gym and on the bike but he no longer has anything to prove. ‘There are times when I do a hard ride of two to three hours in the hills or I can think, “I don’t fancy it today,” and just go for a gentle ride and stop off at a cafe. I enjoy going hard and getting my lungs and legs burning, but the difference now is that I can choose if I want to do it.’

Contrary to popular perception, track cyclists regularly hit the road in training so Hoy is no newcomer to the joys of road cycling. ‘Mostly I would do recovery rides,’ he says. ‘It was more relaxing and if you did all your recovery on a stationary bike, as a track cyclist you would only ever associate your bike with pain. The other type of harder road ride was to improve my aerobic capacity. I’d occasionally do a big aerobic block, maybe 10 days in Mallorca. If you were first to the top of Sa Calobra, you would get bragging rights. In my early years, when I competed in the kilo, I’d do two-hour time-trials on camps in Australia. I was going at 25mph, which wasn’t bad for a fat sprinter.’

Brand Hoy

Since retiring, Hoy has galvanised himself against any sense of stagnation with a range of personal projects, including launching his own Hoy bike brand with Evans Cycles; the Hoy 100 sportive in the Pennines; and a clothing collaboration with Vulpine. He now has a young son, Callum, to look after, and has even tried his hand at
a new career in motorsport. Having won the LMP3 class of the European Le Mans Series last year with teammate Charlie Robertson, this June he competed in the iconic 24 Hours of Le Mans race, describing the experience as ‘amazing’ after his team finished an impressive 17th. 

‘You have to find out who you are – without getting too philosophical about it – and start deciding what you want to do with your life,’ Hoy says. ‘You are so used to focusing on doing one thing to the nth degree for so long, so it’s then: what do I do now?’

Hoy says his driving project is just a hobby that has grown legs – ‘I love track days, I love driving cars and I love speed,’ he explains – but his bike brand was something he’d been planning since his time as an athlete.

Following the Sa Calobra road bike, Shizuoka city bike and Fiorenzuola track bike, Hoy’s latest offering is the Alto Irpavi road bike, named after the outdoor track in La Paz, Bolivia, where he attempted the kilo world record in 2007. It’s the first Hoy bike to come equipped with disc brakes.

‘For me, as a 90-kilo rider, the difference with disc brakes is massive,’ he says. ‘On descents it gives me the confidence to carry some speed into corners whereas carbon rims and calliper brakes in the wet were just terrifying. The modulation of disc brakes is incredible so you can adapt your braking much more easily. Not long ago we all thought: what’s wrong with mechanical shifters? Now electric gears are normal. In a few years we will probably look back and think callipers seem archaic.’

Hoy is heavily involved in developing new products, visiting the bike-manufacturing facilities in Taiwan and personally testing his cycling clothing range. ‘There is nothing better than seeing someone out in your kit or on one of your bikes,’ he says. ‘I’ve had some real backhanded compliments on Twitter. One guy said, “I’ve never been a fan of Chris Hoy but I just bought one of his bikes because it’s really good.” There’s a compliment in there somewhere.’

Life on Tour

As a fan of cycling history and culture, Hoy relishes the drama of the Tour de France each summer, ogling new
kit and revelling in the daily soap opera. He’s proud to see what Team Sky have achieved and is frustrated by
the negativity buzzing around the team. 

‘Team Sky have taken a lot of stick and you have got to question why. Sky publicly stated they wanted to do it clean, that there are ways of getting advantages without doing drugs. They’ve shown that you can do it drug-free but they face scrutiny whereas other teams employ people who have just come out of a doping ban, or give coaching positions to riders who were heavily involved in drugs in previous years.

‘Sky are improving the image of the sport and showing young riders: “Look, you can do it clean.” And that was always the thing that gave me hope. I remember seeing Jason Queally winning a gold medal [in the 2000 Sydney Olympics]. I thought, “My own teammate, who I know is clean, is Olympic champion. Maybe I can do that too.”’

Hoy believes he was privileged to have learned his trade within the clean culture of British Cycling, which meant he never had to endure the same pressures as former road cyclists. ‘I’ve become Olympic champion six times and I’ve never taken a performance-enhancing drug in my life, but I was lucky in that I never even had the choice. I never had pressure and I never had a person come to me saying, “You should do this.”

‘If you are a teenage kid and are thrown into a sport or an environment where it is the norm, who knows? People say they have great strength of character but you can only talk from your experiences.’

Hoy says the suspicion endured by Sir Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome is disappointing, and quite understands their irritation. ‘That frustration – when riders snap, like when Brad was going through those daily accusations
[in 2012] – that frustration is not with the journalists but with the guys who have cheated in the past, the guys who have taken drugs and tarnished their sport.’

He says he would be delighted if Mark Cavendish goes on to take Eddy Merckx’s record of 34 stage wins at the Tour de France. ‘Everybody accepts Mark is the greatest sprinter of his generation. What he is now realising – and what happens when you get older – is that you can’t just step on the bike and win on an average day. He has to be at his best to beat the Kittels and whoever else, but when he’s at his best he can take anybody. If you saw Cav when he was 16 and somebody said he would one day be challenging Merckx’s record, you’d think they were crazy.’

Road to Rio

With the Rio 2016 Olympics around the corner, the British track cycling squad – minus Hoy for the first time since 1996 – finds itself in a delicate position. The team failed to win any golds at the 2015 World Championships in Paris, but when the Worlds came to London one year later, they topped the table with nine medals, including five golds.

Since then, British Cycling has had a bit of a rough ride, with accusations of bullying and the resignation of technical director Shane Sutton. At the time of our interview the GB Olympic track team had yet to be decided, so does Hoy believe British fans can anticipate another glorious medal haul? 

‘I think the endurance team will be a force to be reckoned with – both the men’s and the women’s,’ he
says. ‘I think Laura Trott will be the one to beat in the omnium. Those riders have medal chances. In the sprint, Jason [Kenny] has been Olympic champion and can be again. And in the team sprint – with Callum Skinner or Matt Crampton – we will have a chance. It’s tough to comment on the women’s medals. Becky James has been world champion but was out injured for six months.’

Hoy says younger athletes often drop in to see him for informal advice and he has encouraging words for any athletes currently still struggling for form. ‘The men’s team sprint is no worse off than four years ago and we went
on to win gold,’ he says. ‘We went from having not won a single medal at the Worlds [in April 2012] to winning with a world record at the Olympic Games [in August 2012]. People forget that.’ 

Reminiscing about his time with British Cycling, Hoy is proud of the unique atmosphere created within the camp. ‘Me and Jason [Queally] would wake up at a World Championships, knowing we would be racing each other, and the conversation would go: “Did you sleep well?” “Yeah, really well. You?” “Oh yeah, great. How are the legs?” “Ah, really good.” Even though we both knew we were knackered, we’d be joking all the time. The team was very good at keeping the racing on the track and then when you crossed back over you were friends again.’

That’s not to say British cyclists wouldn’t resort to dirty tricks. ‘Jason had strong willpower and I was weak, so on training camps he used to hide biscuits and cakes at eye-height in cupboards, then open the packet so they would stare at me. We were teammates but also rivals and he knew if I had one biscuit I’d eat the whole packet.’

You sense it will be hard for Hoy to be a spectator this August. So many memories and mates will spring to mind. ‘I will miss it massively,’ he says. ‘That feeling before the start when you sense the energy in the crowd and there are five minutes to go, and the riders are all finishing their warm-up and the officials are getting ready...’ 

The rain is still battering against the pub window but for a moment you sense Hoy is back in the velodrome, smelling the pinewood of the track, awaiting the buzzer. 

‘When winning riders cross the line you can see on their faces the realisation of what they have achieved. That’s one thing you can’t replace. You will never get that back. All I can do is watch videos of it or look at pictures or remember it. But some people never get that feeling. I was lucky to experience it again and again.’

Hoy retired a legend, an icon and an inspiration, but in the years to come, whether he’s racing cars, designing bikes or advising young British riders, you sense he has plenty more contributions to make.

‘I’ve had an amazing experience and it’s so cool to have achieved something you can still feel a part of,’ he reflects. ‘Until I’m an old man, until the day I die, I will be inherently linked with the Olympic Games and
I can always take pride in that. No matter what direction my life takes in the next 40 to 50 years, my name will be there next to a little date in the history books – and it will be there forever.’

Any young British cyclist heading to Rio could not wish for a more powerful image on which to ruminate.  

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