IT USUALLY takes a bit of time, distance and perspective to assess where an athlete ranks in the pantheon. Whether they are good or great, the best of their generation or, overused though the word may be, a legend.
That isn’t the case with Sir Chris Hoy. London 2012 was not the icing on the cake. It wasn’t even the cherry. It was the glaze on the cherry on the icing on the cake. It must be beyond debate: he retires a legend.
Yet he never saw himself in such a light -- and still doesn’t. Yesterday, when asked if he considered himself Britain’s greatest Olympian, he shook his head. “It’s subjective, but in my opinion I think Sir Steve [Redgrave, with five golds] is the greatest,” said Hoy. “To keep going for five consecutive Games and be at the top, to me that is a far greater achievement than winning multiple medals at one Games.”
He recalled the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne, where Gavin Hastings and Allan Wells acted as mentors to the Scottish team. “They came to the athletes’ village and met the team. It was a quick chat with each athlete, a handshake, and they said: ‘You’re looking good, good luck.’ But you’d walk away thinking: ‘Wow, that’s Gavin Hastings! He came to say good luck to me!’”
It would be difficult to imagine other sporting greats – Usain Bolt? Tiger Woods? – saying such a thing without it coming across as false modesty. But there is nothing fake about Hoy’s humility.
Then again, and although it might sound crazy to say it of Britain’s greatest-ever Olympian, perhaps the best thing that ever happened to him was that he was not blessed with great talent. He was no child prodigy or teenage phenomenon. He was good, not great, but what he did have was a work ethic and a capacity for improvement – or potential.
This ties in, funnily enough, with the philosophy at British Cycling. When the coaches there are assessing teenagers they don’t look for talent. They’re not really interested in “talent”. They look for who has the right attitude and the greatest margin for improvement; they look for potential.
If such a system had been in place when he was a youngster, they would have liked what they saw in Hoy. As a BMX racer, from the age of seven, he was always chasing one or two faster, stronger kids. And he worked out early that the more he practised, the closer he got to them. As a mountain biker, in his early teens, he wasn’t chasing one or two: he was chasing the whole field. His father, David, with perhaps a hint of exaggeration, remembers him finishing hours down: “Chris kept thinking: ‘I need to work harder. I’ve stepped up to a different sport so I need to learn.’ If he finished five hours down one week then he’d try to finish four hours down the next!”
As a road racer, in his later teens, he was a decent sprinter – a bulkier version of Mark Cavendish. When he then took up track cycling, gravitating towards the sprint events, he found himself in the shadow of the slightly older Craig MacLean. Hoy has described MacLean as a pioneer, whose experimental training techniques – filling his bike with lead; he and Hoy sprinting with their brakes on on the old Turnhouse road – Hoy was eager to copy.
But there is a common theme running through all the stories of Hoy in his various incarnations: the BMXer, the mountain biker, the road racer and the track cyclist – even the six-time Olympic gold medallist.
The tale told about the nine-year-old Hoy by George Swanson, who ran the Edinburgh-based Scotia BMX club, could equally describe the 37-year-old Hoy. “Chris’s reaction to defeats was interesting,” said Swanson, “because he was different to the others. If my son won, he was hyper. If he was beaten, he wouldn’t talk to anybody, especially not me, and he wouldn’t be in a mood to listen.
“But, if Chris was beaten he would have a discussion with his dad about why he was beaten: whether he’d made a mistake in the start gate, or Dave geared him wrongly, or he got the line wrong going into the corner. Whatever it was, there was always a rational conversation with his dad.”
As he announced his retirement in the president’s suite at Murrayfield Stadium yesterday, Hoy spoke of the excitement of producing his eponymous bike range, which launches in May. He said he felt once again like the kid with the saved-up pocket money, trawling the classified ads for a second-hand frame, then touring the bike shops to find the right components. Another new hobby, motor racing, also takes him back, he said: “I love it. It reminds me of my early days racing BMX.”
Perhaps that is the secret. Hoy never considered that he had made it. He always believed there was room for improvement, and that the only way to improve was hard work. Even as his body changed, and his thighs acquired their own celebrity, in his head Hoy remained the eight-year-old chasing the faster kids around a BMX track.