THE FINAL stage of Sir Chris Hoy’s cycling career was conducted in the same way as every other part of it. With his customary dignity, good humour and more than a touch of modesty.
With six Olympic golds medals, two Commonwealth golds and 11 world championship medals just the statistical highlights of a remarkable life in sport, the 37-year-old who is routinely described as Britain’s greatest Olympian could be forgiven for indulging in a little self-satisfaction. Instead, as he announced his retirement at Murrayfield, he exhibited his usual self-deprecation.
Even in his opening statement, an explanation of why he was retiring now, and not going on until next year’s Commonwealth Games, Hoy showed the selfless team spirit that has been a vital ingredient of his success. “I am officially announcing my retirement from international competition today,” he began. “It’s not a decision that I took lightly or easily, but I know it’s the right time.
“Nothing would give me more pleasure than to continue on for another year and to be there in Glasgow to represent Scotland. But I don’t want to be there just to make up the numbers – I want to be competitive.Being objective about it, I realise I got every last drop out in London, and I feel it would be better to stand aside and let a younger rider come through.”
Younger riders are already coming through, thanks in no small part to the influence that Hoy himself has had on his sport. But, no matter how competive that new generation may become, it is hard to see them coming close to emulating his success. For Hoy has made excellence seem almost routine. With him in the Great Britain team, we have had the luxury of going into Olympic Games expecting to see a Scot win gold. At times in the past, we could not even hope for such a thing.
In London last year, at the Beijing Games in 2008 and in Athens four years before that, Hoy competed and triumphed. There have been Olympics in the past when we hardly had successes to celebrate from any part of Britain, never mind from Scotland.
But, while he will be a desperately tough act to follow, he has helped ensure that those younger riders of whom he spoke have the facilities and the support network needed to give them the best chance of success. And he has inspired tens of thousands simply to take up cycling.
“I’ve been in the sport for 19 years at senior level, and it has changed out of all recognition throughout the UK,” he said. “It has gone from being a minority sport to one of our major sports in terms of success, and to be part of that journey has been a massive honour. If you’d said to me, ‘at the end of your career you’ll be instrumental in having an indoor velodrome in Scotland’, that would have been enough for my career.”
He and his wife, Sarra, have had the best part of a year since London to discuss whether he should go on to Glasgow, and he has kept fit enough to ensure that, if he had wanted to carry on, he would be in the best shape to do so. But, steadily, he realised what his decision was going to be, and not only Sarra, but also his family, team-mates, coaches and friends have all supported him in that decision.
“It wasn’t a specific day when I woke up and said, ‘that’s it’. It was like, I’m going to keep this option open. I just discussed it with my mum and dad a number of times. Before long it dawns on you that you have made your mind up – you’ve come to that decision without admitting it to yourself. There wasn’t a Eureka moment when I suddenly said, ‘that was it’. The dream was to be there next year. But there comes a time when you have to admit that you’ve emptied the tanks. I’ll miss the team and their banter and the routine. I like routine – I like turning up at the track and seeing the same guys. I’ll miss being part of a journey as well. When I think about where the team was and where cycling in general was when I started to where it is now, it’s been a hell of a ride to be part of.
“I’ll miss that more than anything. But the good thing is I’ll be staying in the sport so I’ll see these people anyway. I won’t miss the way you feel in the morning, particularly after gym sessions when you feel this incredible soreness where you can barely move. In later years I was blaming it on age, but really it was the same throughout my whole career and all athletes get it. And just the physical tiredness after training. It’s not the end of the day that’s bad, it’s the morning when you wake up and realise you’re still aching and you’ve got to get out of bed and do it all again. But it’s a small price to play for the highs that you get from working hard. And that’s why you win gold medals – the thousands of hours that no-one sees apart from your coach.
“The weird thing is I never enjoyed the pain in training, the actual moment when you were suffering. What I enjoyed was the moment you finished the session and realised you’d taken a step towards your goal.”
Hoy will be an ambassador for the Glasgow Games, and may become a mentor for the British team for Rio. He has also agreed to take what he described as a small advisory role on the board of the Scottish Rugby Union, and will continue to design and develop bikes for his own company. But, whatever he does, he is likely to be back on a bike before long, and in one capacity or another could be seen at some of cycling’s biggest events. “I did the Etape in 2006, which is essentially a mass-participation stage of the Tour de France,” he said when asked what the future might hold. “I’m not exactly a climber but I did enjoy it.
“It was a long day in the saddle, but these different challenges are great fun. Just something completely different from riding on the track. I’ve never done lands End to John O’Groat’s or anything on that scale. That’s me committed now,” he joked. “Just something different – that you can do for enjoyment but still has a phsyical challenge to it. I’m not going to be going cycling round the world like Mark Beaumont or doing anything crazy. I think it’s about doing it for enjoyment and for health and fitness.” Hoy has always kept in mind the relative insignificance of competitive sport, and that has been brought home to him in the past year.
Just before the Olympics last summer, his father, David, was diagnosed with prostate cancer and then, towards the end of the year, David’s brother, Derek, died of a brain tumour. “My uncle passed away in November and that hit the family really hard. It’s not like it just happens and you get on with it – it’s something that you carry for the rest of your life. It gives you perspective when things like that happen, and you realise that riding bikes in circles is great, but it’s not life or death.”
When Hoy was riding bikes in circles it certainly was great. His parents have been present at all of his major successes, with David invariably holding aloft a banner reading “Chris Hoy: The Real McHoy”. We may have seen the last of that banner, but it could just still play a role in the Hoy household.
“I’ll get Sarra to wave it for me in the house,” he said. “When I make a good cup of tea or something.”
SIX OF THE BEST
• 1km time-trial final, Olympic Games, Athens, 20 August, 2004
Hoy was last to race against the clock and had to watch as the Olympic record tumbled three times. But the Scot was able to handle the pressure to go quicker still to win his first Olympic gold.
• Sprint final, Track Cycling World Championships, Manchester, 28 March, 2008
The removal of the 1km time-trial from the Olympic programme forced Hoy to reinvent himself for sprint duels against an opponent, rather than the clock. Hoy proved the transformation was a success.
• Team spring final, Olympic Games, Beijing, 12 August, 2008
Consummate team-man Hoy combined with Jamie Staff and 20-year-old Jason Kenny to burst to his first of three gold medals in the Olympic Velodrome.
• Keirin final, Track Cycling World Championships, Copenhagen, 25 March, 2010
Hoy ended doubts over his motivation with a trademark power surge to win his tenth world title in his first global competition since Beijing.
• Keirin final, Track Cycling World Championships, Melbourne, 8 April, 2012
Hoy appeared to be boxed in on the final bend, but accelerated as a gap opened up to win before asking: “How did I do that?”
• Keirin final, Olympic Games, London, 7 August, 2012
The man for the big occasion had to summon all of his powers to hold off the charge of the field to win a sixth Olympic gold.