It takes a lot to remove the grin from Callum Skinner’s face right now in the wake of his Rio heroics, but the Olympic track cyclist admits a visit to the place where it all began came with a slice of melancholy.
Skinner has been back in Scotland catching up with friends and family, showing off his gold and silver medals, and took time to pop into the Meadowbank Velodrome where, like his mentor Sir Chris Hoy, he took up the sport as a youngster with Edinburgh Racing Club.
The sad decline of the outdoor facility built for the 1986 Commonwealth Games is something that Skinner, who was born in Glasgow but grew up in Edinburgh, has been outspoken over the past few years, arguing for an indoor velodrome in the capital.
“It’s in a sorry state. It’s so sad for a venue with so much history,” said the 24-year-old.
“I get quite emotional sometimes because it’s what gave me my career. If Meadowbank wasn’t there I wouldn’t be where I am today.
“I think the other day it was vandalised with paint being chucked down the stairs. The stand’s been taken down. I had a good prod at the track and you could tell it’s rotting underneath, it’s pretty soft. I think the track is in a terminal state and it’s no longer safe for competition.
“Having the [Sir Chris Hoy] velodrome in Glasgow is good but Edinburgh Council has committed to an outdoor concrete track and there are so many pitfalls with that. The one at Bellahouston in Glasgow is a fine example of that.
“There is only a two to three degree banking on that and, once you get over 14, it’s useless. I have given my views to the council on what would be the best kind of velodrome to have because it’s an opportunity and we shouldn’t pass it up.”
Skinner was speaking to The Scotsman yesterday at the offices of his Edinburgh-based management company Red Sky and admitted that his feats in Brazil, where he became Scotland’s first Olympic champion of the Rio Games alongside Philip Hindes and Jason Kenny in the team sprint, before taking silver behind Kenny in the individual event, were finally sinking in.
He got to fly home with the bulk of Team GB on the gold-tipped British Airways jet named VictoRIOus and revealed: “I’ve never flown first class before so that was pretty cool. The BA staff were amazing. The people who made up the crew had applied to work that flight so it meant a lot to them.
“That was probably where we got the first initial sense of the buzz back home, from them. We’d been in the Village which is a funny little atmosphere but obviously you were aware that things were going well for the team, not just the cycling team, and that we were winning a load of medals.”
In the end it was a load big enough to raise Great Britain to a magnificent second place in the medals table, with the cycling team once again rising to the occasion and delivering a substantial slab of them.
There had been concerns that the resignation of GB cycling head Shane Sutton earlier in the year, amid allegations of sexism, bullying and discriminatory comments, might spike the guns of the mighty track team that dominated in Beijing and London but those fears were blown away, with Skinner and Co setting the tone in the team sprint.
“The important thing to remember is that British Cycling isn’t just one man,” said Skinner. “For my own part I had worked with Shane but not particularly closely. Jan Van Eijden and Justin Grace have been my principal coaches with the sprint team. Some of the other riders were very close [to Sutton] and it hit them harder but personally speaking it didn’t affect us. It was business as usual really.”
Skinner revealed that his long-time mentor Hoy, who was in Rio as a BBC pundit, was in regular contact.
“He got a day pass to the Village and came in and spoke to us before the [team sprint] race,” he said. “It gave us a real boost. He basically called it and said it was the same before Beijing and London and that we were going to win and show them again.”
GB’s success at once again peaking perfectly for the Olympics didn’t go down well with some of the opposition teams. There were comments from the French team, Australian legend Anna Meares and German champion Kristina Vogel which could have been viewed as insinuation as much as mere sour grapes. Skinner said: “I responded to the French sprint coach Laurent Gane on Twitter. He’d said we’d come out of nowhere but I pointed out we were the leading team in World Cup wins for the year. The French rider Michael D’Almeida got in touch with me on Twitter and said ‘look, these aren’t accusations. We’re trying to explain our performance to the French media and some things got taken out of context’.
“Anna Meares retracted her comments and Kristina Vogel, well she went on to win the women’ts sprint. I don’t hold any grudges with anyone and I think some things were maybe said in the heat of the moment.”
Skinner has proved that his tweeting fingers can be as sharp as his pedalling feet and has no regrets about calling out the Leave.EU organisation after it used images of Team GB, including himself, to promote Brexit.
“I didn’t go out to pick a side, although if you go through my Twitter feed it would be quite obvious what side I was on,” said Skinner. “The thing that wound me up is that you’ll see people take an image and hijack it for their own political purposes. It didn’t sit well with me and that’s why I felt the need to tweet something.”
Skinner will be in his prime come the next Olympics in Tokyo and is looking forward to the next four-year cycle which will include world championships, with Hong Kong hosting next year, and the 2018 Commonwealth Games. Before that there there are more pressing matters to think of, like taking a holiday, enjoying the Olympic and Paralympic victory parade in his adopted home city of Manchester, where British Cyling is based, and attending the wedding of his good friends Kenny and Laura Trott – the nation’s undisputed golden couple.
“Myself and Jason get on really well,” said Skinner. “We’re room-mates and hang out away from the track. He’s a bit of a role model for me with the way he conducts himself. He’s always Mr Relaxed, nothing seems to faze him.”
There is the mouthwatering prospect of a Scotland v England men’s sprint rematch between the pair on Australia’s Gold Coast in two years.
“That would definitely be good,” said the Scot. “This is the point where we start planning with Gary Coltman, the performance director at Scottish Cycling to get there in the best shape possible. We’ve got some good Scottish boys coming up like Jack Carlin and others so we should be able to put a good team together.”